DETROIT – At first glance, she thought it was a Halloween prank.
The puffy corpse slumped over the chair had no eyes, nose or mouth – just hair on a skull, and bones sticking out from under a red sweater and plaid pants.
"How sick," Linda Kajma said to herself, before venturing through the rest of the house in search of her missing cousin.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and 80-year-old Sally Honeycheck, who for decades lived in a run-down Detroit neighborhood on Joseph Campau near the Polish Yacht Club, wasn't answering her phone. So Kajma went looking for her, only to discover that her eccentric cousin had been secretly leading a hellish existence, surrounded by filth, rats, feces and mountains of clutter. In the end, it swallowed her whole.
The horrifying figure that Kajma saw in the chair was her cousin.
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Honeycheck, an avid Avon makeup collector who had her hair done weekly and dressed impeccably for church functions, had died alone in the filth of her kitchen, sitting in a nylon blue lawn chair under a picture of the Last Supper. She was surrounded by garbage a foot deep – empty sardine cans, stacks of greeting cards, take-out bags, burned-out appliances and dirt-stained walls.
She had been eaten by her dog and rats.
In the next room was Honeycheck's deceased Rotweiller, Jack, another victim of the house that had no heat, rat-chewed mattresses, squid-like fungi growing out of the walls and dirt-crusted floorboards that sagged so much that Kajma fell through the kitchen floor.
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For nearly seven decades, this is where the Honeycheck sisters lived quietly together, planting flowers and lilac bushes, collecting baseball memorabilia and ordering clothes, makeup and jewelry by the box-loads. The century-old house with six stained glass windows in Detroit's Poletown neighborhood was their sanctuary. Their parents bought the two-story, 1,700-square foot home in 1951, raised their children there and never left – not during the 1967 riot or after, when the neighborhood emptied out and most white folks fled to the suburbs.
The Honeychecks stayed. And somewhere along the way, in their golden years, something happened to the sisters, something that slipped past relatives and friends.
In that house, they closed the blinds and shut the doors.
They ordered takeout and had groceries delivered.
No one stepped foot through the door: Not family. Not the boy who used to deliver their food. Not friends who gave them rides.
The Honeycheck sisters slowly slipped into an abyss of hoarding and squalor.
Nobody noticed, until it was too late.
"No one should have to live like this. No one should die like this," Kajma said while poring through the clutter one Sunday afternoon in a hazmat suit, banging on the walls with a crow bar to scare the rats away. "We suspected that they were hoarders. But I never imagined the degree of hoarding. It's unfathomable."
From the curb, however, all seemed fine. The house and porch were painted. The lawn was mowed. The bushes were trimmed. And when they left the house, the Honeycheck sisters were always put together.
In a photo snapped at a church fundraiser one month before she died, Honeycheck is seen donning a well-coiffed hairdo, lipstick, earrings and a long gold necklace draping her navy top. She's clutching a $10 bill to buy a 50-50 raffle ticket to support St. Josephat Catholic Church, a historic landmark in Detroit.
"I know it’s an illness," said Kajma, 68, of Troy. "But if you met them on the street you’d never, ever know. If you looked at the outside of the house ... you’d never know that this nightmare was in here.”
'Break in. Something's wrong'
Honeycheck died sometime between Nov. 12 – the day she checked herself out of a hospital – and Dec. 1, the day her body was discovered.
For 19 days, no one reported seeing her or hearing from her. It wasn't until Thanksgiving Day that Kajma noticed something might be wrong.
The last time Kajma had spoken to Honeycheck was the first week of November 2018. She had called to thank her second-cousin for mailing her two holy cards and two relics of Father Solanus Casey, and to tell her how her mother was doing. Kajma's mother was ill at the time, and Honeycheck had mailed the "Blessed Solanus" holy cards to her for encouragement.
This was typical of Honeycheck, a devout Catholic and parishioner at Saint Hyacinth. Her home was adorned with pictures and sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ – their dusty faces hanging on faded turquoise walls amid sheets of cobwebs and antique furniture buried beneath boxes.
Kajma talked to Honeycheck about once a month, saw her at church festivals and funerals and called her on holidays.
The past Thanksgiving, however, Honeycheck didn't answer her phone when Kajma rang. She phoned her through the holiday weekend, but still no answer. Worried, Kajma called Detroit police on Monday, Nov. 26, and asked for a well-check.
"I knew something was wrong. The cops went out and called me and said, 'There's no answer,' " Kajma said, noting police "knew they had a dog and the dog wasn't barking."
Kajma told police to break in the house, but the officers said a break-in wasn't warranted. They advised her to check the hospitals, she said, adding police had learned the sisters were recently hospitalized.
Later that night, Kajma found Sally Honeycheck's sister, Lorraine, at Detroit Receiving Hospital. She was on a ventilator and had been there since suffering a stroke on Nov. 10. But Sally wasn't at the hospital – so Kajma called police back and asked them to meet her at the Honeycheck's house.
At 9 p.m. that night, police met Kajma outside the house on Joseph Campau. They knocked on the door, but still no answer. She pleaded with the officers to break down the door, but to no avail.
