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

Whatever the reasons, she journeyed to Dallas, eventually joined by her aging mother, who died in 1961. She bought the duplex on Vanderbilt Avenue, but never rented out the adjoining unit after her mother's death. Like Edith, she never married. Never had the pleasure of being someone's momma. And with the exception of her contact with Edith, she did indeed keep to herself.

The only enduring relationship that anyone remembers was Marilu's bond with Edith.

Edith raised her much younger sister, and Marilu loved her for it. And when Edith's health began failing, Marilu regularly drove the 200-mile round trip to Bonham to care for her. When Edith broke an arm, she took her back to Dallas until it healed. She shopped, cooked, and cleaned for Edith until she buried her in August 1988. At the time, Marilu was 66 years old.

In an oddly poignant act of tribute, Marilu left her sister's house untouched, exactly the way she'd left it. She made no efforts to sell or rent out the home or salvage Edith's possessions.

Eventually, she'd split her time between the homes in Dallas and Bonham. The last time Ida Savage, one of her Bonham neighbors, saw her was Christmas 1995. She told Savage she wasn't feeling well.

If Marilu was devastated by her sister's death, though, she never shared her pain with anyone in her family. If she yearned for company, she never ventured across the street to sit with Mrs. Patterson over a cup of coffee.

Instead, she hid from unknown demons, withdrawing further away from the people willing to help her.

Marilu had always maintained a fence around her emotions. After Edith died, she built a fortress.

A fortress no one managed to scale.

Pressley Cox runs a place called the Discount Outlet in Bonham. The storefront shares a block with a combination KFC/Taco Bell. The First National Bank of Texas, where Marilu left more than $16,000 in her checking account, sits across the street.

Customers can buy just about anything at the Discount Outlet--cheap furniture, shadeless table lamps, and for anyone nostalgic for the '70s, bottles of jerry curl activator. They can even find big-lipped black caricatures advertising Genuine "Bull" Durham smoking tobacco on a few reproductions of early 20th-century posters.

Pressley's father, Billy Cox, buys and remodels old homes. And on September 24, Edith's frame house on 7th Street was set on fire. Bonham fire marshal Bruce Caylor says it was doused in at least three spots with gasoline. At his father's request, Cox began looking for the home's owner a few days after the fire.

After locating Marilu's Dallas telephone number and finding it disconnected, Cox called Southwestern Bell. A representative told him the last payment Marilu had made was received in July '96. In January '97, the phone company cut off her line for non-payment.

The next day, Cox tracked down a neighbor who said she'd lived across the street from Marilu for three years. Yes, she'd seen her on occasion. No, she hadn't seen any signs of her in the last year.

(Someone at this neighbor's house would later say she'd suspected Marilu was dead some six months before the body was found. She also said she'd heard that Marilu drank a lot. She declined to provide her name.)

A TU Electric representative told Cox that, as in the case of the telephone company, the July '96 payment was the last received. They turned off the service the following February.

Cox, determined to find Marilu, drove to Dallas a day later. He found that the property was as run-down as the house in Bonham, and locked up "tighter than a jug." He found discarded TV dinner boxes in her garbage. Uncollected mail was scattered across the porch and falling out of the slot in the door.

Maybe, Cox thought, Marilu had moved to a nursing home. Intrigued, he went by the local post office to see if she'd left a forwarding address. But the mail was still being delivered to Vanderbilt.

He stopped by a couple of local nursing homes, then contacted a social agency for the elderly and the Dallas County Medical Examiner's office--but no one had heard of her.

Back home in Bonham, Cox called the Social Security Administration. Someone there told him that if he didn't have a birth date for Marilu, they couldn't tell him anything. The next day, a woman in the Fannin County clerk's office looked up some old school census records for him and found the date. Cox called Social Security again.

This time he says he was told that administrators don't become alarmed until a recipient keeps an uncashed check for at least a year. In Marilu's case, there appeared to be a problem.

Fairly certain by now that Marilu was in her house dead, Cox called Dallas police on Friday, October 3, and asked them to check on her.

Detective Trippel found it remarkable that not a single family photo was found in Marilu's house. No smiling nieces on their wedding days. Or nephews at graduations. Or wrinkled newborns. Not even a photo of Edith.

Other odd bits of evidence shed light on her isolated life. There was no working TV or radio, no half-knitted sweater. The refrigerator, empty and warm, had been deliberately turned off. The hose hooked up to the water heater appeared to be the only source of water.

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