Last year, a week before Thanksgiving, a man in Cape Canaveral bought in a foreclosure auction a two-story stucco run-down townhouse on a short, straight street called Cherie Down Lane. He went to see his purchase he hoped to fix up and sell.
He found in the kitchen dishes stacked so high on the counter they almost touched the bottoms of the cabinets. In the living room on the carpet was a towel with two plates of mold-covered cat food. Empty orange pill bottles were everywhere. In front of the couch, open on a single TV tray, was a Brevard County Hometown News, dated July 24, 2009.
Both bedrooms were the same: stuff strewn all over, clothes and fake flowers and plants and a dusty treadmill pushed into a far corner, a mattress propped against tightly shut drapes, and stacks and stacks of books, about religion, about weight loss, about wiping out debts and making fresh starts.
Next to the door to the garage was a bulletin board with a 13-year-old receipt from Home Depot and an inspirational quote: "I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent."
He opened the door to the garage.
Inside was an old silver sedan. The doors were locked. He looked inside and saw a white blanket on the back seat. There was a pillow on the floor. Hanging from the rearview mirror was an air freshener shaped like a pine tree. Wedged against the console was a thin white candle. He stopped on what he saw in the passenger seat: the mummified body of what looked like a woman.
The call to the Sheriff's Office came on Nov. 18, 2010, just before noon. The townhouse, deputies learned, had belonged to a woman named Kathryn Norris, and the 1987 silver Chevy Nova was registered to her, too. She had used a normal amount of electricity in July 2009 and much less in August and none after that. She had paid her mortgage in August and then stopped. Her head was on the floor and her feet were on the seat. The corpse, deputies wrote in their report, was wearing a dress.
Television trucks showed up. Local reporters talked to her neighbors.
The neighbors said that they seldom saw her but that for more than a year they hadn't seen her at all. One called her "a little strange." Another said she "just disappeared."
How could a woman die a block from the beach, surrounded by her neighbors, and not be found for almost 16 months?
How could a woman go missing inside her own home?
• • •
Kathryn Norris moved to Florida in 1990. She was intelligent and driven, say those who knew her back in Ohio, but she could be difficult. She held grudges. She had been laid off from her civil service job, and her marriage of 14 years was over, and so she came looking for sunshine. She knew nobody. Using money from her small pension, she bought the Cherie Down townhouse, $84,900 new. It was a short walk to the sounds of the surf and just up A1A from souvenir stores selling trinkets with messages of PARADISE FOUND.
She started a job making $32,000 a year as a buyer of space shuttle parts for a subcontractor for NASA. She went out on occasion with coworkers for cookouts or cocktails. She talked a lot about her ex-husband. She started having some trouble keeping up at the office and was diagnosed in December of 1990 as manic depressive.
After the diagnosis, she made daily notes on index cards. She ate at Arby's, Wendy's, McDonald's. Sometimes she did sit-ups and rode an exercise bike. She read the paper. She got the mail. She went to sleep at 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. Her heart raced.
"Dropped fork at lunch," she wrote.
"Felt depressed in evening and cried."
"Noise outside at 4 a.m. sounded like a dog."
She found it difficult to focus when she went back to work. She told people all the pills to settle her moods made her feel like she was taking whole bottles of Nyquil. There were times when she just sat at her desk. She was demoted. In the summer of 1993, she spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, where she was under suicide watch. She visited her sister in Ohio to try to get well. She went back to work in the fall. It wasn't long, though, before she was let go.
Stronger pills made her sluggish. She slept constantly. She gained weight on her 5-foot-1 frame, 150 pounds, 160 pounds. "I'll be fine here," she wrote to her sister, "until April 1994 when the unemployment runs out."
She met a man at the post office that May. They were married in October.
• • •
Bill Kunzweiler was 15 years older. Their marriage was more utilitarian than romantic. They lived in the Cherie Down townhouse, and he was to pay the mortgage, and she would provide "wife-type services and support," is how she put it. He had his activities, softball, garage sales, Sundays at the Baptist church, and she had done some of those things during their brief courtship. Not anymore. They didn't sleep well together. She snored. He wiggled. He had told her he'd been married three times, but the number, she discovered, was actually 11. She was the second Kathryn. She moved into the other bedroom and locked the door.
