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Mentally disabled man lived with mother’s body for months

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
November 2, 2004

The last moments of Vilma Saul’s life may never be known. The body of the 87-year-old woman was found badly decomposed last week in the master bedroom of the Terra Linda home she shared with her son, Paul.

Paul, 57, is her only surviving relative and, according to the executor of her estate, Gunnar Ellam, she had no known friends.

San Rafael police officers arrived at the Saul residence, located at 452 Hibiscus Way in Terra Linda, after receiving a call from a concerned neighbor at 6:20 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17.

According to SRPD spokeswoman Margo Rorhbacher, the neighbor said Vilma had not been seen in several months, and a substantial amount of garbage was piling up outside the home.

“When the officers got there, they went to the front of the house,” Rohrbacher said. “Mr. Saul had to step over garbage to greet them. He met them at the door, they talked to him, and they went inside. As soon as they got inside the door, there was an overpowering smell in the house.”

Officers asked Paul whether Vilma was still alive, but he was unable to answer their questions. “He didn’t seem to understand what they were asking,” she said. “He was just saying, ‘Well, well,’ and was obviously confused and disturbed. Maybe he was startled at first. But later, he calmed down, and they were able to talk to him more.”

Paul told the officers that his mother had probably died before Memorial Day. He reported that she had fallen in the bathtub, and he carried her body to the bed, later realizing she had died. When asked why he didn’t call the police at that point, he reported that Vilma had made her own funeral arrangements and he couldn’t find the card upon which she had written that information.

Rohrbacher said that water, sewer, garbage and electrical services at the home had been cut off, although she did not know why. However, between the accumulation of garbage and the decomposition of Vilma’s body — all during the hot summer months — “the smell was overwhelming,” she said. “It was quite a scene.”

According to a spokesperson in the Marin County coroner’s office, the cause of Vilma’s death could not be determined because of the skeletonized nature of her remains. “She was 87, and very ill,” the spokesperson said. Foul play is not suspected, and Paul is not considered at fault. Rohrbacher confirmed that the case is not being treated as a criminal matter.

Vilma’s body was removed by Abbey Mortuary, and Paul was taken to the Marin County Crisis Unit because he is unable to care for himself. “He will be treated appropriately [based on] whatever his mental or physical state requires,” Rohrbacher said.

Vilma had prepared a will and named Ellam her executor, although that has not been confirmed by the court, Ellam said. “She didn’t have any friends that I know of,” he added. “That’s part of the reason why her body wasn’t discovered.”

Ellam said he last saw the Pauls four or five years ago. Rather than a funeral, Ellam is considering a simple burial for Vilma. The Pauls have a family plot at Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, but Vilma’s final resting place has not yet been chosen.

Rohrbacher said she is not aware of any other cases like this one. “Sometimes neighbors call us and say, ‘I haven’t seen an elderly neighbor of mine,’ and it’s someone who lives alone and has died. But in a case where someone was living with them, I don’t remember any.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 2, 2004 at 8:39 PM

Posted in Crime, San Rafael

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