When Josette Buchman makes her way into her sister-in-law Rita Wolfensohn’s home, she’s shocked by what greets her there. There are piles of trash strewn about the place, for example, and their unappetizing smell mixes with the stench of decaying food. But even this assault on the senses can’t prepare Buchman for what she happens upon in the midst of the mess. On a mattress in the residence, there’s a strange outline – enough to raise alarm bells for Wolfensohn’s relative. And, shockingly, this sinister shape will ultimately put the family at the center of a potentially criminal mystery.
At first, Buchman’s visit to Wolfensohn’s home had been completely innocent. Wolfensohn had ended up in the hospital, you see, so her sister-in-law had entered her home in order to gather some of her personal effects. And it wasn’t a secret that Wolfensohn had a hoarding problem. The compulsion had led her to fill her home with so much trash, in fact, that it almost resembled a landfill.
On top of that, Wolfensohn was blind, meaning she couldn’t discern all that hid among her piles. And so it would take Buchman’s fateful visit in 2016 to reveal a shocking possibility about the woman who had lived inside the two-story residence. As it turns out, she may have hidden something more than just trash.
Wolfensohn’s home in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood may have seemed idyllic from the outside. The two-story brick house appeared to have all the trappings of a traditional American abode, for one, and its whopping $700,000 value as of 2016 meant its owner was sitting on a lucrative investment. Behind closed doors, however, tragedy had struck Wolfensohn and her family.
In 1987 Wolfensohn’s husband, Jesse, had passed away, leaving her to raise their two sons, Michael and Louis. Then, nearly a quarter-century later, the family lost another member, as eldest child Michael died in 2003 at just 38 years old. He wouldn’t be the last person to disappear from Wolfensohn’s life, either.
Indeed, according to relatives, no one had seen Wolfensohn’s younger son, Louis, since 1996. And it seemed, too, that some members of the family had grown distant from the mom as time had gone by. For example, her brother Joseph Buchman told the New York Post that he hadn’t been close to Wolfensohn for years.
Still, Joseph and his wife, Josette, stepped in to help Wolfensohn when she landed in an assisted living facility on Long Island. And, of course, it was Wolfensohn’s sister-in-law who trekked to Brooklyn to gather some belongings and bring them to the hospital. Once Buchman had entered the house, though, she realized the extent of the widow’s hoarding problem.
Hoarders tend to find it nearly impossible to let go of their things – even if those items have no value. Those who suffer from the disorder tend to squirrel away magazines, newspapers, cardboard boxes, clothes, plastic bags, household cleaners and supplies, photographs and more. On top of that, some hoarders shop compulsively or take home and store every free trinket they can.
However, hoarding symptoms stretch far beyond stockpiling belongings. You see, people with the disorder may also appear incredibly anxious when the time comes to throw things away or organize them. They may worry, too, if they think that they’re running low on something or get angry if someone touches the items they have accumulated over the years.
And there are multiple reasons why such a compulsion plagues people. For one thing, hoarders may believe that they’re gathering possessions they can ultimately use in the future. Others, meanwhile, may see their collections as having sentimental value or being full of bargains that they’d be a fool to discard.
Furthermore, some hoarders use their collections as memory banks. Specifically, they worry that if they throw an item away, they will no longer be able to remember special moments or people. And then there are those who can’t figure out where to put their belongings. Rather than discarding the piled-up supplies, then, they decide to keep everything instead.
It seems, too, that those who hoard may have other afflictions that encourage their behavior. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can trigger hoarding, for example, and that’s typically the case if an individual collects items because they fear contamination or because they have superstitious thoughts. OCD may also be a factor if a person becomes fixated on collecting many versions of a single object.
Hoarding could also have its roots in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, depression or Prader-Willi syndrome – a genetic condition that causes perpetual hunger, behavioral issues and intellectual impairment. In addition, hoarding tendencies have been shown to appear in those with eating disorders, people who eat non-food materials or patients suffering from dementia or psychosis.