"They said, 'We're not breaking in.' I said, 'I'm telling you, she's in there,' " said Kajma, adding police convinced her to file a missing person's report.
Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said that police made two well-checks on Honeycheck that day, but could not break in because it was against protocol.
"We just can't break into a person's house," Kirkwood said. "Police can only enter under exigent circumstances."
Those circumstances, Kirkwood explained, include evidence of a crime or fatal accident, such as blood on a wall, a body on the floor, someone is heard screaming or shots are fired. She said someone's life must be in danger or jeopardy for police to break in.
In the case of Honeycheck, Kirkwood said, police acted appropriately.
"They checked the mailbox. There was no mail. They talked to the neighbors. They knocked on the door. They responded twice," Kirkwood said of the Detroit police officers, adding "They kept in contact with the cousin with what was going on."
For Kajma, it wasn't enough.
Within two days of meeting police at the house, Kajma learned from hospital staff that both Honeycheck sisters had been transported to Detroit Receiving. It was Sally Honeycheck who had called 911 when her sister suffered the stroke on Nov. 10, in a lawn chair in the kitchen. But when emergency crews arrived and saw the living conditions, they called for a second ambulance to get the other sister, too.
According to Kajma, hospital social workers were hoping to convince Sally Honeycheck to leave the house. But Honeycheck checked herself out of the hospital at 1 a.m. on Nov. 12, telling hospital staff: "I have to go feed the dog."
That's the last time anyone reported seeing her.
'I'm breakin in'
On Thursday, Nov. 29, Kajma reached a breaking point. She said that a detective called her and said that Sally Honeycheck really wasn't missing because she was of sound mind when she checked herself out of the hospital.
Kajma had enough.
The next day, she called police and told them: "I'm breaking into that house. I'm telling you ahead of time so you don't arrest me for breaking and entering."
Some 24 hours later, she returned to the house with a friend who was a retired Detroit police officer. It was Dec. 1, a cold Saturday afternoon. Adrenalin pumping, Kajma threw on a hazmat suit, grabbed some bolt cutters and busted the padlock on a cellar door. There were stairs and another door to the main level. She kicked her way in.
"Oh my God. It was so disgusting," she said. "There was garbage a foot deep."
The first room she entered was the kitchen, where she passed the puffy torso in the blue lawn chair. Leg bones came out of each pant leg. She saw a skull and what she thought was a wig.
"What the hell is wrong with them?" she recalled thinking of her cousins, convinced the figure in the chair was a Halloween prop. She kept going, finding the dog in the dining room. She then went back outside.
"Did you see her?" her police friend asked.
"'No," she answered, "but they got a Halloween decoration in the kitchen."
By then, the police had arrived.
"They said, 'Cmon Linda, we'll go in with you,' " she recalled.
It was then that everything went blurry. While in the kitchen, in front of the blue lawn chair, a police officer said, " 'Linda, she's right here ... the dog has been eating on her.' "
Kajma's knees gave way. The room started to spin. Police grabbed her and took her outside.
A coroner named Reggie appeared.
"I'm sorry for your loss," she recalled him saying.
"I lost it. I didn't know it was a dead body. I was angry at this point," said Kajma, who asked if she could go back in to say her goodbyes.
"I was stunned. I'm sitting in a truck going, 'Where am I? What the hell is going on?' " she recalled.
The coroner took more pictures and then came out of the house.
"We'll take care of her," she recalled the coroner saying. "The funeral home will deliver her remains."
The Wayne County medical examiner concluded Honeycheck died of natural causes and found there was "extensive postmortem animal consumption of body." The time of death was listed as 1:40 p.m., Dec. 1, 2018 – the day her body was found.
That doesn't sit right with Kajma , who believes her cousin died at least a week before that date. She cited the police well-check on Nov. 26: The dog wasn't barking.
Die-hard Detroiter loved Tigers, Catholic Church
Sally Honeycheck was born in Detroit in 1938 and spent her entire life on the city's east side. She grew up in what was known as the Immaculate Conception neighborhood, a one-time thriving community of first and second generation Polish immigrants that was bulldozed to make way for the infamous General Motors Poletown plant.
Her father had a government job; her mother was a housewife. She never married, though she was once engaged to a cook named Dennis who moved away to New York. For years, she kept a 1967 photo of her and an unnamed fella holding hands in her then tidy house.
The photo captures a young woman in a fitted Peter-Pan collar top and pencil skirt, kneeling on the floor and staring into the camera, while a dark-haired man in a spiffy tie and shirt stares at her.
This was Sally Honeycheck before her dark days. A youthful 20-something with a flair for style. She wore pearls, fitted dresses, lipstick and fashionable hats. As a little girl, she resembled Shirley Temple, with blond loose curls and a pouty smile – her youthful image captured in a framed photograph that hung in the living room.
Like most of the girls in her neighborhood, Honeycheck attended Catholic schools. She did middle school at St. Hyacinth and graduated in 1957 from the now-closed St. Stanislaus High School. After graduation, she took courses at a business school and spent all of her adult life working as an insurance adjuster in Troy, processing claims until retiring in 2009.
