Home Sick

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

Mildred Bennett was born to royalty. She is the child of a Russian czar--the proof, she tells you, being a birthmark on her back. George Washington is her grandfather. One of her husbands was the king of Spain; she was the queen. A second husband was a king of France, and she is a member of the royal House of Burbridge.

But on November 14, 1996, this daughter of nobility met an ignoble fate. The 71-year-old Bennett was evicted from her home on West Byers Place by two Denver sheriff's deputies and several police officers. She had owned the two-story, turn-of-the-century Victorian house in the Baker neighborhood outright ever since her parents bought it for her in 1949, when Harry Truman was president and she was 24 years old. But by late 1996, Bennett hadn't paid her property taxes to Denver County for several years running, and a company that had bought her tax bills at auction was eager to get on with things.

Mildred Bennett wore only a housecoat that day. It flew open as she resisted the officers. (One deputy she kicked; she slapped another.) Bennett eventually had to be restrained on an ambulance gurney. Later, when they wrote their report, the officers described her appearance and behavior during the eviction: "Angry...Dirty. Antagonistic. Suspicious. Insulting. Rambling. Nonsensical." Her home "looked like the inside of a dumpster." Mouse shit coated the floors.

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Bennett's housekeeping hadn't always been so revolting. In fact, for most of her life she had worked as a maid in a half-dozen nearby hotels, cleaning the rooms of departing guests, invisibly efficient. But in 1988 she was forced to stop work after she lost much of her eyesight to a degenerative disease. She describes her vision as unsuccessfully trying to see around a big white spot in the center of her eye.

Work was Bennett's opportunity to get out into the world, an excuse to interact with life outside her home. When she stopped going to her job, she withdrew. She became more and more isolated and paranoid. Her telephone service was cut off when she didn't pay her bill. For varying periods of time, so were her gas and electricity. As her contact with the outside world dwindled, her mind appeared to collapse in on itself.

When Evelyn Wolf moved into the house across the alley from Bennett in 1990, it was clear to her that her neighbor was out of her mind. "She never spoke to anybody," Wolf says. "She would wander around in her bathrobe and nightgown, picking up cigarette butts and trash. There was always a stream of homeless people who would come and go from the house."

After Bennett's eviction, Wolf walked across the alley and looked inside the empty house. Trash was everywhere. In places, piles of garbage reached toward the ceiling. "I don't know where she could have even lay down," Wolf says. The charred residue of a years-old fire remained on the stove; the stove itself looked as though it hadn't been turned on in years. "And you could tell the toilets weren't used," she adds. (Actually, they were; a physician who interviewed Bennett later found that she "obtained water for drinking and to fill the toilet by, among other things, catching rainwater that fell off her roof.")

"The place was like an insane asylum," Wolf concludes. "It was very crazy. Mildred looked crazy. She acted crazy. If you saw her walk down the street, you'd say to yourself, 'There is a crazy person.'"

Whether Mildred Bennett is crazy could mean the world to her. Since she was evicted from her home, several lawyers volunteering their time on her behalf have found a small, decades-old corner of the state's property-tax laws instructing that a person who is "legally disabled" should be given up to three times longer than others to pay her delinquent taxes before losing her home.

The problem is that nobody seems to know what "legally disabled" means or exactly how the statute should work. As best as anyone can tell, the law has never been applied before in Colorado. (One case filed last year in Denver District Court petered out.)

Bennett's case is scheduled to be heard next week in Denver District Court, but it has already raised legal questions. "How much legal disability do you have to have to not pay your taxes?" wonders Assistant City Attorney Patrick Wheeler. "I don't know."

Wheeler says he has other concerns. If Bennett wins her case, would it mean that in addition to collecting taxes, county treasurers would now be responsible for determining who is legally insane enough not to have to pay them? "How in the world would we know if a person was disabled?" Wheeler asks. "If that was the case, we'd have tons of people hitting us up like that."

So after a journey through a hospital psychiatric ward and a stay in a mental-health center, Mildred Bennett, who today pays $10 a day to live with a friend, has wandered into uncharted legal territory. As lawyers have jostled for advantage during the past year, the sometimes crazy logic used to prove a person legally insane has been amplified by the sharp realities of tax delinquency laws.

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.

