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‘We may never know why’: Superior couple who froze to death may have had dementia

The deck where Richard Ellison and Shirley Johnson died is set back but visible from North 54th Street, a dead end. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
The bodies of Richard Ellison, 82, and Shirley Johnson, 78, were found on this deck of their Superior home on Dec. 21 by a Superior Water, Light & Power employee there to read the electric meter, visible to the right of the deck. They had died of exposure. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
Richard Ellison and Shirley Johnson are seen in security camera footage as they prepare to leave Les Bird's Bar in Superior.3 / 4
Richard Ellison plays video poker at Les Bird's Bar on Dec. 18, 2016 as Shirley Johnson watches. Ellison and Johnson were found dead three days later on the deck of their Superior home. (Les Bird's Bar surveillance)4 / 4

When a meter reader discovered the bodies of Richard Ellison and Shirley Johnson four days before Christmas, they were frozen, probably dead for more than 48 hours on the deck outside their house in Superior.

Police a few days later said the couple died from exposure in subzero temperatures, that the deaths were nothing “more than two people locked out of their residence and being exposed to the cold for a prolonged period of time.”

What that police statement didn’t explain, however, was how Ellison, 82, and Johnson, 78, could somehow become so simultaneously disoriented after walking from their garage to their house that neither could get inside to warm up.

The results of the police investigation, made available to the News Tribune after the case was closed a month ago, shed some light on what happened — but key questions remain unanswered.

Richard Ellison died laying on top of a set of keys that would have let the couple into the home or into a van parked in the garage.

Another set of keys lay on the sidewalk just 6 feet away from where the couple died and also would have let them into the house, or into the 1999 Ford Explorer parked in the garage that the couple had just driven home from Les Bird’s Bar.

There was a working cell phone in Richard’s pocket, but no indication the couple had tried to make a call for help.

The side door to the home, closest to the garage but which the couple apparently didn’t use often, was unlocked, yet there was no evidence either person had tried to gain access there.

The couple struggled to get in the house and eventually succumbed to the below-zero cold. They died laying inches apart, just a few feet from the door.

The medical examiner’s report, after autopsies on both, found no signs of foul play, no signs of major trauma, no major physical issues. The police investigation found no indication anyone else had been near them, no extra footprints, no sign the couple had quarreled.

“We know how they died. We know it was exposure, hypothermia, with a contributing factor of intoxication. But we may never know why or how it happened,” said Darrell Witt, Douglas County medical examiner.

Todd Ellison, Richard’s son, said he still hasn’t made sense of the situation.

“I had more questions after I read the police report than before,” he told the News Tribune of the circumstances surrounding the couple’s deaths. “We probably never will know” what happened.

Widow and widower

Shirley Johnson of Superior (via Browerville, Minn., and Cloquet) met Richard Ellison of Minneapolis in Texas, where they both spent winters at a senior citizens’ community, said Todd Ellison. Both had lost their spouses to cancer, and they ended up spending the last 15 years of their lives together.

They had spent all of those winters in Texas, until this winter. Todd Ellison said the couple decided to stay north this winter in Shirley’s Logan Avenue home. It’s a quiet area of Superior’s South End neighborhood, almost rural, with their house on a dead-end street about 200 yards from the nearest neighbor.

Todd Ellison, who lives in Dubuque, Iowa, had visited the couple just a few weeks before they died. He said they both seemed physically and mentally weaker than the last time he had seen them.

“They were both very, very forgetful. ... He was having a hard time getting around the house,” Todd Ellison said. “I spoke with Shirley’s nephew who had seen them over Thanksgiving and he said the same thing.”

There was no sign Richard Ellison suffered a heart attack due to a blockage, but other heart problems could have occurred that wouldn’t show up in an autopsy, Witt said. Ellison did have stents and an enlarged heart, a sign of heart disease, and suffered from diabetes. But even a heart attack wouldn’t have prevented both of them from finding shelter or calling for help.

Todd Ellison used the word “senile’’ to describe what appeared to be happening to both his father and Shirley at nearly the same time. But he said his father was very private and very stubborn.

“If there was something he knew was wrong, he wouldn’t have told us anyway. That’s just the way he was,’’ Todd said, saying he was getting inklings the couple shouldn’t be living alone. “I was going to try to have that talk with him. ... But I was a day late and a dollar short.”

Richard Ellison and Shirley Johnson are seen in security camera footage as they prepare to leave Les Bird's Bar in Superior.

Daily visit to Bird’s Bar

According to the investigation by the Superior Police Department, obtained by the News Tribune in a request under Wisconsin’s Public Records Law:

On the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 18, Shirley and Richard took the Explorer and got gas at the Kwik Trip in south Superior. Police investigators traced a receipt found in her pocket. They later reviewed video from the station’s security cameras and saw the couple pumping gas. They paid at 2:47 p.m.

