The District’s most frequent 911 caller, Martha Rigsby, was due in court to again discuss her habit of excessively dialing the city’s emergency line. She arrived straight from Sibley Memorial Hospital, dressed in a red winter coat and borrowed baggy pants, with a social worker in tow.
Also there was her close friend Demetric Pearson, who sat with Rigsby in the hallway until her case was called.
The hearing was supposed to be a routine check to see whether Rigsby had reduced her 911 calls. But it quickly became an exercise in judicial matchmaking.
Judge Erik P. Christian, deputy presiding judge of the D.C. Superior Court probate division, listened to disappointing testimony: The 911 calls continued. And even after the appointment of a guardian, Rigsby averaged an astonishing 13 ambulance rides a month, up from seven a month before the guardianship. Christian suggested a novel solution in a proposal directly to her friend.
“Mr. Pearson, if you are good friends, you may be able to help us on this. . . . I don’t know what your relationship is, but if you all are like dating or something?” Christian said in the courtroom at a hearing on Dec. 11.
“We were at one time,” Pearson responded.
“Right. So, if you all resume your relationship, you could probably help prevent the 911 calls,” the judge told him.
Christian’s unconventional proposal marked the latest turn in a tale that has spanned 30 years and stumped numerous District agencies. Since the 1980s, Rigsby, 59, has logged thousands of 911 calls and ambulance rides for apparent fainting spells that have sent her falling to the ground. Medical and mental health experts have disagreed about what causes the episodes.
After the city took her to court, the judge called Rigsby’s behavior a “serial, excessive and unwarranted” burden on District resources and appointed a medical guardian to try to solve the problem. But eight months into the guardianship, Rigsby’s 911 usage increased. And Andrea Sloan, the appointed guardian, concluded that Rigsby showed “no motivation to decrease EMS usage, even when faced with the prospect of loss of independence,” according to documents filed in the case.
At the hearing this month, Christian broadened the guardianship and granted a conservatorship. Now, the guardian has the power to decide Rigsby’s living arrangements, try to obtain Medicaid benefits and take control of her finances.
But the judge said he remained skeptical that any intervention would stop Rigsby from calling 911.
Enter Pearson, the 48-year-old friend who showed up in court to speak for Rigsby and against the conservatorship.
Pearson told the judge that he was a “very good friend of Ms. Rigsby” and that they had once lived in the same apartment complex. He has been around her during her “episodes” and has even caught her while she was falling. He said she is a “wonderful person” who is “fine with her finances.”
Pearson never mentioned any history of romance. But when the judge asked him about it, he said they had once dated. Then the questions continued.
The judge asked Pearson how often he saw Rigsby. “Almost every day or every other day, or something like that,” Pearson answered. The judge asked where he lived and what he typically did from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., when Rigsby calls 911 most frequently.
“And that’s usually the time that you all go dating, right?” Christian asked. “That’s usually the evening hour when you all go out on your dates?”
“Well, not all the time,” Pearson answered.
“You all go to matinee movies?” the judge asked.
“No. We haven’t been to any movies. That’s kind of costly,” Pearson answered.
Christian again asked about “that window” between 4 and 10 p.m. “Do you all have activities during that time?” he asked. Pearson said they sometimes talk or go out to eat for a few hours in the afternoon, and that she is “good company.” He said he has his own responsibilities in the evening, such as checking on his pets at home.
The judge then addressed Rigsby. “Are you willing to do that, Ms. Rigsby, spend some time with Mr. Pearson?”
She asked the judge why they had to be together from 4 to 10 p.m., and “why we can’t make it from 2 to 7.”
Christian said that was fine, but asked, “Why can’t you be with him after 7, Ms. Rigsby?”
She told the judge that was when she liked to watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”
“Okay, well, he can watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Jeopardy!’ too,” he told her.
“Oh, he’s coming over to my house then,” she said.
“So, why don’t you all arrange something between, at least, maybe not 10, but at least 8 o’clock, you know, 2 to 8,” the judge told both of them.
The judge also suggested that they could ride the “trolley car” back and forth to see each other. Pearson pointed out that the streetcar is still in the testing phase but that maybe they could do that when it’s running.
“See if that works. Let’s try that, okay? And then we can report back at this review period, okay?” the judge said, adding, “You all are a really nice couple.”
Pearson, who is unemployed and looking for work, served more than six years in prison in Maryland — from 1999 to 2006 — after being convicted on charges of assault and handgun possession. He denies guilt in the case and said Rigsby is aware of his past. Leah Gurowitz, spokeswoman for the D.C. courts, said Christian was unaware of Pearson’s background at the time of the hearing.
Christian did not return calls about the case. Gurowitz said the D.C. Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from speaking to the media about active cases.
“The judge did not order Mr. Pearson to do anything,” she said.
Pearson said in an interview that he was bothered by the judge’s suggestion, which he said was “popped” on him with no notice. He said he had dated Rigsby only for about two weeks, about five years ago, and that since then, they have been just close friends.
“He can’t force me into a relationship,” he said.
Pearson said he regularly helps Rigsby by taking her shopping and running errands but has no interest in romance. He said it was awkward when he had to make that clear to Rigsby after the hearing. “They really got off track with this,” he said. “I feel that that was kind of inappropriate.”
The next hearing is scheduled for March.
Elspeth Ritchie, chief medical officer at the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, said Rigsby’s case is a complex one — now more than three decades in the making — and that there are no easy fixes.
“In general, it would be inappropriate to pursue a romantic relationship as a solution to this sort of problem,” said Ritchie, who has been closely involved in the case.
Rigsby did not return several calls.
Sloan, her court-appointed guardian, and her attorney, Vickey Wright-Smith, did not raise any objections in court. Sloan declined to comment on the judge’s suggestion.
Wright-Smith said she didn’t think that Christian meant any harm but was just encouraging someone to look out for a friend.
“I think he was trying to look for a solution,” she said.