Rita King care home shooting: Dementia, delusions and desperation

By Jodie Smith
BBC News

Image caption,
De La Mer House overlooks the sea front at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex

An 87-year-old man has been sentenced to six years in prison for shooting his wife dead at a care home. A long and happy life together had been brought to an end by dementia and delusions - and the contents of a shopping bag.

A few days after Christmas last year, Ronald King walked through De La Mer House clutching a hessian bag.

Those who worked at the care home were used to the sight of it - he carried it with him every time he came to visit his 81-year-old wife Rita and it was usually full of grapes and chocolates he would share with his spouse.

As the pair sat together in the lounge, Mrs King grabbed her husband's hand, shouting: "Don't leave me" when he went to get up.

In reply, Mr King promised he would never leave - and then picked up his hessian bag, which on this occasion contained a 1934 revolver belonging to Rita's late father.

"I was shaking, I pointed the gun at her and she smiled at me, that's when I fired the gun," Mr King told Chelmsford Crown Court.

Image source, Essex Police
Image caption,
Ronald and Rita King had been married since 1956

For decades, Ronald and Rita King had led quiet, happy lives.

After meeting at a dance class and becoming sweethearts, the pair married in 1956 and lived in Ilford before moving up the coast to Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex in 2012.

Stella Bone, 78, who lived opposite, said Mr King - who had been born without a forearm and hand on his left arm - was a "lovely man".

"He was always out gardening and it was amazing to see him balancing a watering can on his arm which ends at the elbow," she said.

Health issues started to play more and more of a role in Mr and Mrs King's lives as the years went by, with knee trouble for Rita leading to the loss of the use of her left leg.

Last year, with Mrs King's dementia worsening, she was moved into De La Mer House.

Julie Curtis, the home's manager, said Mr King "took everything in life head on" but had realised he could not cope with his wife's worsening condition.

"When he was a child, his mum told him there was nothing in life he wouldn't be able to do.

"He worked in many jobs, he would hang wallpaper, but when Rita deteriorated and he couldn't hold her up to wash her, dress her, clean her, it was the first time in his life his disability had a huge impact."

Image source, Essex Police
Image caption,
Rita King moved into De La Mer House in March 2015

At the care home, staff observed the devoted couple - who had never had any children - would sit together and hold hands when he came to visit.

"She used to wait for me to have her breakfast - she said it used to brighten her day," Mr King told police.

But under the surface, he had started to believe something was not right at the care home, convinced Mrs King "wasn't getting the service she should do".

He would not touch the tea, the court heard, because he believed care home staff put something in it "cos it's one way of keeping them [the residents] all quiet".

Mr King also thought he and his wife were being stolen from.

"One night I woke up and I found someone in my room, they'd taken my handkerchief out of my pockets and the change and they were going through my stuff," he told the court.

Image caption,
The couple were staying at De La Mer House last Christmas

In December last year, Mr King - who was staying at the home over Christmas - decided he and his wife had "had enough".

On Boxing Day, hours after turkey dinners had been eaten and presents opened, he took a taxi back to the bungalow and picked up his late father-in-law's 1934 Enfield revolver.

He had loaded it with bullets he had modified a fortnight before in order to ensure "if I used them we didn't survive".

His plan was to shoot his wife and his sister - who also lived at the care home, and whom he described as "a living corpse" - and then turn the gun on himself.

He walked back into De La Mer House with his hessian bag, which this time contained the gun and a photo of his wedding to Rita.

Image source, Essex Police
Image caption,
The gun used in the killing was a 1934 Enfield revolver

After he shot his wife in the head, Mr King bent down and kissed her on the lips - "that's when I knew she was at peace".

He did not have the strength left to turn the gun on himself, and made his way to the home's reception, where he said to a staff member: "I just killed the wife, can you help me get this gun working?"

The weapon was taken off him and emergency services were called.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Emergency services were called to the home on 28 December last year

A few days into his trial for his wife's murder, new medical evidence emerged that showed Mr King was suffering from a mental health condition called paraphrenia at the time of the killing.

Dr Philip Joseph, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, told the court Mr King's decision to shoot his wife was linked to the condition rather than any aggression or domestic issue.

Paraphrenia is "an older person's version of schizophrenia, where people lose contact with reality", consultant psychiatrist James Warner said.

"The core feature is falsely but firmly held delusions, which can be intensely bizarre.

"It's different from schizophrenia because the delusions are long-standing and entrenched which can take over your whole belief system."

Paraphrenia is often not immediately spotted, Dr Warner said, as those who have it often have no-one looking after them or are socially isolated.

Care home manager Mrs Curtis said once his wife had moved into the home, Mr King's life had become very lonely.

"Suddenly after 60 years of marriage, he was totally on his own. He'd go home to an empty bungalow, probably feeling it was a helpless situation.

"He's a very private person. He wasn't ready to live in a care home but he must have been very lonely at home."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Paraphrenia, which Mr King suffers from, is "an older person's version of schizophrenia"

Although a relatively uncommon condition, paraphrenia is one of a number of mental health problems suffered by elderly people that are all too often overlooked, said Dr Warner, former chair of the Faculty of the Psychiatry of Old Age at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

"Although I think it's fantastic that there's an emphasis on dementia now, I think people with other conditions like paraphrenia or depression get a raw deal," he said.

"Resources and expertise for looking after the two-thirds of elderly people who have mental health issues which are not dementia are really stretched."

Dr Warner said most people who have paraphrenia were not dangerous, and it was "quite rare" for people to act on their delusions.

"Young people with schizophrenia tend to get help in three main ways, from their families, social services or the police.

"If you're 70, and you're not causing trouble to society, and you don't create issues for the police, your paraphrenia might never be noticed.

"We just don't know how many people are out there living like that."