Nobody Noticed

Marilu Dennis lived in Lakewood for 36 years. One hot July day, she died alone in her home. For 15 months, the grass grew. The mail piled up. The bills went unpaid. Nobody saw Marilu. Nobody noticed

But nobody nearby seemed to notice. Ironically, it was Cox--an out-of-towner--who tipped off police that something wasn't quite right.

While searching for the woman's next of kin, the officers observed that Dennis' home was entirely devoid of family photos. No signs of a connection to other human beings--apart from the anonymous sources of junk mail--could be found there. Detectives only obtained the name of a relative when they searched the other half of the duplex, which Dennis had left unoccupied since her mother's death many years earlier.

The case of Marilu Dennis' unobserved life and death merited only a small mention in the daily newspaper, as well as a few curious calls from reporters to the Dallas police Crimes Against Persons Division.

Detective Dan Trippel fielded some of those inquiries. It seemed as though the reporters were grasping for some dramatically bleak statement about society, community, family.

But after sorting through the few strands of evidence Marilu left behind, he's not sure that's appropriate. Folks who knew her say that before you can comprehend the curious circumstances of her death, you have to be familiar with the way she ran her life. Then you might concede that this septuagenarian spinster was a classic recluse--a woman who lived a life sequestered and shut off from the world around her. Only then would you understand that there wasn't much anyone could have done to prevent her lonely death.

That, of course, could merely be an attempt at rationalization. Because the only thing that's certain about Marilu Dennis' life is that she wanted you to know as little about it as possible.

Marilu Dennis was not without family--and a caring family, at that.
The Dennises, in fact, appear to be a fairly normal bunch. Like most families, a few skeletons undoubtedly rattle in their closets.

Marilu's father, Burrell L. Dennis, was a prosperous farmer in Lannius, a tiny, unincorporated rural community near Bonham. She was the last of his five children. Three nieces, three nephews, and their families live outside of Texas today. One nephew, James L. Dennis, is a federal appeals court judge in New Orleans.

Details about Marilu are hard to come by, however. Embarrassed by the fuss her death is causing, family members are reluctant to discuss their relationship with her. No one could, or would, provide a photo. Most of what will be said publicly comes from Marilu's oldest niece, Mary Lou Dennis of Hardy, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock. A call placed to Debbie Dennis, Marilu's niece in Las Cruces, New Mexico, generates a flurry of angry calls among relatives and the threat of silence.

Mary Lou, a level-headed woman with a pleasant disposition who was, in fact, named after Marilu, insists the family did try to reach out to her aunt. They attempted to call, only to hear Marilu tell them to leave her alone. They tried visiting. She'd shoo them away or simply ignore the bell.

"We just didn't know how to react to her changing like she did," Mary Lou says. "No one in the family had ever isolated themselves from the others."

Mary Lou's sister, Gayla Farrar, who lives in South Carolina, tried to embrace Marilu during the early '70s when her family lived in Dallas. Farrar would invite her aunt to lunch or dinner, particularly when her father, Marilu's brother Clyde, was visiting.

"But she would always decline the invitations," she says. "My dad would send gifts, and the rest of the family would send cards. She evidently received them, but she would never acknowledge to the family that she had. It really hurt my father, because that was his sister."

Some of those cards and letters came back marked "return to sender."
Michael Patterson's parents moved to their Lakewood home 37 years ago, a few months before Marilu moved in across the street. Over the years, he says, Marilu never socialized with her neighbors. His family would come over to cut her grass, and she'd order them off her property. She'd chase away the children playing nearby.

"She was not," he says, "a pleasant neighbor."
When Marilu wasn't seen for quite a while, Michael's mother, Peggy Patterson, knocked repeatedly on her door. She left notes pleading with her to call. When she asked police officers cruising the block to check on Marilu, she says they told her they couldn't enter the house without a search warrant.

"The story in The Dallas Morning News was slanted," Peggy Patterson complains. "They made it seem like Marilu lived in a big city where no one cared."

Another of Marilu's acquaintances says you had to know her to understand her. "She had lived in that house in Dallas since 1959," says Ida Savage of Bonham. "And she told me that she did not know her neighbors, didn't want to know her neighbors, and she wished the neighbors in this neighborhood would leave her alone."

What scant clues exist about Marilu's past can be found in Bonham, the county seat of Fannin County.

When Bonham was incorporated in 1888, grocers sold flour, sugar, and salt out of wooden barrels. Ten cents could buy a man a shot of "negro whisky"; "white man's whiskey" cost a nickel more. Farmers gathered in the courthouse square to settle legal disputes and trade their wares with other farmers.

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