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Corpse find prompts fraud charge

Burton Smith, 83, died alone while sitting in a recliner inside his Marion County mobile home. Nobody knew.

Nobody, that is, except Patricia G. Smith.

Authorities said Mrs. Smith, a caretaker not related to the deceased, covered the upright corpse with a blanket and allowed it to secretly decompose in place.

Mrs. Smith, who lived in an adjacent mobile home, then spent the next 12 months and perhaps longer raiding thousands of dollars from Burton Smith's bank account and forging his signature on numerous personal checks, authorities said.

When curious neighbors inquired, Mrs. Smith said her elderly friend was alive, well and traveling the western United States in a motor home.

The scheme unraveled late last week. The woman who manages the mobile home park where Burton Smith and Patricia Smith lived became suspicious and called the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

Hours later, the manager and a deputy shined a flashlight inside Burton Smith's mobile home and made the discovery.

"Oh, my God. That's him. He's in there dead," said the manager, Laura Roth.

Sheriff's spokesman Lenny Uptagraft said the body was in a "mummified" state.

After studying the autopsy report, interviewing witnesses and piecing together records, authorities determined that Smith had been dead more than a year.

Deputies arrested Mrs. Smith, 50, and charged her with organized fraud, obstructing law enforcement without violence and failure to report a death. She remained at the Marion County jail late Monday with bail set at $5,500.

The Sheriff's Office reached Burton Smith's son in Michigan, but a reporter was unable to make contact Monday. He also has a daughter, but contact information was unavailable.

The news was unsettling for residents of the Shady Acres Adult Mobile Home Park in rural Marion County.

"It still gives me goosebumps," Roberta Simonton said Monday.

Burton Smith's home sits beneath huge shade trees just 100 feet from the park's trash bin. One resident said he had sometimes noticed an odd smell but assumed it was rotting garbage.

Miss Roth, the manager, said she and many park residents didn't notice anything unusual about the past year. After all, Burton Smith was seldom seen around the park.

Known as Burt, Smith had lived there 20 years. "He was a very private man, very reclusive. He didn't socialize with his neighbors," Miss Roth said.

Smith's closest companion was Patricia Smith, who moved to the park with her husband, Bob, in 1996.

A year later, the couple bought a mobile home adjacent to Burton Smith's and began doing odd jobs for their elderly neighbor.

Mrs. Smith, whom Miss Roth described as a"busybody," started accompanying her new friend on errands. The Smiths visited their elderly friend in the hospital after he suffered a stroke.

Burton Smith eventually asked park management to give his mailbox key to Patricia Smith. He also granted her power of attorney, the Sheriff's Office reported, and allowed her to drive his car.

About a year ago, Miss Roth recalled, Mrs. Smith "went around and told everyone that Burt went out West with some friends traveling in a motor home."

Mrs. Smith dropped off rent checks _ he owned the mobile home but rented the lot for $110 a month _ that Burton Smith supposedly had signed.

According to authorities, those weren't the only checks bearing the deceased's supposed signature.

Miss Roth heard rumors that Mrs. Smith was enlisting another park resident to help cash checks at a Wildwood bank. She questioned the other resident, who confirmed that Mrs. Smith had given him checks drawn on Burton Smith's account.

He said he cashed the checks, which were made out to him, then gave Mrs. Smith the money.

This happened once a month, he told Miss Roth. The amounts usually were between $1,500 and $2,000.

Burton Smith, a retired General Motors employee, drew a $2,000 monthly pension from GM. The money was directly deposited into his bank account, the Sheriff's Office said.

Miss Roth said she called authorities Thursday, immediately after she learned what was happening. She feared that Mrs. Smith was stealing from the elderly man.

Mrs. Smith told a deputy that Burton Smith contacted her once a month and asked her to send the money she received from the cashed checks. She said she honored his wish.

But that story didn't hold up long. Moments later, Miss Roth accompanied deputies to Burton Smith's residence to conduct a standard well-being check.

"I really believed that he was gone (out West), like she said," Miss Roth said.

Could a body really decompose more than a year, in the Florida heat, without anyone outside noticing?

Anthony Falsetti, director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida, is not working on this case. But he said it was quite possible that the body tissues, left in a closed-in space away from insects and circulating air, could dry out, or mummify, in the hot air.

"If that occurs, there would be relatively little odor," he said. "I"ve seen it before in several cases in Florida."

Mrs. Simonton, the park resident, said this episode should remind everyone to check on their elderly neighbors, especially those who live alone.

She checks on a friend at the park once a month. In the future, she said, "I'm going to try to do it a little more often."