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Relatives question circumstances of death

December 23, 2000

Relatives question circumstances of death



BALTIMORE (AP) - State police are investigating the death of a developmentally disabled Falling Waters, W.Va., man who died after a struggle with staff at a state hospital.

Hospital officials at the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills told state police investigators that Mark D. Bittner, 30, unexpectedly assaulted a staff member who was holding a door for him on the way to a gymnasium Thursday afternoon.

A struggle broke out and Bittner lost consciousness while several staff members subdued him, state police said.

Medical personnel began emergency treatment immediately and called county paramedics. Fire officials also responded to assist with medical aid, but Bittner was pronounced dead at the center about 5 p.m., state police said.

The incident is being treated as a "death investigation," not a murder, state police spokesman Joseph A. Barker, Jr., said Friday.

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"There's nothing suspicious at this point about the death," Barker said, although he added the investigation is "wide open."

The medical examiner's office in Baltimore will perform an autopsy.

Officials at Rosewood Center refused to comment to The Associated Press, referring calls to Nancy Kirchner, assistant director for programs at the Developmental Disabilities Administration of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"There is nothing from what we know that indicates that he died from trying to subdue him after he attacked the staff member," Kirchner said.

Rosewood, which has about 200 patients, is the largest of four state residential treatment centers for mental retardation, Kirchner said.

Kirchner said Bittner, who had been a resident at the facility since 1991, had a history of epileptic seizures, although they had been "fairly well controlled" through medication.

Kirchner says Bittner also had a history of some aggression, "but it had been more under control over the last few years."

"This did come out of the blue," she said. "There wasn't something brewing, he wasn't angry about something."

Hospital staff appeared to have followed procedures, Kirchner said.

Ron Bittner, 40, of Williamsport, one of Bittner's eight siblings, said police told another of his brothers a different story Thursday night.

Mark was "put in a chokehold by a new employee," who was alone in a closed room with him. Another staff member heard a thump, went to investigate and called for help, Ron Bittner said state police told his brother, Chuck.

"If I was baby-sitting someone's child, and that child died, then we have a problem," Ron Bittner said. "We're beside ourselves, we just can't believe it. You don't die, if you're being treated properly."

Mark had also been beaten up five years ago by another employee at Rosewood, Ron Bittner said, adding that his brother had been "very docile" and had not had a seizure in five years.

Mark was once a healthy teenager who suffered encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, after being bitten by a mosquito, his brother said.

The former center on the Seneca Valley High School football team was in a coma for three weeks and was incoherent after regaining consciousness, he said.

"These kids depend on these people, and now for something like this to happen, it's unconscionable - and at Christmas!" Ron Bittner said.

Steve Morgan, executive director of the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, a nonprofit advocacy and services organization that is largely state-funded, said he was not familiar with the incident, but said it sounded unusual.

"Until there's been a full examination, any guess as to the actual cause of death would be full conjecture," Morgan said.

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