In 1988 the Bennetts applied to the Colorado Housing Assistance Corporation for assistance, and the agency paid the Bennetts' property taxes that year. But later there was a mixup, and the agency never heard from the Bennetts again. George first learned that his mother had stopped paying her taxes when he picked up the mail one day and saw an official-looking notice from the Denver Treasurer's office. "I asked Mom what it was about, but she just brushed it off," he says.

On November 6, 1989, a company called Hannah Investment Corporation, owned by Mary Lou Paulsen, paid off Mildred Bennett's $769.23 tax bill (see story, page 12). In the years that followed, the company continued buying the liens on Bennett's property; by December 1994, Hannah had acquired tax liens on the West Byers Place home worth $6,374.22. The liens later were transferred to ADA Corporation, which is also owned by Paulsen.

It wasn't as though Bennett had anything against property taxes in particular. She stopped paying other bills, too, finding omens and conspiracies in the figures that arrived in the mail. "Mom stopped believing the numbers on them," George explains. She quit paying the gas bill when she noticed six different pipes attached to her house and concluded that her neighbors had secretly arranged for her to pay their bills.

"I tried to tell her what was happening," George says. "But she's got an attitude. Two and two is four. But if she tells you that two and two is seven, well, it's seven. That's her."

As the warning letters from ADA piled up, "I let things go after a while, I admit it," says George. "I knew what was happening, so I just said, 'What the hell; we're going to lose the house soon anyway.' I'd just kick the trash around."

At about 9 o'clock on the morning of November 14, 1996, a policeman knocked on the door of the Bennett house and told George and Mildred that they were to be evicted. "I knew what was going on, and I tried to give her the blow-by-blow," George recalls. "I told her, 'Mom, at least wear some clothes.' But she didn't believe it, didn't understand it."

"She refused to go," recalls Wolf, who observed the eviction from next door. "She said they were going to have to drag her out of there, so that's what they did. She was at the door, screaming 'Help!' and crazy things--things that didn't make any sense."

After the ambulance pulled away with Mildred inside, a moving company hired by ADA arrived. They packed up everything in the house and put it out in the front yard. All the loose papers--family photos, personal letters--were stuffed into plastic garbage bags and thrown outside. As passersby saw what was happening, they stopped their cars and trucks in front of the house and began loading up the Bennetts' possessions to take them home.

"I tried to stop them, but after a while I gave up," George recalls. "One guy had the nerve to ask me to help him load our refrigerator into his truck. I explained to him what was going on. But he just shrugged and said, 'That's sad, but...'"

George keeps a picture of his room just before it was wiped clean during the eviction. The walls and ceiling are plastered with his drawings of fighter jets and movie posters. There is the classic movie still from Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on their chopped bikes, cruising down the highway.

Underneath that picture is an intricate blue-pen drawing. "I wish I had taken that off the wall and saved it," says George, who recently began a job detailing cars at a Denver dealership. "I put a lot of time into that drawing."

Mildred Bennett was taken by ambulance to Denver Health Medical Center, where she was admitted on a 72-hour involuntary hold. During her initial evaluation, she told a doctor that he was "part of the criminal team" and that "she will go back home no matter what the police said." Two weeks later she began seeing Dr. Elizabeth Cookson, a staff psychiatrist, who counseled Bennett through her release on January 10, 1997.

To Cookson, there was little doubt that her new patient did not see reality as others did. "She never appeared to understand the loss of her house," the psychiatrist wrote in an evaluation. "She maintained at various times that HUD was responsible for paying her taxes and that she believed them to be up-to-date; that a group of Mexicans, Arabs and/or Asians had harassed her for years and planned a 'con job' to take her house; and that the judge handling the case was also a fake.

"She could not care for her own hygiene (bathing, doing laundry) without assistance. She was unable to manage her own funds. She never accepted having a psychiatric diagnosis and never showed an understanding of the reason for hospitalization."

From Denver Health, Bennett was moved to Fort Logan, where she was admitted to a psychiatric facility. In June, with no place else to go, she moved in with George, who was staying with a family friend on Knox Court.

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.

So Bennett would probably sell the house, which Myrick says he is still interested in acquiring--he doesn't care from whom. Last fall he proposed putting $75,000 in an escrow account, with the money to go to either ADA or Bennett, depending on who won the court case. In the meantime, he suggested, he could get on with fixing up the house. But that suggestion was shot down by ADA, he says.

As for Bennett's sanity, common sense is a sane enough test for him. Why live like Mildred Bennett if you didn't have to? "A mentally competent person would've sold that home," Myrick says, "got some money and found someplace else to live.

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