CLEARWATER — In 1997, four police officers crawled across 6-foot-tall mounds of putrid garbage filling a North Tampa house, searching for the corpse of Ann Bunch.
The grandmother had died in a nursing home two years earlier and undertakers had embalmed her for burial at a family plot in Alabama. But after months of delays, her daughter and granddaughter had taken her from the funeral home in a U-Haul trailer and the body never arrived in Alabama.
Bunch's worried relatives eventually called Tampa detectives, who tracked the family to the house on Orleans Avenue. They spent days searching inside for Bunch's body, crawling through the 3-foot-tall opening between the ceilings and rotting trash.
They called it the "worst house in Tampa," more vile even than South Tampa's notorious "rat house."
"The rats at the rat house," a detective told the Times then, "wouldn't live in this place."
They didn't find Bunch's body. With the case growing cold, one officer filed a report on what they knew, mentioning one neighborhood rumor: Bunch's body, the officer wrote, was said to be in a "storage facility somewhere."
Last week, 15 years after that report was filed, police found Bunch's skeletal remains in a Clearwater U-Stor Self Storage unit, sealed in a homemade plywood coffin painted blue.
Bunch's granddaughter, Rebecca Ann Fancher, says the bizarre sepulcher was her mother's secret, revealed last year on her deathbed. Late on rent at U-Stor, Fancher told managers about her grandmother's stored coffin only when they sought to auction the contents of her unit, B8.
But archived records from the Tampa investigation in 1997 reveal even stranger details about Bunch's final destination.
After Bunch, born New Year's Day 1900, died in 1995, her relatives expected her daughter, Bobbie Hancock, would bring her to the cemetery at Summer Hill Baptist Church, outside Columbiana and south of Birmingham, where other family members are buried.
Clyde Swilley, founder of a Tampa funeral home, told police he embalmed Bunch's body at a cost of $545. Hancock, he said, asked to store Bunch at the funeral home until they could move her across state lines.
Sixteen months later, Swilley told police, Hancock made her first and only payment: $50. Then, for another six months, she disappeared.
One summer night in 1997, around 11 p.m., Hancock called Swilley to say she and her daughter, Fancher, were on their way to pick up Bunch. Convinced they were Alabama-bound, Swilley helped the family with the burial-transmit permit. Bunch was loaded into the U-Haul.
John Hardy, Bunch's great-nephew living in the Panhandle, told police in 1997 that Bunch's relatives believed her body was being kept "in cold storage" at Hancock's Tampa home. Fancher's son, Morgan Barnett, still remembers a room there that his mother strictly forbid him to enter.
But when police entered to begin their search, cutting through one padlocked door with bolt cutters, they never could find Bunch. Staggering piles of soiled clothes, cat-food bags and tattered newspapers, the officer wrote, made the home "impossible to dig through."
Hancock and Fancher, police wrote, were similarly hard to read. When questioned by police, Hancock said she had buried Bunch, then began rambling and stopped responding. That month, she told a woman at the Alabama cemetery that she was "watering down" Bunch's corpse in preparation for the burial.
Police searched elsewhere, including Hancock's rented unit at U-Stor East, near a cluster of Tampa graveyards. But their report never mentioned the Clearwater U-Stor, where Bunch was found Thursday in one of the family's three storage units, rented since 1985.
The Orleans Avenue home was condemned and demolished in 1998, and Hancock moved to Fancher's home on Clearwater's Alton Drive. In 2010, that home was also declared uninhabitable, with officials calling it "one of the worst houses we have ever gone into."
Hancock died last year of breast cancer, and Fancher took pictures of her burial in Alabama.
A Largo funeral home director said Fancher is meeting with him Wednesday to discuss disposal of Bunch's remains.
Ringed by mewing cats, the Fancher home reeks of urine and feces, and the garage door bulges with mold and blackened trash. Neighbors said Fancher is, like her mom, a hoarder: compelled to gather trash.
After Hancock was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, one neighbor gave Fancher and Hancock a hospital bed.
They said at the time there was no room in the house where it could fit. Four years later, it's still outside.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.