Troubled life for woman accused of killing roommate with rope

Kathleen McEwan, with her grandson in better days, had suffered multiple strokes that debilitated her to the point that she could not feed or dress herself.
Kathleen McEwan, with her grandson in better days, had suffered multiple strokes that debilitated her to the point that she could not feed or dress herself.
Posted: July 26, 2012

A DARKNESS HAD SETTLED over Geraldine Cherry decades ago, before her large family was torn apart, before her long stretches in hospital rooms and prison cells, before those sudden, violent seconds that left her without eyes.

Cherry's history of erratic behavior stretched back to her childhood, court records show, and although some of her 14 remaining siblings across the United States had lost track of her over the years, some said they'd never imagined she'd be left alone with an elderly roommate.

"My mom put locks on the inside of her door because of Geraldine," said Cherry's sister Brenda Cherry-Hamilton, 48, of Ohio. "I was scared to death of her."

But Cherry, 50, did have a roommate, a 70-year-old grandmother and longtime waitress from South Philly who struggled with schizophrenia for most of her adult life. A series of strokes had debilitated Kathleen McEwan to the point that she couldn't feed or dress herself. She no longer recognized her family, not even the grandson she once kissed and caressed as an infant. She certainly couldn't defend herself.

McEwan and Cherry lived together in a Roxborough apartment, under the care of Resources for Human Development (RHD), a large, nationwide, nonprofit social-service agency headquartered in Philadelphia. On June 10, about 6 a.m., medics from Fire Rescue No. 5 responded to the Parker Place apartments for reports of an unconscious woman and found McEwan, lying face up in bed, her years of suffering seemingly over. McEwan was pronounced dead five minutes later, and taken to a funeral home in Willow Grove.

It was an undertaker preparing McEwan for the embalming process, not a medic or an RHD employee, who discovered the truth: Kathleen McEwan didn't slip away peacefully in her sleep. She suffocated and suffered in the most bizarre way, authorities now allege, at the hands of Geraldine Cherry.

The undertaker found a long piece of rope and a candy wrapper in McEwan's throat. The Medical Examiner's Office didn't believe him at first, but when examiners later investigated, they found more items: Chex Party Mix, a lotion bottle and a piece of a diaper, all lodged in her throat.

Cherry, just a few days later, told an RHD employee that she was a "bad person." She claimed, according to an affidavit of probable cause, that she "did something" and alluded to some "violent acts" in her past. She was charged with murder, and her first court appearance was postponed to July 31 after she was hospitalized for seizures, from which she's suffered for most of her life. The court also ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

Resources for Human Development declined to comment on McEwan's death, on Cherry's past or present behavior, or even on how they determine who should or shouldn't live together in a residential setting. RHD, in a statement, said it was cooperating with the investigation.

Authorities initially said McEwan had no relatives, but she does have a son and daughter who kept track of their mother's condition and whereabouts, a source close to the family said. McEwan's children declined to comment to the Daily News, but the source said they believe that both their mother and Cherry deserved better from RHD.

"The family is just so horrified and angered and heartbroken and don't understand how this could happen when she was supposed to be under the care of RHD," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Joseph Rogers, chief advocacy officer with the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said that RHD has a good track record and that most agencies know the backgrounds, including arrest records, of the people they're caring for.

"Still, it's a difficult situation for any group of people to live together," he said.

When the Daily News visited the Parker Place apartments after Cherry was arrested June 20, the lobby door was unlocked. Residents said that RHD had recently moved a large group of people in from another facility and that many were roaming the dark hallways, sometimes trying to open their apartment doors.

"They're bringing people here who might need to be in a mental institution," one resident said.

Cherry had been in mental institutions before. Brenda Cherry-Hamilton said she shared rooms with Geraldine in Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Camden County and at foster homes in New Jersey when they were young teens.

"She used to tell me if I went to sleep she would choke me to death," she said. "My sister had a mental illness and she was violent, and I don't know why they would have put her together with another woman unsupervised. I feel terrible for this woman's family."

