LEE COUNTY —
6200 block of St. Andrews Circle North
Gail Andrews admits she lived with her mother’s skeleton for 14 months in her run-down Fort Myers home, but contends that’s no reason for Lee County Code Enforcement officials to demolish it and leave her homeless.
Andrews was given until Tuesday to clean out her home before it was razed, but Lee County officials agreed Friday to cancel demolition after Andrews found a pro bono attorney, Matthew Toll of Cape Coral, who hired Alco Inc. and contractor Al Steel to bring the 50-year-old, two-bedroom home on St. Andrews Circle North up to code.
She now has until Sept. 17 to empty the interior and have her contractor pull permits to begin work.
“I’m just happy I’ve been given a 10-day reprieve,” Andrews, 61, said, adding that it would be devastating losing the house and possessions gathered over 36 years there. “I’m very good at monumental tasks. I have been given another two weeks and what I can accomplish in two weeks is astronomical.”
Andrews, a teacher for 20 years here, admits things piled up after she left her job to care for her ailing parents — her father, Andrew John Andrews, who died in 1999, at 83, and then her mother, Gladys, who died at 88.
Assistant County Attorney John Fredyma’s letter about the Tuesday deadline also gave Andrews the option of hiring a contractor to demolish the unsafe home or repair it.
Toll received the letter Sept. 31 and sent a letter Thursday to prove he’d found contractors who will work on credit. He threatened to sue if the demolition wasn’t canceled.
“We’re willing to work with her,” said Community Development Spokeswoman Joan LaGuardia. “We want to give her time to get some money together and see if she can save her home. However, this is a monumental task. ... She may not be able to save her home.”
LaGuardia said county officials wanted to be fair but must consider the concerns of neighbors, who complained of a foul odor, rats and cats roaming the overgrown property. “That’s why we’re walking this fine line — doing what is reasonable, balanced by what is compassionate,” she said. “... No one is going to move any faster than is compassionate and reasonable in this situation.”
The short deadline is because a county hired exterminator tented the home Aug. 23, ridding it of bugs, rats, mice and other pests. “We can’t afford a situation where the vermin move back in,” she explained.
No one knows what’s under piles inside the home, LaGuardia said, noting the roof is in poor condition, trusses may need to be replaced, and leaks have caused rot and mold. Officials believe more mold may lie inside.
“Just being out of that environment and breathing fresh air has been healthy for her,” LaGuardia said.
Andrews’ plight came to light after Lee County Sheriff’s deputies conducted a wellness check June 4 after neighbors repeatedly complained about rats and odors, reporting their belief that Andrews’ mother was dead and still inside.
Deputies smelled a foul odor, saw trash and rats and mice running around inside, according to a sheriff’s report, which says Andrews told them her mother was visiting relatives in Connecticut. A week later, deputies obtained a search warrant and found 88-year-old Gladys Andrews’ skeleton inside, wrapped in blankets.
Andrews was held in a psychiatric facility because county officials feared she’d be a danger to herself, but released after the maximum stay, three days.
“It was a very frightening experience, believe me,” said Andrews, who maintains she isn’t mentally ill and isn’t a hoarder, but feared she’d lose the home she couldn’t afford to maintain if anyone learned of her mother’s death.
“She died. I couldn’t bring her back, I couldn’t resurrect her,” she said, declining to talk about cashing her mother’s Social Security checks due to a pending investigation. “I knew the house would be demolished. I was just stalling for time. I was very ill.”
She’d cut her ankle doing a window repair required by code enforcement officials. It got infected, she couldn’t afford medical care, and got behind in maintaining the home due to difficulties bending and walking. For a year, two neighbors who have since taken her into their home picked up her groceries after she’d order them by phone from Publix.
“It’s been a difficult time, but there have been positive experiences,” said Andrews, citing the kindness of that couple. “They’ve been wonderful. They’re like my new parents. It’s a miracle.”
Another positive experience came when a minister inquired about her situation this week and she told him what she was going through.
“Within 24 hours, he had high school students there cleaning up the yard,” she said, adding that he’s offered their help inside once she gathers her possessions and valuables.
She’s cataloging what she wants to sell through Gulfcoast Coin & Jewelry Brokers, and will sell antique toys elsewhere. “I’m not going to make a tremendous amount, but every little bit helps,” she said.
Her neighbors let her store possessions in their home and she also has a studio behind her home.
Another miracle, she said, is Toll. She’d called several law firms and was about to give up when someone said his firm helps people in dire need without charge. “He’s been wonderful,” she said.
Toll said he plans to help her secure a reverse mortgage when she turns 62 in six months. A bank would buy an annuity, she’d receive payments over her lifetime, then the bank would take her home.
Speaking to Andrews, one wouldn’t think never think she’d lived with a corpse for 14 months.
Andrews said people are surprised when they meet her and realize she is the woman who lived with her mother’s corpse for 14 months.
“... To think my students are reading about me, that’s hard,” Andrews said. “... I feel totally transparent and exposed. Everybody knows.”
But she refuses to run away from her problems, as she and her parents did when their West Hartford, Ct., liquor store was robbed and her father nearly died after being shot in the chest. “I don’t want to run away a second time,” she said. “It doesn’t work. You have to deal with what’s there.”
She denies there was an odor because she’d wrapped her mother in blankets and never peeked inside, although she prayed over her.
“It was really nothing evil,” she explained. “Things like that happen. There was just not enough money to repair things. Things that should be attended to aren’t and you let it go and it goes on and on and then you’re in a horrible situation. Next thing you know, you have a mountain of stuff.”
“The property does need a lot of work, but it’s something that can be done” she added.
Anyone interested in helping Andrews by donating work or money, can call NAMI at 239-434-6726.