Interestingly, though, many hoarders don’t see their compulsion as a problem – despite any differing opinions from their family and friends. Yet with the right intervention, therapy and medication, people with tendencies towards hoarding can finally overcome their compulsion to pile up things that they do or don’t need.
Until then, most hoarders live in conditions that are dysfunctional, unsafe and unsanitary. For instance, some will survive without heat or functioning appliances as they don’t want to let a repairman or woman into their homes. The many piles of stuff can also make it hard to move around, while some of the gathered goods can even facilitate devastating house fires.
And in Wolfensohn’s case, she not only had to deal with her hoarding problem, but also the fact that she was legally blind. You should realize, though, that it’s slightly different for a person to be blind in the eyes of the law as opposed to completely blind. Specifically, those in that first category have such poor vision that even contacts or glasses can’t sharpen their sight enough to reach a particular benchmark.
In the U.S., then, a person will be deemed legally blind based on two factors: their visual acuity – or their ability to see what’s in front of them – and their field of vision, which includes everything over, under and to the sides of their central viewing area. And if an individual’s central visual acuity measures at 20/200 or lower even when contacts or glasses are being worn, then they are deemed legally blind.
Someone can also fall into the legally blind category if their field of vision is smaller than 20 degrees. And in the U.S., many people suffer from low vision, meaning they see at 20/40 or worse even with corrective lenses. As of 2015, then, one million Americans are legally blind.
What’s more, in Wolfensohn’s case, her hoarding and blindness had combined to transform her Brooklyn home into an absolute mess. Indeed, in 2016 police officers told the New York Post that some spaces in the widow’s home looked as though “a garbage truck had dumped its load” inside.
And Wolfensohn’s sister-in-law got to experience this state of affairs for herself when she visited the home in 2016. When she walked in, she was met with the smell of decaying food that had been left behind by the widowed mother of two. Trash and debris also littered the property, making Buchman’s job of gathering Wolfensohn’s hospital must-haves all the more difficult.
But Buchman’s search took a very dark turn when she entered a second-floor bedroom – an area that the Post would later describe as “debris-choked.” Yes, even with all Wolfensohn’s things clogging the space, her sister-in-law still noticed something scary: a strange outline on a mattress contained within the sleeping quarters.
And upon closer inspection, Buchman realized that she hadn’t just stumbled upon a strange figure on the bed. Horrifyingly, she understood that she was looking at a clothed skeleton, with jeans, a shirt and even socks still bedecking the bony frame. Plus, given the position of the skeleton, the person to whom it had once belonged had apparently died on the bed while lying on their back.
As though that wasn’t upsetting enough, things got even worse when investigators identified whose body had once laid on the mattress in Wolfensohn’s cluttered home. Ultimately, the authorities revealed that the skeleton was that of the widow’s youngest son, Louis – the one who had disappeared two decades prior to the grisly discovery.
And according to the New York Post, one law enforcement officer likened the sight to a vision in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, saying, “It’s like some reverse Psycho scene.” Famously, in that movie, lead character Norman Bates stores his mother’s remains in the basement. Yet upon further inspection, Wolfensohn’s situation may not have been as sinister as the one in the classic horror flick.
You see, investigators claimed that although Wolfensohn’s home was notably awash with the scent of spoiled food, it hadn’t had the signature smell of decaying human flesh. Apparently, the bedroom had also been filled to the brim with the homeowner’s hoarded garbage and clutter. All in all, then, those looking into the case concluded that Wolfensohn had probably had no idea her son’s remains were there.
An interview with Wolfensohn further corroborated this theory. Indeed, when law enforcement officers asked the hoarder about Louis, she spoke about her son as if he had moved out of her home decades ago. Consequently, it seemed that she had no clue his skeleton had been on her spare mattress.
Perhaps because she had grown apart from them, many of Wolfensohn’s relatives refused to provide details about the case. One also told the Post that they’d have to wait until after the funeral to learn more about the skeleton. But although the authorities didn’t outright identify the deceased as Louis to begin with, they did confirm that they thought the bones belonged to the widow’s son.
