The thirty grieving friends who attended Gina Sasso's 50th birthday party Friday were greeted at the door by Gina's three-year old "granddaughter," who gleefully announced, "it's Gina's birthday; it's Gina's birthday." Sasso died May 25 of complications of pneumonia. But "she" returned from the grave to appear later at the party.
Sasso, a beloved People's Park and Disability worker, left a loyal group of friends, colleagues, 231 Face Book "friends," and one reporter. Her husband of twenty-one years said that as the daughter of alcoholics, Gina had mastered the art of the sunny quip; "always light and airy."
At the Friday night birthday party—to have been Gina's 50th—Michael Delacour, Sasso's husband of twenty-one years, delivered a rambling, but mesmerizing eulogy in which he recounted his early romance with Sasso. Delacour had seemed shaken days earlier at the Caffe Mediterraneum after getting an angry call from Sasso's mother, and said he'd been having difficulty sleeping.
Growing increasingly agitated and grief-stricken at the party, Delacour displayed Sasso's ashes in a wooden box. He lifted a plastic bag containing her fine ashes from the box, and held it, pausing, above his head—before dropping the ashes angrily to the floor.
Kneeling, and in tears, encircling the bag of ashes in his enormous hands, he stated directly, "this is Gina. (pause) This is my wife, Gina."
Later, a party of fifteen reconvened at Sasso and Delacour's favorite spot in Emeryville ("Gina's People's Beach") to scatter ashes.
Her death is yet another Southside crime story. It was treated as such by the police and a doctor whose specialty, reportedly, is autopsy reports in unexplained deaths.
The possible homicide suspects include a dog, a masseur, Michael Delacour, a three- year-old child (her "granddaughter"), her brother and sisters, her former employer (Easy Does It), Michael Diehl, (Sasso"s co-worker at B.O.S.S), the medical system, Facebook. Gina herself, tobacco, and even though its a stretch, this reporter.
It would take an Agatha Christie to sort this out. The Planet's Sasso crime scene investigation was the main topic of conversation at a dinner Sunday night at Tai San Chinese restaurant, on lower Telegraph Avenue with Michael Delacour, Michael Diehl, and this reporter.
THE CRIME SUSPECTS:
A dog. This dog may have contributed to Gina's death, according to Delacour, by head-butting her in the the ribs in bed while she struggled with pneumonia for a week.
The masseur may have contributed to Sasso's death, with a violent massage. Delacour spoke of blood pooling in Gina's body from the dog's head-butting, and the massage which left her in pain.
The 3 year old grandchild, whom Sasso and Delacour were regularly caring for, kicked Gina in bed at night when she was ill.
HER BROTHER-IN-LAW AND SISTER AS SUSPECTS:
According to Delacour the two were attending the brother-in-law's concert in Berkeley four days before Sasso's death and could have stopped by. The sister, Alice Carter, did stop by four days before Sasso's death, Carter told me in May, but was unsuccessful in convincing Sasso to go to the hospital—despite the fact Sasso was having difficulty breathing. Delacour has said he wishes her sister had "thrown her in the car and taken her to the hospital."
FACE BOOK SUSPECTED:
Gina had 231 followers at FB some of them from around the world, who were unavailable to her in her hour of need, according to Delacour. Gina spent a lot of time on FB, especially after losing her job, according to Delacour, "but none of these friends were there for her when she needed them."
Michael Diehl, a community organizer at B.O.S.S noticed that she had not been around but didn’t follow up.
THE MEDICAL SYSTEM, AND HER FORMER EMPLOYERS AS SUSPECTS:
Sasso lost her health insurance when fired from her nine-year post as executive director for Easy Does It, a Berkeley 24-hr. emergency care service for the disabled. Lacking health coverage, Sasso believed she would be excessively billed if she went to the emergency room. Her loss of employment at Easy Does It, may have disrupted her treatment for an auto-immune disorder, which was listed as a contributory cause of death in the coroner's autopsy report.
HER LAST DAYS:
Sasso and Delacour were hounded by neighbors, who, according to Delacour cared more for a dog than for Gina. They tried to get the couple to give up the dog, who was disturbing them. The situation added to Sasso's stress while she struggled with her auto-immune disorder and pneumonia.
Sasso complained of pain in the last 3 or 4 days of her life, according to Delacour.
Sasso was treating herself with antibiotics and Chinese herbs provided by her best friend. She was also taking medicine for an auto-immune disorder, according to Delacour.
Michael Diehl told of attending, with Sasso, a church engaged in homeless outreach, where Gina knelt and prayed—a few weeks before she died—with the minister, as tears flowed down her cheeks. "It was like she knew she was dying," said Diehl.
Delacour and Sasso distrusted the medical system, fearing that either they would be billed for medical intervention they could not afford-or worse—slip through the triage system and wait hours for admission, according to Delacour.
Gina had successfully kicked a drug habit but she couldn’t kick nicotine, according to Delacour. (Her autopsy report describes her as a chronic smoker). And the night before her death she was smoking on the deck of her apartment, according to Delacour.
An argument over Sasso's smoking ensued on her apartment deck that night. According to Delacour, that argument caused a "distance" in their relationship when he needed to be tending to her needs.
Delacour was considered a suspect: accused by the very people he had accused of neglect—her brother and sisters. On the night before Sasso was driven to Highland Hospital by delacour, Delacour took their granddaughter, for whom they were caring, to a birthday party, for which Sasso's family blames him.
This reporter, least and last, is the final suspect; like Diehl, I noticed she was missing from the Park which she attended regularly and like Diehl did not follow up.
THE AUTOPSY REPORT, DISTRIBUTED AT SASSO'S BIRTHDAY PARTY, EXONERATES EVERYONE:
Even though exonerated, the suspects continue to confess their guilt. Her death was officially declared from “natural causes," even though most of her survivors believe that the cause was anything but natural.
The autopsy report identifies cause of death as shock from a puncture wound to an artery when blood was drained by needle from an area between the chest wall and the lungs, according to Dr. Tim Lawlor, a retired emergency room doctor, who reviewed the coroner's report. According to Lawlor, the likelihood of this happening is "one in a million."
The autopsy report states that Sasso gave her permission for the procedure. But Delacour claims his wife told him at the hospital that she didn’t consider the procedure necessary.
The first police officer on the scene at Highland Hospital Wednesday wrote that cause of death was: "bacterial infection in her her lungs due to an auto-immune disorder that was never diagnosed."
Dr. Lawlor speculates that her auto-immune disorder may have weakened her resistance to infection and pneumonia.
As we left the restaurant, Delacour asked me why I was doing the piece and I said it was a great story story with a kid, a dog, a masseur, family feuds, and a death "that didn't have to happen," according to Sasso's sister, Alice Cooper.
I'm still unsure who or what was to blame for her death.
WE ALL KILLED SASSO:
Still, there's plenty of blame to go around—real and imagined. Ultimately, we all killed Gina Sasso as we bumble forward with our Berkeley lives—neglecting each other's needs.
What would Gina have thought killed her? She agreed with Delacour, he says, blaming the system—health system, and the entire eroding U.S. social support system, in which social networking media, like Facebook, and Twitter take the place of family and friends.
"Bacterial infection due to an undiagnosed auto-immune disorder. The decedent underwent a lifesaving medical procedure that was unsuccessful. The risks were known to the decedent, and she was aware she may not live without the procedure. A CT scan later revealed blood in the decedent's chest which may or may have not have been due to the procedure."
Ted Friedman backgrounds South side crime for the Planet. Get updates on his upcoming stories and more background at email@example.com.