It’s not clear where they were for the next 90 minutes or more.

At 4:34 p.m. the couple arrived at Les Bird’s Bar in the South End, part of what their niece told police was a “nearly daily routine” afternoon trip to their favorite tavern. The bar is exactly one mile from their home.

They took seats at the far end of the bar, video from surveillance cameras shows, and each was served a mixed drink. They talked briefly with a man at the bar. Just before 5:30 p.m. the couple left their stools at the bar and took seats near the side door gaming area. Richard played video gaming machines for the next 2 hours and 40 minutes as Shirley watched, never playing herself.

The couple consumed several drinks over nearly four hours they spent in the bar. They talked briefly to a woman who stopped to give Shirley a hug. Video shows Richard walking wobbly even before he had much to drink. Surveillance video from the bar shows that, after several drinks and sitting for prolonged periods, he had to steady himself on chairs and reach out for walls as he walked to the bathroom.

Employees at the bar told police the couple appeared physically and mentally weak in recent visits.

According to police reports, the owner of the bar, Jeff Thompson, told police he thought the couple suffered from dementia. Richard had become confrontational with employees in the recent past, and Richard had fallen off a barstool just days before, leading to the couple being asked to leave the bar.

On the night of Dec. 18, they left the bar at 8:10 p.m., this time on their own terms. They were both legally too drunk to drive, but not extremely intoxicated, especially by standards for regular drinkers.

Video shows Shirley putting on her jacket, Richard stopping to use the bathroom, and then the couple walking out the 58th Avenue side door of the bar with no sign of any major problem.

As far as police know, no one would see them alive again.

When they died — it’s not clear how long that was after they left the bar — Richard had a blood alcohol level of 0.129, Shirley 0.102, both above the legal driving limit of 0.08. Staff at the bar said they had been there Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and left about the same time.

“I don’t think that alone would explain it,” Witt said of the level of intoxication. “It’s one factor involved. And remember it’s dark. And it’s very cold. And they maybe got confused. …”

Witt said it’s possible the couple was more intoxicated when they first arrived at home and their bodies metabolized some alcohol before they died — alcohol diminishes by about 0.016 per hour — but how much can never be known.

Neither police nor Richard Ellison’s son say the bar staff served the couple too much alcohol. Superior Police Capt. Tom Champaigne said there was no evidence leading to any consideration of charges.

“I don’t think anyone is at fault for over-serving them or anything like that. That’s just what they (Shirley and Richard) did. It hadn’t been an issue before,” Todd Ellison said.

Died inches apart

It appears Richard and Shirley went straight home after leaving the bar, but no one knows for sure.

Sometime between parking the Explorer in the detached garage on the side of the house and walking about 50 feet around to the front deck of the house, something happened. Maybe Shirley dropped her keys. Maybe Richard had some sort of attack. There were indications one of them used a plastic shovel to try to open the door and to break a large window facing the deck, even though there were two sets of house keys nearby and the side door was unlocked.

They died inches apart. The contents of her purse and their pockets, including dollar bills, were scattered about the deck. Richard’s jacket was draped on the deck railing. The temperature at the nearby airport in Superior at the time was 8 below zero. They couldn’t have survived very long outside in those temperatures, dressed in light clothing.

There was no evidence of the couple alive on Dec. 19 or 20. No one reported them missing or saw them on the deck, though police photographs of the scene appear to show both mail and newspapers were delivered on those days; their bodies were mostly obscured by the deck railing. At about 10:30 on the morning of Dec. 21, a meter reader for Superior Water, Light & Power noticed dollar bills blowing in the yard, collected them, went to the front door and then noticed the bodies. He called 911.

Police arrived to find the couple obviously dead, but with no clear indication of how they might have died. Police found everything inside the home was in order. There was a cooked but uneaten ham on the kitchen counter. Nothing appeared missing from his wallet or her purse. (To add to the mystery, Shirley had an uncashed check from an insurance company for more than $9,682.59 in her purse.)

The situation was investigated by multiple officers as a possible crime until evidence eventually led police to conclude the deaths were due to an unfortunate combination of events.

Death officially accidental

On Jan. 23 the final autopsy reports arrived at the Superior Police Department, with autopsies conducted by Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Ramsey, Minn.

The cause of death was listed as cold exposure due to hypothermia. Alcohol intoxication was listed as a significant contributing condition.

The manner of death was officially listed as accidental.

Superior Police Detective William Braman, the lead investigator on the case, officially closed the case on Jan. 25, making the file available for the News Tribune to request.

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