Folks who live in a working-class suburban Lake Worth neighborhood call it “the creepy house.”
It earned that moniker two years ago when Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies arrived one day with shovels and unearthed the bones of a long-decayed body from the backyard.
“Freaky and creepy,” declared Kathryn Bruckner, who lives down the street from the house on Foss Road.
The strange story took another turn earlier this month when Patricia Hodges, who lived in the house with her aged mother until 1997, was arrested in Ohio on charges of defrauding the federal government out of $141,962. Seems Hodges buried her 89-year-old mother Janet Kelly in the backyard of the Foss Road house, moved to Marietta, Ohio, and continued to cash her mother’s Social Security checks for the next 14 years.
The investigation was triggered when the Social Security Administration realized it was sending checks to a woman who was more than 100 years old, said Marietta Police Detective Troy Hawkins.
“Apparently Social Security wants to lay eyes on you when you hit 100,” he said. “They wanted to lay eyeballs on this woman.”
When an investigator turned up at Hodge’s house asking to see Kelly, Hodges was evasive. The 65-year-old said her mother, who was born in 1909, was on a cruise. When Kelly returned, Hawkins said Hodges told investigators, the centenarian would immediately be moving to New York.
Doubting the veracity of the tale, Hawkins said he and the investigator questioned Hodges further. Finally, she admitted she had buried her mother in the backyard of the house on Foss Road.
On the first day of digging in December 2011, Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies couldn’t find the makeshift burial site. So, a deputy snapped a photo of the backyard with his cellphone and sent it to Hodges. She told them to dig closer to the sun room.
A week later, digging resumed. Deputies unearthed fabric. Underneath it, they found bones, dentures, a gold chain and, most importantly, a metal disk that indicated whoever was buried there had an artificial hip.
The hip was key to identifying the body, said Harold Ruslander, chief investigator for the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner. Every artificial hip has a unique serial number, he said. By looking at medical records, investigators could prove that the metal hip belonged to Kelly.
Exactly how she died will never be known. With nothing but bones to examine, it’s nearly impossible to determine cause of death, Ruslander said. The bones were sent to a forensic anthropologist at Florida Gulf Coast University to determine if there was any evidence Kelly died violently. The anthropologists, like the county pathologists, found nothing on her bones to indicate she had been struck, shot, strangled or was otherwise a victim of crime. Officially, the cause of death is listed as “undetermined.”
Hodges told investigators she heard her mother in the bathroom one night in 1997. The next day, she found her on the floor, dead. Hodges said she dragged her mother’s body into a bedroom, placed her on the bed and sat with her for several hours. After putting a robe on her and placing the gold chain around her neck, she said she dragged her mother outside and buried her in a spot in the yard where she used to sit and watch birds.
Hawkins said he hopes the story is true. “There was no evidence of any type of foul play. I’d like to think she was ultimately honest with us but she certainly wasn’t at the beginning,” he said.
Palm Beach County sheriff’s officials said the investigation is closed and they have no plans to charge Hodges with a crime here. Absent any sign of foul play, Ruslander said the only crimes Hodges may have committed is failure to report a death or burial without a permit — both misdemeanors.
In Ohio, however, the probe had other repercussions for Hodges and her husband, Marvin. When their house was searched, Hawkins said officers discovered marijuana plants and weapons. Since Marvin Hodges, 67, had a lengthy arrest record in South Florida for such charges as marijuana smuggling and fraud, and Patricia Hodges had a drug conviction, both were prohibited from owning guns. They were charged and served their time, Hawkins said.
Patricia Hodges is expected to plead guilty to the federal charge when she appears in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Francis Changa, who owned the Foss Road house when the body was discovered, moved out about two months later. “It wasn’t scary because I lived there so many years,” he said.
Neighbors later told him that Hodges was always strange. She kept birds and monkeys. “The place was a mess when I bought it,” he said.
Kelly’s body, meanwhile, is still waiting for a proper burial. It is unlikely Hodges can claim her mother’s remains because of her involvement in the improper burial, Ruslander said. No one else has come forward. Eventually, he said, it is likely she will receive a pauper’s burial here courtesy of county taxpayers.