CHESHIRE — A Winslow Road woman died from accidental traumatic asphyxia, the state medical examiner ruled Tuesday, after being crushed by debris in her home.
Beverly Mitchell, 66, was found on a partially collapsed portion of the first floor of her house after a search team used a backhoe to clear garbage and household items that in some areas reached as high as the ceiling. Town police said Mitchell was a recluse and a hoarder who refused social services.
A worker at the coroner’s office said she did not know how long Mitchell had been dead, but local police said it could have been a week.
Police said the combination of Mitchell’s decaying house and the weight of the debris inside caused the floor to collapse.
Health Director Maura Esposito said her staff had been to Mitchell’s home three to four times in the past 10 years after neighbors complained of garbage in the yard and in cars. Esposito said they would visit the home and Mitchell would clean up the mess and the complaints would stop. There was nothing in the complaints or what she found outside to indicate the single-story house was filled with garbage.
“The times I was over there it wasn’t chronic,” Esposito said. “Our rules and regulations (about single-family homes) are clear.”
Fire Chief Jack Casner, who has been acting as spokesman for the town regarding the accidental death, said Monday he couldn’t speak for the town’s social services department, but workers probably weren’t aware of the full extent of the danger in Mitchell’s home. Casner said he didn’t know if the building inspector had been called to inspect the home, but neither the fire department nor the fire marshal’s office had been called.
Arnett Talbot, a spokeswoman for Town Manager Michael Milone, said social service information is confidential to protect individual privacy. But in general, the town has a collaborative effort among Human Services, the Senior Center, the Fire Department and the Police Department to identify and assist “at risk” individuals. The town also maintains an at-risk resident list, although inclusion on that list is voluntary. Neighbors said police frequently checked on Mitchell’s welfare.
“Social services will contact the individual, and hopefully the individual will agree to speak or meet with them,” Talbot wrote in a prepared statement. “They will assess the situation and offer appropriate services, which the individual can accept or refuse. Social services will continue to offer assistance until it is determined that refusal of service is permanent. Other appropriate agencies may also be notified if warranted.”
Matthew Jalowiec, the probate judge for Cheshire and Southington, said Tuesday there was no file on Mitchell in the Cheshire offices and he had not heard from town officials, but he expects to. Casner said the town is working with Mitchell’s attorney to try to locate a next of kin. Casner said he could not provide the attorney’s name. Jalowiec said once any family member is located, an estate will have to be set up.
“God knows if the woman had a will or anything,” Jalowiec said.
The town is working with the building department to decide whether to raze the home, and officials are likely awaiting financial input from any family and Mitchell’s attorney. The building department boarded up the windows and declared the building unsafe, according to Talbot.
A postal worker notified police on Thursday that Mitchell’s mail had remained unchecked for more than a week. When police arrived to check on her, they found the first floor had collapsed into the basement. State search-and-rescue workers returned and secured the home and used special equipment to try to locate her among the piles of plastic bags, paper and household items. A portion of the first floor near the kitchen could not be checked, so public works employees cut a hole into the side of the house and used backhoes to remove debris in hopes of finding Mitchell.
It wasn’t clear if the woman was home because she had been known to leave and not tell anyone, authorities said.
Police said that after about 2½ hours workers located Mitchell’s body Saturday on the partially collapsed first floor.
Psychologists said serious hoarding can lead to falls, fires, rodents and vermin, and, as Mitchell’s case shows, structural collapse. They also said that if cars and yards are cluttered with garbage, the home warrants a look inside.