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"I think they are at rest now'

Last year, Ralph Riley made a vow to a close friend.

His wife, Bernice, suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and Mr. Riley had to install an alarm system so he would be awakened if she grew confused and tried to leave the house at night.

The 79-year-old man's health also was failing. In July, he was hospitalized for cardiac and respiratory problems. His closest friend, Oscar King, took care of Bernice while he was ill.

Riley later worried that if he died, his wife would be put in a nursing home. That would never happen, Riley told King after he got out of the hospital.

"He said, "If it ever gets that bad, just give us two minutes of privacy,' " King said.

Riley was familiar with the case of Roswell Gilbert, a retired engineer who in 1985 shot and killed his wife, Emily, a victim of Alzheimer's disease. He called it a mercy killing. Gilbert's highly publicized murder trial eventually led to his conviction and imprisonment.

"(Ralph) knew the Roswell Gilbert case," King said. "He told me at one time he wouldn't want to put his family through a double tragedy."

Early Thursday morning, using a handgun he bought at an auction in Dade City about 30 years ago, Riley apparently acted on that vow.

He shot his wife in the head while she slept. Minutes later, he called 911 and then King, 42, a friend who lives in Tampa. Then he shot himself.

Riley told King several times during the past two years that he didn't want to leave Bernice, 74, in the care of strangers.

"That day or that night, he must have been getting real bad, real sick again," King said Friday. "I guess he knew if he went into the hospital again, this time he wouldn't get out."

King told Pasco deputies that Riley called him after he shot Bernice and said, "Thank you for all you've done. Things have taken a turn for the worse. I've taken care of her and have called the sheriff's office."

Riley instructed King to call his son in New Jersey and ask him to come down and take care of the arrangements. Ralph Jr. flew into Tampa International Airport on Thursday night, where he was picked up by King's family.

Although Riley last year had mentioned ending it all, he had seemed in better spirits this week, King said. Riley had bought a new house in Land O'Lakes, and a new car. The Rileys spent Christmas with King and his wife, Adella.

Riley didn't mention plans to kill himself or his wife this week, King said, but King expected it to happen eventually.

"Deep down, I kind of suspected it would come one day," he said. "But when it did, it was still rough."

King first met Ralph Riley in 1973, when King was looking for work as an apprentice. Riley hired him for an opening in his Tampa electrical contracting business.

Riley taught King and others about the electrician's trade, and he wasn't selfish with his knowledge. He wanted his employees to learn enough to start their own operations.

"He was really involved in the teaching aspect of it," King said. "He would take the apprentices and teach them properly so they would have the proper knowledge to go into business for themselves."

In 1983, Riley retired. He turned the business over to King, who still runs the company and who has fond recollections of regular lunches at area pizza parlors. Bernice was Italian and an excellent cook, King said, and Ralph had an affinity for pepperoni pizza.

The Rileys were good people, he said. Kind-hearted. Especially when it came to animals.

They would take in stray dogs and nurse them to health. If the dogs left, so be it. But when the dogs that stayed got too old, or too sick _ to the point where their lives were full of suffering _ Ralph would take them to the veterinarian's office.

He would stand with them as they were put to sleep, King said. And rather than risk the animals becoming the subjects of a medical school experiment, Riley would have them cremated and take the ashes home.

About two years ago, a doctor first diagnosed Bernice as a victim of Alzheimer's disease. She was becoming forgetful, aimless. As the disease progressed, she occasionally would try leaving the house in the early morning hours. Or she would go into the kitchen and rattle the pots and pans.

The splendid cook was no longer, King said.

"It got to the point where she couldn't even boil water," he said.

Adella King said she would call Ralph every time she read an article in the newspaper about Alzheimer's disease, or when she saw a report on television. But he never turned to a support group. He was strong-willed and hard-headed, she said. If he couldn't take care of Bernice, no one could.

Thursday morning, the suffering ended for the Rileys. Are they at peace now?

"I think so," Mrs. King said. "I think they both are at rest now. It's over with. It's done. Their worries are finished."

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