Still, Wolfensohn wouldn’t be the first to live alongside a dead person for months or years after they had perished. In 2014, you see, Timothy Brown’s neighbor stopped by his house to check on the then-59-year-old and his nonagenarian father, Kenneth. As the individual in question peered into the house, though, they saw something stunning.
At first glance, it may have seemed as though Kenneth was sitting in his favorite armchair next to the fireplace of the home he shared with his son. Ultimately, though, the neighbor realized that the pajama-wearing figure reclined in the seat was actually the remainder of Kenneth’s dead body. And, chillingly, Timothy was simply watching TV right there.
A subsequent inquest into Kenneth’s death revealed that he had fallen just hours before he had died. Then, the following day, Timothy had found his father’s lifeless body. Kenneth’s son hadn’t called the police, though; instead, he had just placed his deceased dad into his chair. And there, Timothy had continued to live alongside what remained of Kenneth for up to four months before the neighbor dropped by.
And neighbors in a Buenos Aires, Argentina, apartment block would shed light on another macabre living situation. In December 2013 they had begun to notice a terrible smell wafting from then-58-year-old Claudio Alferi’s unit. As a result, then, the people living nearby called in the authorities, who burst into the property at the start of January 2014.
Inside, policemen and firefighters discovered Alferi’s body slumped over a chair; at that point, the almost-60-year-old had been dead for approximately 30 days. Yet the discovery of the deceased man wasn’t the most chilling aspect of the scene. Astonishingly, there was a second set of human remains right beside him.
It appeared that the corpse – which curiously still wore a pair of slippers – had been wrapped in plastic bags to preserve it. And upon further inspection, authorities revealed that this had once belonged to Alferi’s mother Margarita Aimer de Alferi. Neighbors also confirmed the woman’s identity – despite the fact that they hadn’t seen her for a decade.
During that time, Alferi had told any concerned parties that his mother had been just fine. Investigators believed, though, that her death had caused him to suffer a psychological breakdown. This had seemingly combined with Alferi’s own obsessive-compulsive disorder and may ultimately have led him to effectively mummify his mother’s body.
By contrast, it was speculated that Alferi may have hidden his mother’s death owing to a dispute over his inheritance. Either way, his preservative tactics worked to keep his mother’s body in good condition until the police found her. According to a 2014 report by the Daily Mail, one officer said, “The old lady’s body was covered in bags and plastic, and she still had her winter slippers on.”
Alferi also hadn’t seemed to have had a hand in his mother’s death, which authorities believed to have happened between eight and ten years before the discovery of her body. Instead, both she and her son had died of natural causes, and Alferi had seemingly taken care of his mom until his own end. The officer added, “It looked like she had been covered up lovingly.”
Of course, these stories differ from Wolfensohn’s, as in both cases the family member knew that their loved one had passed away. And while the widow had already lost her husband and Michael, she seemed to believe that her youngest son was still alive – although he hadn’t been seen for such a long time.
In the end, investigators estimated that Louis had passed away up to 20 years prior to the discovery of his body. Nothing about his passing was out of the ordinary, though, aside from the strange, garbage-riddled grave in which he rested. Yes, ultimately, the authorities claimed that they believed Louis had died by natural causes.
Wolfensohn’s beautiful Brooklyn brick home had also fallen into disrepair by the time that her sister-in-law discovered Louis’ remains. A reporter from the New York Post revealed that the property appeared empty in September 2016 and that the widow’s mail had begun to pile up.
Of course, at that time, Wolfensohn had been checked into a hospital, and her ailments had precipitated Buchman’s visit to the property. And neither Buchman nor her husband, Joseph would reveal their relative’s location after Louis’ sad fate had apparently been discovered, either. Ultimately, then, it was up to the Post to fill in some of the blanks. The newspaper claimed that the couple had been seen leaving a Long Island assisted-living facility – and it was there that the legally blind hoarder may have ended up after her story hit the media.