Home Sick

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

While Bennett was moving from place to place, ADA Corporation had found a buyer for 103 West Byers Place. The Baker neighborhood was becoming hot, and Bill Myrick, who fixes up old homes to supplement his income as a window installer, had had his eye on Mildred Bennett's house for several years.

"It's a beautiful house," he says. "Well, it's got the potential; you've got to put on your magic glasses. I've been inside it a few times since Mildred was evicted, and it's dilapidated; it was squalor. It needs all new plumbing, electric, several other new systems."

About three years ago he began sending Mildred letters, offering to buy the place. She never wrote back. Once, in 1995, he drove by and saw an old woman outside sweeping and pulling weeds. (Wolf says when the weather was nice that Mildred would come outside at about 9:30 or 10 a.m., dressed in a housecoat with her hair done up in little-girl bows or pigtails.)

"So I pulled up and stepped out of my truck to introduce myself," Myrick remembers. "I said 'Hi.' I hadn't got the words out of my mouth when she yelled, 'I'm not selling!' and lifted up her broom in a menacing manner, like she was going to come after me. At that point I realized she wasn't interested in negotiating." (One neighbor says that he and Mildred never spoke--she just hissed at him when they encountered each other.)

Myrick kept track of the property anyway. When he learned that ADA Corporation had acquired the treasurer's deed in early 1995, he approached the company in June and made an offer. After negotiating, they agreed on $75,000. When ADA tried to clear up the title on the house, however, Mildred, through a contact at Fort Logan, was put in touch with Legal Aid.

Since then, attorneys for both ADA and Mildred have busied themselves trying to get a handle on Mildred Bennett's state of mind. If she is crazy enough to be legally disabled under the state law, then she gets an opportunity to sell the house herself, pay off the old taxes and keep the change. If not, ADA Corporation keeps the home--and any profit from its sale.

Reading through psychiatrists' professional opinions of Mildred Bennett, it is difficult to believe they are describing the same person. "She is a paranoid schizophrenic," Dr. Sheila Deitz decisively concluded last fall, after interviewing Bennett and reviewing her medical records.

"Paranoid schizophrenia is not a disorder that comes on suddenly, and it most likely did not with [Mildred Bennett]," Deitz added. "It is a long-term illness that may date back to her late teens or early twenties, at the latest."

Indeed, even if Bennett is found to be mentally incompetent, the point at which she lost her mind is crucial. In order for the "legal disability" protection to apply, she must have been insane in 1995, when ADA claimed ownership of her house with the Denver Treasurer's office. According to ADA's medical expert, she wasn't.

In fact, after reading through her medical history, Dr. J. Gary May, the physician who examined Bennett's medical records for ADA, determined that her mental deterioration began only last November--not coincidentally, at the same time that she was pulled out of her house. Bennett's bizarre behavior, he concluded, was "likely generated by the eviction."

Bennett could also qualify as disabled if she were proven to be legally blind, and medical experts for both sides have spent time arguing over her sight as well. "At various times she had vagrants and other people whom she did not know living at her house," Deitz pointed out. "There were mice feces present in the house, and she was not aware of them. Her hygiene was terrible. The unsanitary conditions, strangers or the perception of strangers in the house, lack of basic services, coupled with Mrs. Bennett's blindness, among other things, eventually created a dangerous condition for Mrs. Bennett."

The doctor who operated on Bennett's eyes a decade ago agreed. "The surgery I performed likely did not correct her vision to better than 'counting fingers,'" John Kloor wrote two weeks ago. Bennett "was legally blind in October 1987, and remains legally blind to this day."

Yet May has countered that, although Bennett might have had some trouble seeing, she wasn't blind in 1995. "She may have not been able to see the condition of the house well enough to know its condition let alone clean it," he wrote. "That may have been particularly true regarding something as small as mouse feces."

But, he added, "this issue alone does not in and of itself mean she was impaired to the degree" that she could be considered legally disabled under the state law.

In February 1997 ADA sued Mildred Bennett to get clear title to her property. The case, which will be heard by Judge Edward Simons, is scheduled to begin January 26 and last four days. At the end of it, the judge will have to decide if, in 1995, Bennett met the vague and heretofore untested definition of "legally disabled" because she was blind or mentally incompetent. If Simons determines she was either, then Bennett will have until the year 2004 to pay ADA the back taxes on her house, which she will still own; lawyers for Bennett, however, agree that she would not be capable of living at 103 West Byers Place again.

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