Uncanny coincidences let man's death go unnoticed for years

A no-trespassing sign hangs on the front door of the house, which has shown signs of neglect for years

A no-trespassing sign hangs on the front door of the house, which has shown signs of neglect for years Photo By Angela Peterson

Feb. 4, 2012

Everyone tells me they liked David Carter, and they wished him well when he announced he was heading out to New Mexico to live and work.

Except he never went. Carter left a couple notes at his West Allis home, and then he shot himself in the head on the second-floor landing.

The best estimate is that his suicide happened in late 2007. That's when he quit his job. That's when he wrote his last check. That's when he talked of moving away.

And that's when he disappeared, not quite in plain sight but right there in his longtime home.

His body was not discovered until January. I don't mean 2008 or 2009 or 2010 or 2011. He was found last month. This year.

For four years, he never paid a bill or emptied his mailbox or pushed a lawn mower or snow shovel. Notices and warning letters were sent his way, but no one ever entered the house to see if he was there and doing all right.

Finally, on Jan. 23, Carter's 45th birthday, a real estate worker from the Milwaukee County treasurer's office walked up to the door. A locksmith came along. The house near S. 58th and Madison streets had just been awarded to the county in December in a tax foreclosure.

It's a visit no one would welcome. But it solved the mystery of Carter's whereabouts. The workers found his "nearly skeletonized body," in the words of the medical examiner's investigative report.

"Spider webs were noted all around the residence," it said. "A Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun was found lying on the decedent's chest."

It hardly seems possible in a dense urban neighborhood that someone's death could go undetected for so long. Apparently, no one saw or heard or smelled anything that raised alarm.

"We're trying to figure it out, too. How could it go this far?" said the alderman for that area, Michael Czaplewski. "It's one of those things where it falls between the cracks, I guess."

Neighbors and friends thought Carter had moved. The City of West Allis helped cover his absence by cutting the long grass and shoveling snow and adding the cost to his property taxes, which obviously were not being paid.

Utilities were disconnected. The water was shut off after a neighbor reported seeing a stream running out of the house, evidently from a pipe that burst. The mail was stopped when the carrier noticed it piling up. The police say they were never asked by anyone to check on Carter's welfare.

The house was deemed to be abandoned. In this tough economy, plenty of others are, too. It blended in with these other eyesores.

There was no mortgage company to come after Carter for money, because the house was paid off. He and his mother, Joanne Carter, who was a teacher, had lived there many years. She got cancer and died at the house in 1997 at age 62. David Carter had no siblings and never met his father.

Starting as a teenager, Carter worked more than a dozen years as a dishwasher, cook and bartender at Kegel's Inn just two blocks from his house. "He became really more of a friend than an employee," owner Rob Kegel remembered fondly.

Carter graduated in 1985 from West Milwaukee High School, and in 1995 earned a degree in history and political science from UWM. He began working on a master's degree but left the program in 2000.

In 1999, Carter took a job as a nuisance control officer for the City of Milwaukee. A Milwaukee address is listed for him in city records. He resigned in late September of 2007, not long before he dropped out of sight.

Carter's cousin, Kevin O'Neill, said Carter cared for his mother when she became ill, and he wasn't able to shake the sadness after she died. He withdrew socially and began drinking more heavily.

In the years after Carter supposedly moved to Albuquerque or possibly other cities he had mentioned, O'Neill did not know how to reach him. For a while he considered hiring a private investigator to track down his cousin, but never did.

He and friends describe Carter as smart and generous. He also could be funny and he was handy, having done extensive work on the West Allis home.

The medical examiner's report says Carter fathered a daughter, who is about 14 now. The child's mother, who was never married to Carter, is quoted in the report saying he told her in 2005 that he did not want to be in their lives anymore. The last time she saw him was in May of 2006. In a note found in Carter's house after he died, he mentions possessions that he wanted to go to his daughter.

Teresa Bornheimer, who went to school and worked for a while with Carter, said she often drove past his house the past few years, hoping to find a light on and Carter at home. She was shocked by the discovery of a body there after so long.

"My jaw just dropped when I found out. I told myself maybe it's a bum living at the house," she said. But dental and medical records confirmed the remains were Carter's.

The unpaid property taxes, fees and costs have grown to more than $30,000. The shoveling and mowing since 2007 total more than $3,700. Milwaukee County sent many notices to collect payment during the past four years but was in no hurry to take the property. The tax foreclosure was filed last July and granted by a judge on Dec. 21.

According to the county treasurer's office, the house will be cleaned and repaired and put up for sale. Because the property was considered abandoned, whatever money that's left over from the sale will go to the county, though that could be contested in court by a relative or the mother of Carter's child.

O'Neill and several friends of Carter are planning a memorial gathering in his honor at Kegel's Inn, 5901 W. National Ave., at 7 p.m. Saturday.

They will talk about what a great guy he was in life, and they will wonder over and over how he could go so unnoticed in death.

Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at jstingl@journalsentinel.com

***

STINGL ON THE RADIO

Jim Stingl talks about his column at 7:35 a.m. every Sunday on WTMJ-AM (620).

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