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04.27.12

Why Epilepsy, Not Henry Wachtel, Is to Blame for Teen’s Mother’s Death

Karyn Kay held her teenage son in her arms to help him ride out his seizure, and died as a result. Why Henry Wachtel is a victim, not a murderer—and shouldn’t be behind bars.

Karyn Kay did not call 911 because she feared her son, but because she feared for him.

“Caller states male 19 having a seizure,” the emergency operator entered in the computer at 9:26:18 a.m. 

Kay’s teenage son was suffering another epileptic seizure and she was worried that he might hurt himself. He had once cut his arm on a broken cup while flailing during a seizure, and since then she had always held him in her arms until it passed. They had a history of hugs, not violence.

Then, 58 seconds into this 911 call on the morning of April 10, everything suddenly changed. All the untiring love and patience and perseverance this 63-year-old single mother had put into successfully raising a decent and well-meaning son in midtown Manhattan on a teacher’s salary was turned to horror by a flash of neural electricity beyond anybody’s control.

9:27:16 am: “Male possibly attacking his mom coming out of seizure.”

The phone could be heard clattering to the floor.

9:27:56 am: “Hearing mom saying [son] coming after her…screaming and thrashing in background.”

9:28:52 am: “Just have open line of male grunting and hitting something. Do not hear the elderly female anymore.”

When the police arrived, at the Manhattan apartment, they found the son spattered with blood and Kay sprawled in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. There seemed no way anyone could be accidentally beaten to death, and Henry Wachtel was charged with murder.

But what emerges from the emergency operator’s summary, court records, and interviews with people who knew the family is not the story of another troubled teen terrorizing his mother until he finally exploded into bloodiest murder.

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Instead, medical experts who reviewed the emergency operators’ summary at the request of The Daily Beast suggest that the 911 call is in fact exculpatory evidence, documenting changes in Henry’s mental state so rapid they preclude conscious intent. Wachtel, they said, had almost certainly suffered a grand mal seizure, in which victims are usually rendered unconscious for one to five minutes and then, in the words of  Dr. Derek Chong of Columbia University, “typically awaken disoriented, unsure where they are, what time it is, and sometimes even who they are.”

Chong emphasizes that it is exceedingly rare for epilepsy to result in directed violence of any kind and that extreme post-seizure agitation is unusual. But he allows that Wachtel’s agitation may have been heightened by the medications he was taking. And Chong notes that most specialists have witnessed situations where “the brain’s motor system regains full functionality, but the patients remain completely disoriented, and agitated, appearing as though they are attempting to flee at all costs. It may take several people to prevent them from leaving the room and violence can escalate.”

“Everybody knows Henry did not intend to kill his mother,” Epstein said. “And everybody knows this case is about epilepsy.”

Chong adds, “In these cases, patients did not appear to recognize their family or listen to them.”

While reluctant to reach any conclusions based on limited information, Chong said of Wachtel, “In this tragic outcome, one can build a case that the patient tragically mistook his mother for a person his temporarily confused brain believed he should have been escaping from.”

In the operator’s summary, Wachtel seems not to have begun to realize who he was attacking until it was over and Kay was sprawled in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. He only then seemed to recognize the person his lightning-struck brain had mistaken as a dire threat.

9:29:35 am: “Sounds of male screaming ‘Mommy.’ Now grunting, saying, ‘I love you.’”

9:29:53 am: “Can hear male, ‘Mommy, please don’t die. I love you.’”

There came a pause of almost a minute.

9:30:45 am: “Can hear male screaming, ‘Help!’”

Wachtel was spattered with his mother’s blood when he let the police into the 10th floor apartment on W. 55th Street. The criminal complaint reports that one of the officers asked Wachtel what happened. He answered as best he could for someone who had almost certainly suffered a total blackout, who had gone from one conscious moment before the seizure to the next conscious moment seeing his battered mother, with no memory of the attack itself. His reply must have struck the cops as a macabre understatement, but was in truth essentially what the medical experts would later offer.

“It was mistake,” Wachtel replied.

Wachtel was arrested for murder and arraigned the next day in Manhattan Criminal Court. He broke down sobbing when he met briefly with his attorney, Lloyd Epstein, in the courtroom’s small, glassed-in conference booth. He bowed his head and placed his hand over his eyes as he stood before the judge. Nobody would have been more heart-torn than his mother by what he was heard to say after he was charged with murder and remanded without bail.

“I need a hug!”

