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Schiavo timeline troubles governor

The state attorney will review discrepancies concerning Terri Schiavo's unexplained collapse.

CHRIS TISCH and JONI JAMES
Published June 17, 2005

LARGO - Refusing to give up on the Terri Schiavo case, Gov. Jeb Bush has asked Pinellas prosecutors to sort out time discrepancies Michael Schiavo has provided regarding the hour he found his wife unconscious 15 years ago.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe has agreed to review the time elements in the case, his chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, said Thursday.

"We are going to look into the circumstances surrounding the times," said Bartlett, who declined to label the review an investigation. "The governor has expressed concern over that aspect of the case."

Michael Schiavo has said he called 911 immediately after finding his wife collapsed on the floor of their home on Feb. 25, 1990. Though medical records indicate he called 911 about 5:40 a.m. that day, he told the Medical Examiner's Office recently that he found his wife about 4:30 a.m.

The detail fueled suspicions by Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, that Michael Schiavo had some wicked connection to their daughter's collapse and may have delayed his call for help.

"I think this is a very troubling gap in time," Schindler attorney David Gibbs III said Wednesday. "Michael Schiavo needs to step forward and explain."

Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, said if he did give a different time than previously, it was simply a mistake in recalling a detail of an event 15 years ago.

"I think it's preposterous and ludicrous that if Michael did say 4:30 or 5 or something like that, that there's any issue," Felos said. "The opponents of Terri Schiavo's wishes are intent on creating a controversy in this case where none exists."

Bush said he decided to seek the investigation after talking with Dr. Jon Thogmartin, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner who spent nearly 11 weeks preparing Schiavo's autopsy report, and learning that the doctor could not determine what led Schiavo to collapse in 1990.

Thogmartin met with the governor the day before the autopsy report was released publicly.

"What he did say to me that was troubling ... was that there was some doubt about when she collapsed and how long it took for a phone call to be made to 911," Bush said. "I think that is worthy of some investigation."

Bartlett said prosecutors will review records and transcripts to sort out the times. McCabe was out of state and could not be reached Thursday.

Felos said it's impossible that 70 minutes elapsed before Michael Schiavo called 911.

"She would have been dead before they (paramedics) got there," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times asked an outside expert, Dr. Amyn M. Rojiani, a pathology professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, to examine the autopsy results.

The report says that paramedics began treating Schiavo at 5:52 a.m. after finding her not breathing and in ventricular fibrillation.

A pulse was documented at 6:32 a.m. and a measurable systolic blood pressure at 6:46 a.m. Getting those vital signs back after such a long time was an accomplishment, Rojiani said. When asked if Schiavo could have been revived if her heart had stopped more than an hour before paramedics arrived, he said he didn't think so.

The Schindler family also wants to know what caused Terri Schiavo's heart to temporarily stop beating that morning. They plan to have their own experts review the autopsy in search of answers.

"Our family doesn't understand what led to Terri's collapse," her sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, said Thursday while appearing at the first day of the National Right to Life annual convention in Bloomington, Minn.

She said the autopsy showed no evidence of an eating disorder. That had been one theory for why the then 26-year-old woman collapsed.

Michael Schiavo fought a long battle with his in-laws in the courts, Congress and the White House to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. She died March 31 at the age of 41. The autopsy showed she was blind and her brain had shrunk to about half the normal size for a woman her age.

Michael Schiavo had argued for years that Terri Schiavo had no hope of recovery. His in-laws maintained that she deserved to live and may have recovered somewhat with therapy.

The Schindlers also had accused Michael Schiavo of abusing his wife, but the autopsy found no evidence of any trauma or abuse.

In the days before and after Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed, Bush tried to use the state Department of Children and Families to get the tube reinserted. He insisted fresh abuse complaints needed to be investigated, though the subsequent release of those reports have shown the complaints were redundant.

Felos said Bush is at it again.

"I think it's sad and disgusting given the governor's continuing unwarranted meddling in this case," Felos said. "The extent to which he will prostitute himself to right-wing constituents for his future political gain I think is just pitiful."

The autopsy results also drew a response from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who said Thursday he doesn't regret using his standing as a doctor to question Terri Schiavo's diagnosis from afar during the intense national debate over whether to remove her feeding tube.

Frist, a heart surgeon, said he accepted the results of Schiavo's autopsy but stood by his statements on the Senate floor last March, when he argued that on videotape Schiavo appeared to respond to her family. "Would I do it over again? Yes, I would do it over again," he said.

Frist and other Republicans pushed through unprecedented emergency legislation, signed by President Bush, aimed at prolonging Schiavo's life by allowing the case to be reviewed by federal courts. But federal courts rejected the parents' request to have her feeding tube reinserted.

The autopsy results did little to change the opinions of Florida legislators who supported Gov. Bush's efforts to require the court to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube.

Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, and Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who had joined Bush in pushing for legislative intervention in March, were unmoved by the autopsy findings.

The autopsy "affirmed the fact that she died because of an order of the state," Webster said. "For us to do that, we should have known positively what her will was. We didn't."

Nor was there any change on the other side, particularly among the nine Republicans who blocked the March legislation.

"That the brain was half the size, that she couldn't have been fed, that she was blind ... really said that we played politics with this issue and shame on us," said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, one of the nine Republican senators.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, which received at least 500 e-mails in the days surrounding Schiavo's death, received more than 20 more the day after the autopsy was released.

"I would just like to tell you folks that I was one of those doubting Thomas's. I thought Terri could have been helped," Gladys Furber wrote. "I believe your findings. Sometimes we don't want to see things, and we don't want to believe these things. I believe it's called denial."

Jeff Donius of Frankfort, Ill., wrote: "You guys have no credibility whatsoever ... it's all a bunch of propaganda and manipulated data aimed at confirming the lies of Michael Schiavo."

In addition, former Lee County Sheriff John J. McDougall received six months' probation, a $600 fine and community service after he was convicted in a Largo courtroom Wednesday of trying to enter Terri Schiavo's hospice to give her water. McDougall, a Catholic who has been outspoken on right-to-life issues, was arrested March 19 outside Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park, where he was trying to take water to Schiavo.

McDougall, 62, could have avoided court by paying a $250 fine. He demanded a trial and was convicted Wednesday of trespassing.

McDougall, who was sheriff from 1988 to 2000, said he has no regrets about the case.

"When you see something like that happening, we cannot continue to call ourselves a civilized society if we don't stand up against that," he said.

Times staff writers Lisa Greene and Alex Leary contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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