They separated in June of 1995. He called her a money grubber. She called him a fraud and a predator of lonely women like herself.
When she was alone, she explained during a divorce hearing in 1996, she grew unreliable and reclusive.
"I have learned I attach myself to one person," she said, "and they become my safety person."
And if there's no safety person?
"I stay within my home."
• • •
She did go outside and leave the townhouse, occasionally, to go to the doctor, to go pick up pills, to go get takeout from Olive Garden or Outback, to go to Walmart to buy things she didn't need, like eight of the same dresses, mostly so she could take them back later. She worked some in her garden during the day, planting trees of lemons, limes and tangelos. She once walked across the street and gave a neighbor a banana tree. Late at night, she dragged her garbage can to the end of her driveway, wearing her housecoat, and neighbors heard her call for her cats. She set up cinder blocks in front of her yard that said NO PARKING. She put boards on her windows for hurricanes and left them there for months.
Inside, as a year became five and as five became 10, she saved coupons and recipes, birthday cards and Christmas cards. She lived on dwindling savings and her small pension and $526 a month of Social Security disability pay. She had credit card bills and owed doctors money and had trouble paying them back. She made contributions to the Christian Broadcasting Network. She joined AARP. She started sleeping on the couch.
She sued a man who years before had bumped her in the parking lot of a Cocoa Beach Publix. A judge dismissed it because the man was now dead. She continued to haggle over money with her second ex-husband. She accused a man she had worked with of sexual harassment. She sued her former company for back pay.
"And your ability of clear judgment is impaired?" an attorney for her old company asked her in a deposition.
"Still," she said, "yes."
She hired attorneys and then stopped responding to them. She stopped paying them. She filed motion after motion in courts, on her own, which judges dismissed as nonsense. She stopped showing up for court hearings. She didn't go to scheduled depositions. "Avoiding service," process servers wrote in their notes. "Defendant is barricaded in her condo."
Her brother-in-law called to tell her that her mother was ill and near death. She didn't answer the phone. This was in 2002. He called the Sheriff's Office to get a deputy to go to the townhouse to let her know. She didn't answer the door. He called the Sheriff's Office again two days later to tell her that her mother had died. She didn't answer the door.
Finally, in 2003, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest for contempt of court because of the missed depositions and hearings, and deputies managed to coax her out of the townhouse, taking her away in the back of a cruiser. The arrest report said her hair was brown and her build was "stout." She now weighed 220 pounds. She was sentenced to a week in county jail.
Neighbors talked. They decided she had been arrested for using the Internet to steal people's identities. It wasn't true, but she was on the Internet, leaving wee-hours posts on genealogy forums like Cousin Connect and Ancestry.com.
At the time, she was around 50 years old, and totally disabled. Her mental illness and now also a thyroid condition and a circulatory disease left her aching and fatigued, with dry skin, a dull mind and a slow heart. She was not who she was. The Internet didn't have to know.
"I am the grandchild of Joseph Mulford and Elizabeth Downey," she wrote on Ancestry.com.
"I am the granddaughter of Zelma's oldest sister."
"I have copies of many of the Yenger family records."
"I am very eager to talk with you."
She ripped out a page from the local section of Florida Today, on Aug. 18, 2006, and underlined information about free adult games of Scrabble, checkers and cards. "Come out and enjoy a game with friends," it said, "or just socialize and meet new people."
She started making long phone calls back to Ohio, 85 minutes, 134 minutes, 200 minutes. She called her friend from high school and for hours she stayed on the phone as her friend recovered from knee surgery. She called her first husband, Jim Norris, to try to make amends, she told him, and he kept answering her calls because it sounded like she needed someone to talk to. She called her nephew, Brent Henninger, more than anybody else, he said, and he tried unsuccessfully to make her stop crying. He told her he was going to come down from Ohio to visit, but she told him no, please.
"I won't let you in."
