By Michael E. Miller
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By Luther Campbell
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This past October 13 Lourdes Franco made a gruesome discovery. In apartment 908 at Carlyle on the Bay, a ten-story residential tower overlooking Biscayne Bay, just north of the former Omni Mall, she found 81-year-old Joseph Witten lying dead, face-down on the floor, a dark stain of dried blood under his head. It was obvious he'd been dead for some time; his body had already begun to decompose.
Several employees who had daily contact with Witten at the Carlyle, a so-called assisted-living facility (ALF) located at 1900 N. Bayshore Dr., claim they hadn't seen the World War II veteran in more than a week, according to interviews and public records. Franco, resident-care director of the Carlyle, finally went looking for Witten after residents complained of a foul odor coming from his room. According to police accounts, Franco, who now works as the facility's bookkeeper, admitted this much to City of Miami police officer Ernesto Sierra, who responded to the report of a death: Witten had not been seen "for days." The corpse was transported from the Carlyle to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, a routine procedure in such cases.
Outside of a small circle of friends at the Carlyle, Witten was mourned by few. His only known relatives were Joel and Richard Hyman, nephews of his deceased wife, who live in New Jersey and New York respectively. The brothers arrived in Miami soon after a Carlyle employee informed them of their uncle's death. With the help of an attorney, they had the body cremated and then sought to open Witten's safe-deposit box. But they lacked the proper paperwork, and it remains locked.
The details of Witten's life are as enigmatic as the circumstances under which he died. He was born October 19, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. After his military service he became a printer. In 1955 Witten married Sylvia Lenhoff; they had no children. The couple moved to Miami around 1970. "They just got tired of New York," nephew Joel Hyman relates. "You know, the weather is so much nicer in Florida." Witten continued working as a printer in Miami, Hyman recounts, though he doesn't know at which company or for how long.
About five years ago, not long after his wife's death, Witten rented a studio apartment at the Carlyle, Hyman says. "He stayed in their home in northwest Miami for a little while," Hyman recalls, "until he couldn't take care of himself anymore." By the time he moved to the Carlyle, where he lived alone, Witten was suffering from a long list of physical ailments. According to the medical examiner's report, he had been treated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center for colon and prostate cancer, hypertension, and pulmonary disease, among other infirmities. His hearing was deteriorating, and he used a walker to get around.
Medical examiner Dr. Daniel Spitz says Witten had been taking at least two cardiac drugs -- including a nitroglycerin patch -- and another medication to treat depression. No autopsy was performed. "If there was some indication that he had been mistreated or abused, or some kind of foul play was involved," Spitz explains, "then we would have done one. But that wasn't the case." On the other hand, Spitz adds, failing to take his medications certainly could have contributed to Witten's death. The doctor can only guess he died of a heart attack.
By most accounts Witten was a friendly man. "Joe was a first-class resident," says a former Carlyle employee who wishes to remain anonymous. "He always had a smile on his face and he always paid his rent on time, sometimes even a few days before it was due." Witten's nephew, Joel Hyman, describes him as a "fun-loving guy." A current Carlyle employee says he was "real sweetheart," a "gentleman" who was well-mannered and gracious with the ladies. The same employee says that even though Witten greatly valued his privacy, he ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day in the dining hall along with other Carlyle residents.
Carlyle executive Lourdes Franco described a much different Witten to Officer Sierra. According to Sierra, upon arriving at the death scene he asked Franco why so much time had elapsed before someone discovered Witten's body. He says Franco responded by asserting that Witten was "antisocial" and that many Carlyle residents were independent and cared for themselves. "They didn't think anything of it when he was gone," Sierra remembers Franco telling him during their conversation at the Carlyle.
Sierra, who admits he isn't familiar with state laws governing assisted-living facilities, didn't know it at the time, but the owners and administrators of the Carlyle violated Florida statutes when they failed to check on Witten daily.
Like other ALFs, Carlyle on the Bay, which sits across the street from the bayfront Margaret Pace Park, represents an alternative to nursing homes and similar facilities designed to provide 24-hour medical supervision. It operates with a type of state license that allows it to house a mix of residents, all of whom need some level of assistance in caring for themselves: retired seniors, Alzheimer's victims, and relatively young psychiatric patients. On average about 175 people live in the condo-style building, which became licensed in 1983. It is a private profit-making operation that charges for its services; residents must pay, either individually or with government aid.