Joseph W. Bell Jr. went to Providence Hospital to pick up his wife after she had a routine checkup one morning in February. They chatted briefly, then Bell headed to the restroom. As he washed his hands, an assailant approached, police said.
The next thing Bell knew, he was in the emergency room of the Northeast Washington hospital with a bloody lip and a head injury. His wallet was missing, and his back pocket had been ripped open.
Bell, 79, was discharged three days later, but he never seemed the same, relatives said yesterday. A man known for his memory, he forgot his wife's birthday and complained constantly of headaches.
As his condition worsened, he went to Washington Hospital Center on April 7 for treatment. He died 11 days later. The D.C. medical examiner last month ruled the death a homicide by a blow to the head, police said yesterday.
Police have no suspects in the killing of the retired auditor and World War II veteran. Family members said they couldn't understand how Bell was attacked in a hospital restroom.
"When it first happened, I was devastated emotionally," said Joy Bell, 51, one of Bell's daughters, sitting with her mother in her parents' living room. "At this point, I'm angry that Providence Hospital has made no claim for any responsibility. He wasn't in the hospital for a routine checkup or anything. He was just picking up my mother. I regret that day ever happened."
Providence Hospital officials said in a statement that Bell had been discharged in a "medically stable" condition Feb. 12.
"The medical records do not reflect that at the time he was suffering from a medical condition related to complaints of an alleged assault occurring on February 9th," the statement says.
Providence officials declined to comment further because they have not been able to review the autopsy report, said Hugh W. Farrell, an attorney who represents the hospital.
Police said they first investigated the incident as a robbery.
Then, in April, after Bell died, detectives treated the case as a suspicious death, said D.C. police Lt. Robert Glover. But not until July 13 was the death ruled a homicide.
Glover declined to discuss specifics of the case. He said detectives are fairly certain that Bell's fatal injury "was sustained during the robbery."
A police report shows that Bell went to Providence Hospital to pick up his wife, Eva, on the morning of Feb. 9.
He told police that he was washing his hands when he was apparently attacked. The next thing Bell knew, he was being treated in the emergency room, he told an officer who took the original police report.
His wallet -- containing a Social Security card, credit card, a silver dollar certificate and driver's licenses -- was missing.
His wife, sitting with three of her daughters yesterday in the living room of her Northeast Washington home, said she was browsing in the hospital's gift shop when she was paged and was told that her husband had been hurt.
"I thought maybe he had had a heart attack," said Eva Bell, who called her husband Puddin.
"I said, 'Puddin, what happened?' And he said, 'I don't know.'
"They took him from me in the snap of a button," she said.
Joseph W. Bell Jr. was born in Washington and was drafted into the Army during World War II but never saw combat. He was honorably discharged in 1946, family members said.
He worked briefly for the Navy before joining the U.S. Postal Service, where he was an auditor. He retired in 1983. He had four daughters and two sons from two marriages. Before his injury, family members said yesterday, he made a practice of checking on church members who were ill and helping neighbors do their taxes.
Bell closely followed world and local news. He also never forgot a special occasion, his wife and daughters said.
After Bell was discharged from Providence Hospital, they recalled yesterday, he began complaining of headaches and loss of appetite. He couldn't finish his taxes and then forgot his wife's birthday in March. They had been married more than 50 years.
"He was just up to the minute on everything," his wife said. "But after he got hit, I knew he wasn't coming back."