Gagne faces no charges in death

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • March 13, 2009 - 2:15 AM

The dementia that drove Verne Gagne to attack a fellow patient also absolves the wrestling legend of criminal responsibility in the 97-year-old man's death, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Thursday.

"Mr. Gagne simply lacks the capacity to intend the consequences of his action," Freeman said during a news conference called to announce the findings of a police investigation into the attack in January at the Bloomington care facility where the two men lived. "These kind of incidences are not unusual among dementia patients."

Freeman said that in his 10 years as county attorney, this is the fourth time he has seen a patient die at the hands of another in a care facility.

Helmut Gutmann, 97, died Feb. 14 of complications from injuries inflicted by Gagne, 82, during the incident Jan. 26 at the memory-loss unit of Friendship Village.

A police report said Gutmann died after an "unprovoked attack" during which he was "grabbed, shaken and thrown to the ground" by Gagne.

Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts said Thursday that Gagne's attack amounted to "a push and a shove," not any wrestling maneuvers for which Gagne was renowned. He also said he wouldn't classify what Gagne did as a "strike" to Gutmann.

Potts said that it was unclear what led to the incident and that Friendship Village had followed all proper reporting protocol.

County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, who certified the cause and manner of death, said it was a homicide because Gutmann died as a result of the actions of another. Gutmann's hip broke in the fall, and he then developed pneumonia and complications from which he died while in the hospital, Baker said.

Gagne's family relieved

But to be guilty of a crime, a person must intend to commit the act that causes harm, Freeman said, adding that, "Mr. Gagne simply didn't know what he was doing." He said that reports from witnesses and doctors back up that finding, and that Gagne, who has no memory of the incident, wouldn't be competent to stand trial.

Gagne is no longer at Friendship Village, Freeman said. He did not say where Gagne is living. Freeman called the Gutmanns extraordinary and said they have a deep understanding of dementia. Gagne's family members, he said, are relieved.

Police records have indicated that Gagne had assaulted fellow Friendship Village residents at least twice in five months before the altercation with Gutmann.

Freeman said no criminal charges will be filed against the facility, but civil investigations by licensing boards are likely. Gutmann, a widely respected scientist and musician, fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1936. His widow, Betty Gutmann, still lives at Friendship Village.

Gagne, who was born in Corcoran, wrestled for the former Robbinsdale High School and the University of Minnesota, where he was an NCAA champion. In 1949, he began wrestling professionally and established the Twin Cities as the nation's hub for the sport. He wrestled in and oversaw the American Wrestling Association.

Gagne played football for the Gophers in 1943, enlisted in the Marines and then returned to the U, where he was an All-America wrestler.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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