The cruel irony was that were it not for the transcendent power of a mother’s hugs and love from the very start of his life, Henry Wachtel might very well have grown into the kind of troubled youth everybody expected when they first heard of the murder. Karen Kay had been living with Edward Wachtel in a Manhattan apartment for two years when she became pregnant. She was 44 years old and she had come to New York from Chicago to become a writer and one of her screenplays had been produced into the 1988 film Call Me. Her true genius had proven to be in teaching and she was a transformative instructor in film and creative writing at La Guardia High School, the one made famous by the movie Fame. She now made plans to marry and have a child just as her biological clock was ticking toward never. But 44-year-old Edward Wachtel wanted a prenuptial agreement even though no significant sums were involved. They were still negotiating through lawyers when their son’s birth was just three weeks away.

“My client is nine months pregnant and is currently not feeling well,” Kay’s lawyer noted in a letter to Wachtel’s lawyer. “This entire situation is putting unreasonable stress on her and the baby,”

The letter went on, “My client would just as soon have no prenuptial agreement and enter the marriage based on the mutual trust of the parties. If this is not feasible for your client, my client has agreed, as an accommodation, to enter into such an agreement. However, my client’s feelings and present tender circumstances require that this be done with careful prudence.”

No agreement was signed and the two were never married. They did go ahead with the purchase of the apartment next door and combined the two into one around the time of Henry’s birth on March 29, 1993.

After a year and a half, the couple separated, making the one large apartment back into two. They remained uncomfortably close neighbors as they sought to resolve a legal dispute over who held title to the apartment.

“I do not want to live next door to you, and you claim you feel the same way,” Edward Wachtel said in a letter to her. “For my emotional well-being, I will do what I must to complete the separation.”

The exhibits in the folder for Case 118699/96 in Manhattan civil court include birth certificate B847712 for Henry Wachtel, born at 2:05 a.m. on March 29, 1993, at Mount Sinai Hospital. The other papers would seem to be the sure makings of future emotional problems for the child, who moved with his mother into another apartment once the dispute was finally resolved. His salvation was something that the file did not detail: the uncommon and unflagging devotion of a mother who adored and supported him without smothering or spoiling him.

At the Corlears Elementary School in lower Manhattan that young Wachtel attended, parents and teachers would remember a happy and well-adjusted child. He got along well with others and seemed to have a close and healthy bond with his mother.

“I thought they had a good relationship,” a teacher who had the boy in an afterschool program remembers. “”She appreciated him and his sense of humor.”

The teacher remembers that Kay would praise her son when it was warranted, but “she didn’t overindulge him like some parents.” The younger Wachtel attended Fairview Lake summer camp in New Jersey and seemed to be weathering adolescence better than most as he later served as a counselor-in-training there.

Then, in his teens, he began having seizures as well as some of the psychological difficulties that can accompany epilepsy. The medications he began taking included Keppra, which Chong says can cause neurobehavioral side effects in 15 percent of the patients. These side effects include anger and aggression often enough that patients who take the drug speak of “Keppra rage.” Firsthand accounts posted on the Epilepsy Foundation’s website include such phrases as “I used to be this happy kid, but now I AM MAD ALL THE TIME” and “I could actually kill someone.”

A 26-year-old from West Virginia named Carli Ratliff told The Daily Beast that “when I was taking it I would be mad just all day long.”

“Anything my mother said or asked me, I would just blow up on her,” Ratliff recalled.

She sought release from her anger in chores and long-distance running.

“It was a great drug for yard work, anyway,” she said. “I kind wish I was still on it because I liked running many miles. But it was basically bad for me.”

Wachtel was also taking the steroid Prednisone. The drug reduces physical inflammation, but has been known to fuel “Prednisone rage” that in Wachtel’s case could have combined with “Keppra rage,” or, more generically, “’Roid rage.”

“You have two meds that are just kind pushing you to that end,” says Chong, who is director of clinical trials at the Columbia Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

Wachtel may have sought his own release from drug-fueled anger in practicing mixed martial arts. His Facebook page under the name Hank Wachatoo recommends a particular MMA shop on Long Island and says his interests include May Thai, a martial art known as “the science of eight limbs” because it involves the hands, feet, elbows, and knees. The page has no violent tough-guy bluster. He could not have imagined that this could make him more dangerous when his consciousness was eclipsed by a seizure.

Another favorite on the Facebook page was a short film, Our Time, in which he and a friend star. The film’s own Facebook page says that it’s “based on the lives” of Henry Wachtel and his best friend and describes itself as “a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction, the story follows NYC teens Derek and Tyler over a day in their lives, dealing with their troubled presents and the impending crossover to adulthood” The page describes New York as “a city composed of frenetic energy that pushes adults to the brink and steals children’s childhood right out from underneath them.”

