Image: Rly Charles Laird
AP via Seal Beach Police Department
Roy Charles Laird, 88, visited his wife three times a day, the L.A. Times reported.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/22/2010 5:32:40 AM ET 2010-11-22T10:32:40

The husband of an 86-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of murder after his wife of nearly 70 years was found dead from a gunshot to the head in a Southern California nursing home.

The couple's daughter told the Los Angeles Times the shooting a month before their 70th anniversary was "a mercy killing" by a husband who had long fed and bathed his wife as she suffered from dementia and decline.

Reports of gunshots at Country Villa Healthcare Center came at about noon, and within a few minutes officers arrived from the California Highway Patrol, Orange County Sheriff's Department and three local police departments, Seal Beach police Sgt. Steve Bowles said.

A tactical team surrounded the facility and soon entered.

Inside they found Clara Laird dead of a single gunshot wound to the head, and found her husband Roy Charles Laird, 88, in a nearby chair, Bowles said.

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Officers recovered a .38 caliber revolver from the elderly man.

"It was in his pocket," Bowles said, and added Laird gave no trouble to officers who arrested him. Laird was being held at Seal Beach jail Sunday night.

The scene at the nursing home was "chaotic" on a weekend afternoon with many visitors in addition to patients and staff, Bowles said.

Bowles could offer no information on the motive or health of the couple, nor say whether any trouble had been reported between them.

The couple's daughter, Kathy Palmateer, 68, told Times that her father had insisted on helping dress and feed his wife as dementia took hold.

He reluctantly agreed three months ago to check her into Country Villa — near their home in the retirement community of Leisure World — after she took a bad turn and was unable to walk, sit up in a wheelchair, feed herself or recognize many of those around her.

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"Her mind was gone," Palmateer told the Times as she waited outside the police station to see her father. "It was a mercy killing."

'A very sweet man'
The couple married in their teens while he was a student at UC Santa Barbara, the Los Angeles Times reported. She raised their two children while he worked as a General Electric engineer, living in Palmdale until moving to Leisure World 20 years ago.

He refused to hire help to care for his wife when she started to become ill with dementia and instead insisted on doing everything for her himself.

When she moved to the home, Laird spoon-fed his wife at meals, going to see her three times a day, the Times said.

"He'd always kiss her goodbye and hold her hand," Nancy Grijalva, a family friend, told the Times. "He would never get mad at her and lose his patience. Whatever she asked of him, that's what he did."

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He was "a very sweet man" and was "upset about his wife," neighbor Constance Moore told the Times.

Palmateer briefly met and talked to her father after the shooting, the newspaper said, and discussed his getting a lawyer and getting his medications in jail, she said.

"I just gave him a big hug and we talked," she told the Times.

Palmateer, who was unaware her father has a gun, said he had talked about other men at Leisure World who had killed their ailing wives then taken their own, but added that he had not suggested that he might do the same.

"It's not real to me," she told the Times.

Bowles said prosecutors would decide on charges this week.

"It's just a tragedy all the way around," he told the Times.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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