Her brother Curtis Cherry does not recall Geraldine being violent and can't believe she'd murder an elderly woman. He remembered only one strange incident, when his mother beat Geraldine when she was a child and his sister ran out of the house, naked. She didn't come back for days.

Cherry-Hamilton said she and Geraldine were abused, both physically and sexually, as children — memories to which Cherry's public defender, Fred Goodman, alluded recently.

"We're very early in our investigation, but the one thing that is crystal clear is that she had the most horrific childhood imaginable," Goodman said.

The Cherry children, all 16 of them, were split up and sent away on a summer day in 1974 when social workers pulled up to their home in Camden and took them away in separate cars. Curtis, 52, made a tearful cassette recording about that morning years ago, recounting how their mother left them all alone, for days, to fend for themselves.

"That was the last time the Cherry-family kids were all in the same room together," he said in the recording.

When Geraldine Cherry was just 18, a "violent act" and subsequent psychologist's report landed her behind bars for nearly a decade.

It was an August afternoon in 1980, and Cherry was standing on an elevated platform at the PATCO high-speed line's Ashland station in Voorhees. She had just been released from jail, said her sister Mona Patterson, of Frankford. A woman was taking the train home from work in Philadelphia and had fallen asleep and missed her exit. She got off at Ashland and waited for another train.

"All of a sudden, this girl came and just pushed me onto the tracks," the woman, who is now in her 70s and who asked not to be identified, told the Daily News recently. "I remember looking up at her and she was laughing. She was a bit kooky."

The woman suffered a few scrapes and bruises from the fall. Cherry didn't flee the scene and was charged with aggravated assault. According to court records from Cherry's sentencing in 1981, the warden of the Camden County Jail noted that Cherry had eaten glass from a broken lightbulb. It also was noted that Cherry had spent 2?1/2 years at the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission's Johnstone Campus, a medium-security facility in Burlington County for young women. A staggering 72 assault charges were lodged against her at Johnstone, court records show.

The court relied heavily on a report by Dr. Harvey Musikoff, then-director of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, who diagnosed Cherry with antisocial-personality disorder, a condition defined by deception, exploitation and criminal behavior. He also concluded she was not "mentally retarded" and "not mentally ill as one would suspect by her behavior." Cherry, despite having changed her not-guilty plea to guilty, was given the maximum sentence of 10 years at the former Clinton Correctional Facility for Women to "face the consequences of her actions."

Goodman has met with Cherry only briefly on the McEwan case, but was taken aback by that decades-old diagnosis from Camden County.

"She is obviously severely and chronically mentally ill," he said of Cherry's current condition.

In prison, Cherry went blind — actually lost her eyes — but how it happened depends on which sibling you ask, and every version is gruesome. One said that during a fight she was stabbed in the eyes with either a pencil or broken glass, another said she stabbed herself in the eyes, and yet another said a prison guard gouged her eyes out because she caused so many problems there.

"She fought a lot of guards," said her sister Mona.

In May 1986, Cherry was charged with arson while in prison, and finished out her sentence in Illinois in 1988. After prison, Cherry lived in a number of group homes in Illinois and West Philadelphia, her family said, and even for a short period of time with her mother, without any major incidents.

Mark Cherry said his sister did well while medicated properly and gained a modicum of independence, although she never held a job or had any formal schooling. But at some point, all of Cherry's siblings lost contact with her, and they claim that former facilities she lived in wouldn't let them know where she was or how she was doing. She never knew that her mother, also named Geraldine, or brother Claude had passed away over the past decade.

Still, even though they didn't know where their troubled sister was, the Cherry family had hoped she was living a decent life, with proper care.

"This girl's been trouble and going through hell for most of her life," Mark, 46, said over the phone from Wisconsin. "Now they're going to put her somewhere and let her just fade away."

Contact Jason Nark at 215-854-5916 or narkj@phillynews.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonnark

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