In his actual life, Wachtel seems to have enjoyed a fine childhood and appeared better adjusted from having been raised in the city than are many suburban kids. He enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx, where his father is a professor. He remained particularly close to his mother and told people that she was the only person who truly understood him.

For her part, Kay seems to have worried as much as any mother whose son had epilepsy. She sometimes expressed her concerns to the instructors at the fitness center where she took Zumba classes, the Latin-inspired combination of dance and aerobics. She certainly loved him no less.

“Her life revolved around him,” a cousin, Ira Zinman, would tell a reporter.

Her mothering style was reflected in her teaching style. One student would recall, in a memorial remembrance, walking into English class 10 minutes late in the week before spring break.

“While she reprimands those who come into class late, she stared at me while I walked to my seat, put her hand on my shoulder and said ‘I love you.’”

Kay was on spring break the following week and she was still home as her son prepared to head off to Fordham. He had been up late studying for a psychology test. He awoke with a vague feeling of an impending seizure and suddenly it struck.

The exact course of a seizure is unique to the individual, but tends to follow a pattern with a particular person and Wachtel does not seem to have been violent on prior occasions. He suffered a seizure at his father’s home some weeks before without incident, though he had, as always, apologized profusely.

“I always apologize when I come out of a seizure,” he told the New York Post. “I feel like I put people out, and it’s scary for them.”

And during previous seizures with his mother, she “would always hold me tight” without triggering a violent reaction. But the very fact that she called 911 this time suggested that this one was somehow more severe, more alarming. Chong notes, “The level of agitation following a seizure can change with time due to the electrical properties of seizures evolving spontaneously, sometimes with the abnormal circuits spreading to newer parts of the brain.”

Chong adds that the intensity of the agitation can also be influenced by anti-seizure medications that “may alter the severity and spread of abnormal electrical signaling within the brain during seizures.”

“Changing doses, trying a different anti-seizure medication and patients ‘forgetting’ to take doses are other ways the amount of brain circuits involved in the seizure can be altered,” he said. “Both anti-seizure medications and mediations used for other purposes may increase or decrease a person’s level of agitation at their baseline, when they are not having seizures.”

Chong goes on to say, “And one may speculate about a relationship to the patient’s state of agitation just before a seizure and the time immediately following a seizure.”

In other words, if a drug makes you more agitated prior to a seizure, it could also make you more agitated afterward.  And it must have been agitating enough to emerge from unconsciousness into a disoriented state where he may not have known where or even who he was.

“You can imagine that this would be frightening to awake like this,” Chong says.

After the arraignment, the detectives continued their investigation and discovered this was not a tale of troubled youth. One detective who listened to the recording of the 911 call reported that at the start the operator had advised Kay to stay back from her son while he was in the seizure, but she had not been able to resist the maternal urge to comfort him. The detective said privately that he did not expect the grand jury to hand down an indictment.

Wachtel’s next court appearance was scheduled for April 16, the date by which he would have to be either indicted or released. He was still sitting in a courthouse holding cell as the 5 p.m. deadline neared. His father sat briefly in the courtroom, accompanied by the woman with whom he is said to share the same apartment he once shared with Kay. His obvious concern suggested the son was right to say his father was standing behind him.

The father then went elsewhere to wait out the final hour. The son’s lawyer, Epstein, declined to make any predictions. There seemed to be a possibility that the grand jury would decline to indict.  

“Everybody knows Henry did not intend to kill his mother,” Epstein said. “And everybody knows this case is about epilepsy.”

At 5 p.m., the case was referred down to night court and it still seemed possible that Wachtel might be freed. A prosecutor then held up a sheet of paper and made an announcement to the judge.

“The people are filing a certificate of affirmative grand jury action,” the prosecutor said. “They voted an indictment of Mr. Wachtel.”

He was remanded to the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward, where hopefully he will receive what Kay would want most for him, what the criminal complaint failed to report that he called for when he came out of his seizure, what he said after he told his mom he loved her and begged her not to die.

“Help!”

Unless there are significant facts known only to the district attorney’s office, simple justice demands that prosecutors drop the criminal charges. That, and secure for him all the help he needs to cease being a danger and to somehow live with having done the one thing of all others he never would do.

“Nobody would want him in jail less than his own mother,” says one of the moms who used to see Kay with her little boy at Corlears. “He’s going to have to pay every day of his life.”