Home Sick

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.

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."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer