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Discovery of dead woman in storage unit unearths family's secret

Rebecca Ann Fancher’s grandmother’s remains were found in a storage facility.

DREW HARWELL | Times

Rebecca Ann Fancher’s grandmother’s remains were found in a storage facility.

CLEARWATER — When Ann Bunch, a 95-year-old grandmother, died in her nursing home after three heart attacks and a paralyzing stroke, her family took her to a funeral home to prepare her for burial.

Her grandson-in-law built a coffin-like plywood trunk, domed to allow for her dowager's hump. Her family painted it blue, her favorite color.

The family readied a Ford Econoline van for the nine-hour drive to Coloumbiana, Ala., where Bunch, born on New Year's Day 1900, was to be buried alongside her ancestors.

But on Thursday, 17 years later, police peered into a Clearwater U-Stor Self Storage unit stuffed with trash bags and old TVs and found a long blue box. Inside were Bunch's skeletal remains.

The story of what happened — of why Bunch's body was left to decompose in a hot brick storage unit just a short walk from an elementary school — begins with Bunch's granddaughter, Rebecca Ann Fancher.

Fancher, 54, of Clearwater said Friday she learned of Bunch's resting place from her mother last year as she was dying from Stage 4 breast cancer. Bobbie Barnett Hancock told her daughter she had been stopped from burying Bunch by rainstorms and a dysfunctional truck, Fancher said.

Embarrassed and distraught, Hancock stored Bunch in one of the family's storage units, a horrifying secret she kept until she was on her deathbed.

It all unraveled, Fancher said, when U-Stor managers demanding late rent told her they would auction the contents of Unit B8.

"You can't," Fancher recalled telling them. "So far as I know, my grandmother's in one of those units."

Police recovered Bunch's body and found nothing else suspicious, seemingly moving past the revelation of a burial gone horribly wrong.

But Fancher's ex-husband, John Setlow, who built Bunch's casket and now cares for his and Fancher's teenage son, said the story is darker than Fancher admits: Rooted in hoarding, driven by compulsion, the family kept Bunch where they could see her — even as she rotted away.

"Bobbie had trouble facing the fact that her mother was gone," Setlow said of his ex-mother-in-law. "They just couldn't part with her."

• • •

Bobbie Hancock was born on Christmas Day 1929, two months after the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Fancher said her mother lived a hardscrabble life in rural Alabama; as a girl, Hancock contracted rickets, a disease resulting from malnutrition.

As Hancock aged, she developed an irresistible urge to buy, find and keep things. She became a hoarder. It was her safeguard, Fancher said, against haunting memories of extreme poverty.

"She felt a compulsion to rescue and rehabilitate anything and everything that can be used," Fancher said. "She couldn't stand things being wasted."

Fancher, Hancock's only child, spent much of her life as her mother's caretaker, and together they contributed to the swelling piles swallowing their home on Alton Drive. In 1985, they rented their first of three units at the U-Stor on Lakeview Road, returning often to fill and refill.

After Bunch died in 1995, Fancher said, she never questioned why there was no funeral for her grandmother. Her mother, she said, told her "she would take care of it."

Nor, Fancher said, did she see the 6-foot-long box on her regular trips to the 10-by-10-foot unit at U-Stor. It was only last August, she said, that her mother admitted she had hired a day laborer in 1995 to, in Hancock's words, "help her move a big blue box."

• • •

Setlow, Fancher's ex-husband, remembers it differently. He remembers Bunch's body sitting at Tampa's Swilley Funeral Home for six months before Hancock loaded the blue box into her '65 Chevy pickup to take it home.

Setlow remembers his son, Morgan Barnett, living in the squalor of Hancock and Fancher's home as a boy. One room was kept constantly closed, and Barnett wonders now whether the room ever stored Bunch's body.

Now 19, Barnett struggles with rage at his mother's compulsion, Setlow said. Though he hasn't lived with Fancher for 14 years, Setlow still helps her scrap and recycle the junk in her home.

In 2010, county officials declared Hancock and Fancher's home uninhabitable. Inside they found ceiling-high trash, cockroach and spider infestations, 19 dogs and cats and a pungent stench of urine. One official told the Times it was "one of the worst houses we have ever gone into."

"Bobbie was a Class A hoarder," Setlow said, "and her daughter was brought up the same way. She didn't know any other way."

On Friday afternoon Setlow visited Fancher to tell her Bunch's body was at the Largo chapel of A Life Tribute, which handles the county's indigent cremations. As they talked, Fancher stood in her driveway near a blue Chevy Cavalier piled to the windows with old newspapers.

"I was doing what momma told me she wanted done," Fancher told him. Then she switched subjects to her storage units. "I hope they didn't break anything."

Bunch didn't want to be cremated, Fancher said, and her mother honored that wish the best she could. Letting Bunch burn now would be a terrible embarrassment, Fancher said — her mother will look down from heaven and find her a failure.

"She felt driven to do as her momma wanted. . . . We all want to do what our parents expect of us," Fancher said. Of Bunch, she added, "She wants to go home. I want to take her home."

Just how Fancher could pay for that is a mystery. She hasn't paid for the three U-Stor units, which cost about $319 a month, and her only income is from scrapping. She said she will start a new telemarketing job on Monday, her first real job since she worked as a "scareactor" at Busch Gardens' "Howl-O-Scream" in 2003.

Bunch's body, still in the handmade coffin, is awaiting its final destination. If Fancher can't pay for a burial, A Life Tribute will incinerate her remains.

Without ceremony, Bunch's ashes would be funneled into a clear bag, then placed in a white cardboard box. Then, within 120 days, a boat would sail three miles west, into the sunset, and her ashes would be scattered in the gulf.

Discovery of dead woman in storage unit unearths family's secret 01/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 11:31pm]
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