Death certificate bill filed in response to Chemirmir case passes in Austin, others face scrutiny | #seniorliving | #elderly | #seniors
The first bill filed in response to a string of slayings at Dallas-area senior living communities passed the Texas Senate on Thursday and now awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.
For the families who say their loved ones were killed by a serial murder suspect, it’s a moment more than two years in the making.
“This bill got our story in front of representatives and senators,” said Cheryl Pangburn. “Going forward, more people will know about it than when we started.”
Pangburn’s mother, Marilyn Bixler, is the namesake of the bill passed Thursday. Marilyn’s Law, or HB 723, was introduced by two Collin County lawmakers — Sen. Angela Paxton and Rep. Jared Patterson — after The Dallas Morning News first reported Pangburn’s story.
The new law will require officials to notify next of kin if a cause of death is amended.
“I was thrilled that the Senate voted out HB 723, also known as Marilyn’s Law, this morning,” Patterson said in a prepared statement Thursday, also praising Paxton and the families who testified for the bill. “Thanks to their efforts and with Governor Abbott’s signature, families will not be left in the dark should the cause of death on a death certificate be amended in the future.”
Pangburn found her mother dead at Parkview Frisco in September 2017. She was told her mother had died of natural causes and mourned her death. A year and a half later, she received a Facebook message from a former high school classmate who had seen Bixler’s name on a list of victims tied to serial murder suspect Billy Chemirmir.
Police had determined that Bixler was likely a victim, and the Collin County medical examiner had changed her death certificate to say her cause of death was “undetermined.” But Pangburn was never notified.
“Personally, I cannot imagine learning my loved one had died from a different cause than what had originally been communicated,” Paxton said at a Senate committee hearing earlier this month. “I certainly can’t imagine they had been murdered. No one should have to experience this.”
Marilyn’s Law is just one of several bills being considered this session in response to the slayings.
“There’s a lot more work to be done,” said Shannon Dion, president of a nonprofit founded by families of the victims, Secure Our Seniors’ Safety. “We’re here for the long haul of saving lives and protecting seniors.”
Chemirmir has been charged with 18 counts of capital murder and two counts of attempted capital murder. According to amended death certificates, police records and civil lawsuits filed in Dallas and Collin counties, officials suspect him in two dozen deaths.
Chemirmir, who is in the Dallas County jail in lieu of $17.6 million in bail, says he is innocent. His trial initially was to start earlier this month but has been delayed, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marilyn’s Law faced no opposition in the House and Senate, with no “Nay” votes in committees and in chamber floor votes. Other bills filed in response to the killings are facing more intense scrutiny from lawmakers and lobbyists.
HB 3095, introduced by Dallas Rep. Julie Johnson, would mandate security standards, such as employee background checks, for senior living communities and would hold communities liable for failure to provide security. It is awaiting a House committee vote.
HB 3144, introduced by Patterson, would create a voluntary state certification program for senior living communities. Rather than mandating security standards, Patterson said, it would encourage the market to provide better security practices industrywide. It is also awaiting a House committee vote.
The families of Secure Our Seniors’ Safety support both measures, saying their loved ones would have been better protected if the communities where they died had raised an alarm sooner.
Cliff Harris, the Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer, testified in support of HB 3095, saying his mother-in-law was killed at Plano’s Preston Place in 2018. He said it should be incumbent on property owners to report any suspicious activity.
“Management does not have to decide if it’s a crime. Let the police do that,” Harris said. “The first time is horrific. The second should have raised a red flag to staff, residents, family, police and other facilities that a murderer was on the loose.”
Two senior living groups — LeadingAge Texas and the Texas Assisted Living Association — have raised concerns about the bills’ requirements.
For example, HB 3095 requires that facilities report any crimes to police. Carmen Tilton, vice president for public policy at the Texas Assisted Living Association, testified that communities may not always be aware if, say, a resident is the victim of a financial fraud crime.
“Facilities can’t report what they don’t know about,” she said. “If that resident doesn’t report that crime to the community, the community doesn’t know to report it to police.”
The groups also expressed worries that HB 3144 could open the door to further regulation from state lawmakers.
“Residents of independent living want freedom, accessibility and the ability for guests to come and go as they please,” said George Linial, president of LeadingAge Texas. “While well-intentioned, we fear this will move independent living to a licensed setting.”
Dion rejected those claims, saying the suggested certification program would be voluntary and is not a “back door” to regulation. She said management’s promises of security were not kept when her mother was killed at The Tradition-Prestonwood in 2016.
“As a Texan, I like to believe that the market will operate in the community’s best interest,” Dion said. “When it does not, the market needs oversight.”
Two other bills would enforce existing regulations on cash-for-gold shops. Police say Chemirmir sold the jewelry he stole at such stores, which melted the pieces down quickly and kept poor records of sales.
SB 1132, introduced by Dallas Sen. Nathan Johnson, and HB 3123, introduced by Dallas Rep. John Turner, would mandate 10 state inspections on cash-for-gold shops each year. Currently, inspections are only conducted when a complaint is filed. Two such inspections happened in 2020.
“The current state laws are largely not enforced, ignored or not taken seriously,” said Jon Hoffman, a Plano police detective who investigated Chemirmir and testified in favor of the bills. “It’s a very difficult system because there’s no bite, there’s no teeth in it now.”
An Austin jeweler testified against the bills, saying the inspections would be burdensome on small business owners. Turner said he’d work to amend his bill’s language to limit the focus to cash-for-gold shops rather than other jewelry stores.
The lawmakers said the goal was to make cash-for-gold enforcement more like that of pawn shops, which are more regularly inspected by the state. Laws governing how cash-for-gold shops should operate exist but are rarely adhered to, they said.
“The structure of the current system leads to low enforcement and low compliance as a result,” Nathan Johnson said in a Senate committee hearing.