State

She died alone at home and wasn’t found for months; it happens more often than you might think

Lexington

Gwendolyn Johnson lay dead in her bed for at least five months, but no one noticed.

None of her neighbors on Penns Chapel Road noticed that her two vehicles sat unmoved for months. No one noticed when Warren Rural Electric Co-op Corp. placed a bright orange tag on her front door June 24, notifying her that her electricity had been cut off.

One neighbor estimated that it had been at least two weeks since Johnson was seen, according to Warren County Sheriff’s Office records. That estimate was short by several months.

Finally, after Johnson’s mail piled up for between five and six months — the period the Warren County coroner’s office estimates she had been dead inside her home — a neighbor called the sheriff’s office Aug. 14 for someone to check on her welfare. All of Johnson’s doors were locked, and a deputy called for help from a volunteer fire department to force entry into Johnson’s home. They found Johnson’s remains in her bed, records show.

Johnson was 60 years old.

When deputies reached one of her brothers, he said the two had not spoken in 10 years.

In an age when people have so many means to stay in touch, such as social media and cellphones, deaths like Johnson’s might seem a rarity. But they’re not.

So far in 2016, five people in Warren County have died inside their homes and no one noticed for days, weeks or months.

“It’s hard to see people die like that,” Warren County Coroner Kevin Kirby said. “Death sometimes doesn’t have much dignity.”

On Sept. 18, a neighbor of Jack Bates, 81, and his wife, Paula Bates, 63, called Bowling Green police to check on the couple. The neighbor said he hadn’t seen them in more than a week. He said that for four days, the door to the couple’s vehicle had been open, and Paula Bates’ walker had been on the ground.

Police arrived, looked through a window and saw a large dog tied up inside the house. They also saw Jack Bates face down in his kitchen. Officers called the fire department to force open a door.

“The manner in which he was laying made it appear as though he had fallen and died where he fell,” Bowling Green police officer Alex Wright wrote in a report.

Police think that Jack Bates was his wife’s primary caretaker, said officer Ronnie Ward, the police spokesman. Paula Bates was found dead in a back bedroom, where she is thought to have died about two days after her husband.

Jack Bates’ body was in an advanced state of decomposition, according to police records. Police interviewed multiple neighbors, who all said it had been a while since they had last seen the couple.

One month before the Bateses’ deaths, police were called to an apartment building on U.S. 31 West By-Pass, where an owner reporteda foul odor coming from one apartment.

Police tried to contact the tenant, Terry Fields, 61. Two people had last seen Fields in early August. At that time, Fields complained of stomach pain. Police entered the apartment and found Fields’ decomposing body, along with evidence that Fields might have suffered fatal gastrointestinal bleeding.

Police found Fields five days after he last spoke to his son, records show.

On Aug. 9, BGPD received a call from a woman concerned about her adult son, whom she hadn’t talked to in 11 days. He had complained of pain in his legs. When police arrived at the McGregor Court apartment of Zachary Navaroli, 21, they found him dead in his bed. His cellphone was open to a text message conversation he’d had with a woman six days earlier. Results of his autopsy are pending.

Deaths that go unnoticed are becoming more common as the area’s population grows, Kirby said.

“It’s happening on our city blocks where there are people in and out all the time,” he said. “We don’t really know our neighbors. If you see something out of the normal, ... you might want to check on them. There have been several cases where the lights have been turned off and nobody checked on them.”

Kirby urges neighbors to watch out for one another.

“If the car is not moved, just go check and hopefully someone will check on you as well,” he said. “These people that we found in those situations, it’s sad that they have no connection to the outside world in some way. A lot of people choose that. But if you have somebody that’s living close to you and living in your neighborhood and notice something” out of place, say something.

Community Action of Southern Kentucky operates a courtesy call service, Telephone Reassurance, for the elderly, said Sandi Knight, program director for senior services at Community Action.

A person can call and sign up for the service, or a relative or friend can call and set it up for someone else. A volunteer will then call daily or at regular, agreed-on intervals. If the caller is unable to reach that person, a Community Action volunteer will call either that person’s emergency contact or a police agency and request a welfare check, Knight said.

The service is available for free to anyone 60 or older living in the 10-county Barren River Area Development District region. Currently, about 50 people are enrolled in the program. Anyone interested may call 270-782-3162 to set it up for themselves or a loved one or friend.

There was a man who signed up for the service and wanted a daily phone call because he was afraid of dying unnoticed. The last phone call that Community Action made to him was the day an ambulance was there to take him to a hospital, where he died.

“His fear was that he would die and nobody would know it,” Knight said. “So we were able to meet his need right up until the end.”

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