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.
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.
Just a few years after World War I, and seven years before the start of the Great Depression, Marilu Dennis was born on June 28, 1922, in Lannius to Burrell L. Dennis and Margaret J. McElwee Dennis. Located slightly north of Bonham, Lannius was, and remains, a tightly knit cluster of homesteads.
Newlyweds who were 27 and 18 years old in 1900, the Dennises reported to the census taker that they had each been born in Texas. Burr and Maggie, as folks around Lannius knew them, were 50 and 40 years old, respectively, when their "change of life"--or "oops" baby--arrived. They were already parents to three sons: Leon, Clyde, and Robert. Edith, Marilu's only sister, was 15 or 16 years old.
Mary Lou recalls that the Dennis farm was "a beautiful place." Fruit trees shaded folks from the hot Texas sun. Her grandmother probably had a vegetable garden growing at the back door. "The house was so pretty; it was just like a picture book, with all the crops and everything," Mary Lou recalls. "I was fascinated by it."
Lannius' first Church of Christ was built in the 1880s. Burr Dennis, a Church of Christ minister, probably served for many years as its pastor, though the church doesn't exist today. His brother Albert and at least one other Dennis family member lived on nearby farms. But if the family was well known, they managed to keep their names out of the Bonham Public Library's historical records.
"If they were real prominent," Mary Lou says, "no one would ever have known it. They could have had a million dollars, and no one would have known it."
When asked why, she replies, "Well, I don't know. That's been kind of a mystery to a lot of us, because, you know, we're just who we are, and that's it. But they never wanted anybody to know anything about them. Grandpa was a wonderful guy, but he was kind of different."
Mary Lou was only three years younger than her aunt. Her father, Clyde, named her after Marilu because he thought his baby sister was such "a cute little girl." Some of Mary Lou's fondest childhood memories include her family's annual summer pilgrimages to Lannius. Her parents would spend the week catching up with the kinfolk, while the children played and romped on their grandparents' land.
"We went so often, it was a second home to me," Mary Lou says. "It was just a big hoot and holler. Of course, we didn't holler too loud, because they were all preachers. I remember the time when, if we younger people would laugh too loud, we'd get looks like, 'You're not supposed to do that.'"
Nevertheless, Mary Lou recalls that her aunt was a fun-loving young woman who enjoyed sharing a laugh and having a good time. Even then, she was somewhat nonchalant and "headstrong." She wore nice clothes, had a penchant for T-bone steaks, and enjoyed the company of friends. She attended business school and later worked from her home as a bookkeeper. She kept her private thoughts private.
In the early '40s, Marilu's elderly parents sold their farm in Lannius and moved to Bonham with her and her sister, Edith, to 800 W. 7th St.--a modest, white frame house, much smaller than what they'd been accustomed to. Mrs. J.M. Crocker, who ran a local grocery, lived about four houses down. She remembers that the family wasn't the type to stop and chit-chat.
"The only time we ever saw them was when they came to the store," she says. "In fact, we didn't even know what their names were. No one in that neighborhood knew anything about them."
Mary Lou recalls that the family had trouble adjusting to the new place. "But when Grandpa got sick, they sold the farm and came on in town."
Burr and Maggie Dennis deeded the Bonham property to Edith and Marilu soon after they arrived in '44. They also purchased four burial plots in Bonham's Willow Wild Cemetery for themselves and their two daughters. For several years after the elder Dennis passed away in '45, the three women lived together in the house on 7th.
Edith worked at the local J.C. Penney until she retired in the late '70s or early '80s. Bonham resident Anne Hamilton, Edith's longtime co-worker, thinks Marilu may have worked at the department store at one time as well. Hamilton doesn't remember much about Marilu other than a bit of gossip.
"She was a very, very to-herself person," she says. "She didn't associate with any people at all, hardly at all. Just Edith.
"[Marilu] wore mannish clothes," she adds. "She sort of dressed like a man. She wore a mannish haircut and that kind of thing. Back then, it was not as usual to see someone like that. And, of course, she stuck out like a sore thumb, you know, for someone to dress and act like that...I don't think she ever had anything to do with a man."
In 1960, something, or someone, prompted Marilu to leave Bonham and move to Dallas. No one seems to know why she left. Perhaps she finally felt ready for city life. She was 38 years old and still unmarried. Maybe she thought she could improve her chances of finding a husband.
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.
None of these ascetic practices seemed to have anything to do with money. Marilu was, in fact, sitting on a checking account with a balance of $16,737.02.
Detectives did find a 1986 Christmas card in the adjoining apartment addressed to Edith from a sister-in-law. She was the first in the family to hear the gruesome news.
In all of this, Cox has ended up looking like the closest thing to a hero. Indeed, if he had not persisted in tracking Marilu down, her body might still lay moldering in the house. For his part, Cox seems flattered that his name appears connected to Marilu's story.
But Marilu's family doesn't trust Cox. In Bonham, folks are whispering about supposedly having seen Cox cart off belongings from Edith's old house on 7th Street. A call to the Bonham police, however, doesn't turn up any evidence of a break-in.
Nonetheless, suspicions still exist. And Mary Lou Dennis has heard the rumors. She says she's spoken to Cox over the telephone about returning some family records to her. (Cox says he didn't get the records from the house--though he won't reveal where he got them.)
"I called him twice and he said he was going to send them to me, but he never did," she says. "So, I guess I'm going to have to just turn him over to whomever."
After Dallas police detectives concluded their work and medical examiners did an autopsy, Marilu Dennis' remains were cremated. The ashes were shipped to the Coopers-Sorrells Funeral Home in Bonham.
An obituary in the Bonham Favorite stated simply that she was survived by "nieces and nephews." They weren't named.
On October 21, her ashes were laid to rest beside Edith, Burr, and Maggie in Bonham's Willow Wild Cemetery. Her niece Debbie Dennis was the only family member to attend. Ida Savage also came to pay her respects, along with a friend of Debbie's and a funeral director.
It took 15 months to find Marilu; it only took 15 minutes to bury her.
A local preacher murmured a prayer and spoke a few soothing words about someone he never knew--words Ida Savage can't recall--before the little wicker basket holding Marilu Dennis' ashes was lowered into the ground.
No church bells, no hearses, no wailing mourners. No one took much notice.
It was a private ceremony. Marilu would have wanted it that way.