By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The time-worn note on the black mailbox is beginning to turn into an urban fossil, but its meticulously typed message is still clear: Please use the mail slot in the door--thank you.
It's been a while since as much concern has been shown for the light brown brick house. Peeling white paint frames its sprinkling of curtain-shuttered windows. A once-ivory picket fence separating the corner lot from the property next door is in dire need of repair.
Unattended and obviously diseased, two hardwood trees struggle between life and death on one side of the walkway leading to the porch. On the other side is a bulbless iron lantern anchored in the dehydrated front yard.
The house, a duplex, sits at the corner of Vanderbilt and Oakhurst streets in the middle-class urban community of Lakewood. Its state of disrepair clashes with everything around it--the symmetrical shrubbery, fresh paint, and beds of flowers--the signs of prosperous lives, of owners who lavish attention on their homes.
A few folks noticed the contrast, even fretted about the eyesore on the corner. It had been a long time since its elderly owner, Marilu Dennis, had manicured her lawn or tenderly hung overflowing pots of red and yellow blossoms from the porch railings.
But she was a loner, a recluse, and more than a little cranky. She'd lived in one half of that duplex for 36 years, outlasting her mother, who once lived on the other side. Surely she was carrying on her meager existence, driving her blue Chevy to the local convenience store to pick up a sandwich or frozen dinner, paying her bills with the punctuality for which the former accountant was known.
No need to worry, not even when the lawn started looking like a wheat field.
Maybe she'd been carted off to a nursing home. She had money, after all. And she was certainly getting along in years.
It was really no one's business.
On Friday, October 3, at 7 p.m., Dallas police officers John Madison and Jose Blanco kicked in the door at 6600/6602 Vanderbilt Avenue. They were responding to a call by a North Texas man named Pressley Cox, who had been trying to contact 74-year-old Marilu Dennis for several days and suspected she might be dead.
"The residence was in a run-down state," officer Madison states flatly in his report. Fallen tree limbs were scattered about the unmowed lawn. A 1990 Caprice sat behind the house--unlocked and untouched. Unclaimed mail, too bulky to fit through the door, lay on the porch. A strong odor wafted out of the mail slot.
The door gave way, but not without some resistance. In fact, the officers had to wade through knee-deep mail to get inside.
The cluttered house was dark, its corners full of spider webs. The air was musty. A lawn mower sat out of place in the front room.
The electricity was off. The refrigerator was empty, the kitchen cabinets bare. A garden hose, taped to the floor and hooked up to the drain valve of a water heater in the hall, ran into a bathroom and into the tub.
Walking gingerly back to the curtained master bedroom, the officers found what they'd already feared they would: Marilu Dennis' lifeless body.
What appeared to be an old seat cushion was propped up against the spindled headboard of the twin bed. The naked, mummified corpse lay face-up on soiled sheets, with a bony left arm straight against its side. The head was turned to the right, away from some bills and a checkbook beside the shoulder. The last entry in the register was dated July 1996.
The body's right thigh, decayed almost to the bone, was bent so that the foot was tucked under the knee of the other leg.
Near the bed was an ice chest full of water. Discarded fast-food containers were neatly arranged in a corner.
"You're not lookin' so good, Marilu," a detective would later deadpan, staring somberly at photographs of the sight officers discovered that evening.
But he'd seen and smelled worse.
As "unexplained death" cases go, this one wasn't particularly mysterious. There were no signs of forced entry in the home, and no signs of trauma were found on the badly decayed corpse.
Detectives fished to the bottom of the mail pile in the front room and found an unopened Social Security check dated August 1996. That seemed to correspond with the body's relative state of decomposition. Furthermore, July of that year was particularly hot, a probable explanation for why the body was unclothed.
A driver's license confirmed the corpse's identity.
While the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office would go through the formalities of ordering an autopsy and toxicology exam, no one suspected anything other than a natural death.
If you could call this natural.
After all, Marilu Dennis' body had lain undiscovered for 15 months. Christmas came and went. So did Easter; so did her birthday.
Neighbors mowed their lawns right beside the duplex; sometimes they even mowed Marilu's. Children played in the street.
Surely, as the carrier jammed wads of junk mail through the mail slot, he must have caught a whiff of the rotted corpse inside. Even today, the faint odor of death lingers by the exterior of the master bedroom.