• • •
Toward the end, in the last few years, she called the Sheriff's Office to say a white truck was parked in front of her townhouse. She called to say now it was a black car. She called to say her water line was broken and she couldn't shut it off. She called to say there was somebody outside in the dark, pounding on her windows, and she was home alone and scared, and now there were two voices, and the pounding was getting louder. A deputy was sent to Cherie Down Lane. Nothing. She didn't answer the door.
She put up a camera by her front door and a camera on her back porch. She watched a monitor inside. She drilled holes in her garage door so she could look out without others looking in.
On July 23, 2009, she called the Sheriff's Office again to say she believed her ex-husband and some of her neighbors had conspired to make her car stop running. A deputy went to check and concluded there were no signs of vandalism or mischief and the car was just old and broken down.
She started writing a letter to a friend. The last couple months, she said in her shaky-handed writing, had been confusing. She no longer knew what was real. She never sent the letter. She called her nephew and left a message. It's Aunt Kathy. Everything between you and me is fine. I love you.
She left her car keys in her dark blue purse on the cluttered kitchen table. She went out to the garage. She shut off the electricity. She got in her car. Maybe she felt safe inside her locked townhouse, inside her locked garage, inside her locked car. The thin white candle was the only light. At some point, the flame flickered, then went out.
• • •
In Brevard County, in Cape Canaveral, and on Cherie Down Lane, where the affordable, same-shaped, sun-strained units are filled with retirees and winter-only residents and year-round tenants who struggle to pay the rent, here is some of what happened around Kathryn Norris over the next almost 16 months:
An elementary school started a new year, ended the year, started another. A space shuttle took off and came back five times. A neighbor saw her cats. A neighbor crossed the street and picked her limes. A neighbor noticed her garbage can hadn't moved. A neighbor saw some fluid leaking out from under the door to her garage and wondered if it was motor oil or something else. A neighbor had a Christmas party. A neighbor on New Year's Eve sat down on his couch and put a .22-caliber pistol to the side of his head behind his right ear. Pulled the trigger. People walked by to the beach.
Her nephew from Ohio called the Sheriff's Office in March 2010 and said he hadn't been able to get in touch with her, which wasn't so unusual, because once he and his family hadn't heard from her for two years, but now he was worried. A deputy went to the townhouse to check on her. No signs of forced entry. No insect activity on the windows. Nothing suspicious. She didn't answer the door.
A neighbor called the sheriff's office to say her gates were broken and the townhouse seemed vacant.
The bank foreclosed. People hired by the bank went inside and took pictures of her stuff. They took pictures of her car. That happened twice. "Diligent search and inquiry," they wrote. "Confirmed residence is unoccupied."
And Kathryn Norris had her 56th birthday. And her 57th. The summer heat made decomposition quick. Eager flies found ways inside, through tiny slits and vents, seeking their sustenance from the moisture of death. Her neighbors who shared a wall were still in Cincinnati for the summer. Winter months brought cooler weather. The air dried out, and so did she, as her skin turned brown and thick. The flies moved on. She could have stayed that way for years.
• • •
The man who found Kathryn Norris fixed up the Cherie Down townhouse and sold it in April to a woman from Orlando. She uses it as a weekend getaway for her family and friends. The neighbors hear their music and laughter. The woman says her neighbors seem friendly. The neighbors say so does she. They say hello.
• • •
The remains of Kathryn Norris had to be kept as evidence until the county finished the investigation of her death. That was just last month. The medical examiner identified her using DNA from her hair that matched DNA from her sister. She had no drugs in her system, but that was expected, given the extent of the decomposition.
The autopsy used words that were clinical and factual but also incomplete. Her remains were labeled unremarkable. The cause and manner of her death were listed undetermined.
The manner is a mystery. The cause is not.
She disappeared long before she died.
She was buried in Ohio. There was a short service. Her brief obituary said she would be missed.
• • •
About this story
This story is based on Brevard County sheriff's records, Brevard County and U.S. district court records, postings Kathryn Norris left on the Internet, notes, cards, letters and other items she left in the townhouse on Cherie Down Lane, and interviews with her nephew, her first husband, her second husband, her longtime friend in Ohio, the man she accused of sexual harassment, the man who found her in her garage, the woman who now owns the townhouse, her neighbors and an expert on decomposition.