Home Sick

Is this crazy, or what? The only way Mildred Bennett can get her house back is to prove she's mentally disabled.

After examining Bennett's medical records late last year, for instance, one physician, Dr. J. Gary May, concluded that she simply wasn't crazy enough to be protected by the "legal disability" law. The evidence, explained the expert for the company that had evicted her, was that after her eviction, Bennett confessed to a social worker that "she did not pay taxes so that she would have money for food." May reasoned that while having to make such a choice was "sad," it also reflected Bennett's ability to think straight.

ADA Corporation, which acquired Bennett's tax liens and then evicted her, declines to discuss the case. "We don't like publicity," says a representative for the Denver company. "You won't get anything from this office." In a recent legal filing, a lawyer for the company argued that ADA has "merely exercised its legal rights in a permissible manner."

But if a law that gives disabled people a break on their taxes doesn't apply to Mildred Bennett, then to whom does it apply?

Here is Mildred Bennett in 1959. She is newly married. Her tall, simple wedding cake stands sandwiched between her and her husband. And here she is in another black-and-white photograph, standing next to her second husband. He is watering the front yard of 103 West Byers Place with a hose. It is October, but warm. The yard is neat, well-kept. He wears a short-sleeved shirt. He is thin. She is wearing a plaid button-down blouse and loose pants that end at her calves. She is grinning shyly; her left arm is around her husband's waist.

Here is Mildred Bennett in a picture with a handwritten date on the back: November 1996--eviction day. She is tiny and drawn-looking and wears a loose, dirty housecoat. She is standing in the doorway of her house, surrounded by five policemen. They are looking down at the ground, as though they'd rather be anyplace but here. Mildred's face wears a look of utter defeat, humiliation and sadness.

The 37 years that passed between the pictures is a long time, long enough for anyone to change. But what happened to Mildred Bennett?

It will always be a mystery. Mildred's mind is like a library whose card catalogue is in disarray. Entire categories are missing. Who were the men in her life, for instance?

"I never knew my dad; that's one of the things I never could find out from her," says George Bennett, her son. He is 34. "I said, 'You don't even have any pictures of him?' But she didn't, so I don't know anything about him." George thinks his mother may have had two husbands; she has told others it was three.

Mildred's parents, Arthur and Leona, moved to Denver from Kansas, buying the handsome Victorian house on West Byers in 1949. (There is a crisp, yellowing, flat-light picture of them in 1901; her father has a round, bald head and a handlebar mustache.) Perhaps they knew that someday, even after they were gone, Mildred would need their help, because they put the property in her name right from the beginning. Arthur and Leona died in the 1960s, and Mildred never moved away from the family's house.

Neither did George, with the exception of a short period in the late 1970s. "One day, when I was fourteen years old, Social Services just came and knocked at the door," he recalls. "I had stopped going to school--I was told it was something about chronic depression." George bounced around a half-dozen reformatories and treatment centers for four years. When he was eighteen, he left the system and returned to West Byers Place, where he stayed for the next fifteen years.

It was about the time that George moved back in, or shortly thereafter, that Mildred started to change. She was never sociable: "I'm a shy person," she would tell George when he asked why she never went out for a beer or bowling with her co-workers after her shift was over at the hotel. But in the early 1980s, the shyness seemed to condense and harden into suspicion.

"Say there'd be two guys walking across the street from the house, just talking to each other," George recalls. "She'd see them out the window, and she'd start rushing around the house, slamming doors and muttering to herself. I'd say, 'What's the problem, Mom?' And she'd tell me that they were after her stuff, that they were going to rob us.

"I couldn't give you a definition of what it is she has," he adds. "There's something, though. Some days she's perfectly coherent, can hold a perfectly fine conversation. Other times, though...If you met her, you'd see. There's definitely something there." (Mildred Bennett declined requests for an interview.)

Mildred was working at the old Fairlane Hotel in 1987 when her eyesight failed. She was taken from her job to the hospital, where a doctor diagnosed her with macular degeneration in one eye and a detached retina in the other. She had several surgeries, but the disease was relentless and chronic, and her sight never fully returned.

She stopped working--she couldn't open her locker at the hotel--and began living off of Social Security payments. During the day Mildred would look at the television or, if it was warm, walk around outside the house. "I had to quit [Emily Griffith] Opportunity School to take care of her and work part-time, which was the beginning of our inability to keep up with the property taxes," George wrote last spring in a letter responding to a summons from ADA Corporation.

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