Honeycheck was a huge Tigers fan who collected sports memorabilia and knew the names of every manager in Major League Baseball. Her social life, though, involved mostly church functions.
"She was a very pleasant and very wonderful person," said Elaine Tworek, 79, of New Baltimore, who graduated high school with Honeycheck and attended church events with her as an adult. "She went before her time I think."
Tworek, who left the neighborhood in 2001, attended monthly church dinners with Honeycheck, along with banana festivals and blessing-of-the-Easter-basket rituals. She sometimes gave Honeycheck rides to the doctor in Hamtramck when her friend wasn't feeling well enough to drive herself.
Tworek said she didn't know anything was wrong with Honeycheck until last Thanksgiving, when she didn't get her usual holiday phone call from her friend.
"I called several times. We went by her house. We rang the doorbell. ... Nobody would answer the door," said Tworek, who got worried and started calling area hospitals.
Eventually, she learned that a "Honeycheck" was at Detroit Receiving, but it was Sally's sister, Lorraine, who couldn't talk due to her stroke. The hospital told her they were looking for Sally, but couldn't find her.
Within days, Tworek learned about her friend's tragic death from Honeycheck's cousin, Kajma, who had found her phone number in Honeycheck's belongings and called her with the news.
"I felt very bad," Tworek said. "I felt that maybe, if I had called the police or something, they could have saved her. But I didn't call anybody."
Patti and Bill Galen, the owners of the nearby Ivanhoe Cafe, known as the Polish Yacht Club, also are troubled by Honeycheck's death.
"We didn't know she was living that badly," said Patti Galen. "We used to take food to her all the time. ... She was a sweet lady who minded her own business ... and she always gave us a tip."
The Honeychecks were regulars at Ivanhoe, though in the last year they stopped walking over to the restaurant and called in their orders instead. Two perch dinners. Walleye and grilled kielbasa. That's what they loved. And they always left a dollar tip, the workers said, smiling.
Russell Palmer, a dishwasher at Ivanhoe's known as "Little Rusty," used to deliver food to the Honeychecks. He would knock on the front door. When they answered, he handed off the bags.
"They were friendly," he recalled. "They always seemed fine, two sisters living together."
But they never let him inside.
The staff at the Ivanhoe Cafe didn't know anything was wrong with the Honeychecks until the owners got a call from Kajma in November, asking if they'd seen Sally or Lorraine and if they would check on them.
The Galens obliged, but the Honeycheck house stayed quiet. The blinds never moved.
A mental health disorder
According to the International OCD Foundation, hoarding disorder affects up to 6% of the U.S. population, or 19 million Americans. It's not just a word to describe messy people who collect clutter; it's an illness, recognized by the psychiatric profession.
In 2013, hoarding disorder became one of the newest mental health conditions when it was added in the latest revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. It affects men and women at similar rates, and is believed to be a universal phenomenon, affecting all races, ethnic groups and cultures.
The central feature of hoarding disorder is not clutter, but difficulty letting go of possessions that interfere with the ability to live.
Honeycheck's home matched this description. The beds could not be used for sleeping. The sofa and chairs could not be used for sitting. Appliances didn't work. And boxes of clutter overtook every room, filled with everything from greeting cards and unopened bags of clothing to Avon makeup boxes, jewelry and sports memorabilia.
"It's like an addiction in that the person just cannot let go of possessions," said Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things."
Hoarding is especially difficult for family members to deal with, said Frost, noting that marriages sometimes end or children move out when the living conditions become deplorable. And efforts to help fix the problem can seem futile, he said.
Family members may want to help, but they don't know how. Cleaning up the space and throwing out their belongings can only make matters worse, Frost said.
"The person with the problem feels violated. They've been traumatized ... anything they own is a part of them," he said, noting hoarders will sometimes ban relatives from visiting if they try to throw away their things, or suggest doing so.
In the Honeychecks case, no one threatened to throw out their stuff because they hid their clutter from the world. Frost said when hoarding turns into squalor, that suggests that a person may be suffering from dementia, Alzheimer's, or other disorders that interfere with an ability to live in an organized way.
The Honeychecks also didn't have visitors, which Frost said is a crucial part in helping people with hoarding disorder.
"If nothing else, just visit them in their homes," Frost said. "You don't have to talk about the clutter ... even if you just visit ... no matter how bad the hoarding is, the person will do something to make the environment more normal for the visitor."
Frost stressed: "The clutter gets worse when people stop visiting."
The Honeychecks had shut the world out.
"What do you do?" said Kajma, who believes her cousins' hoarding was out of her control. "How does it change if you don't let us in the house."
Kajma wished she had known about the stroke that landed Honeycheck's sister in the hospital.
"If Sally had told me Lorraine was in the hospital, I would have been calling them sooner and more often," she said. "Maybe that could have prevented her untimely death, or at least she would have been found sooner – and maybe before the dog and rats did."
'I cried for her'
The last eight months have been mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting for Linda Kajma, who was left with the sole responsibility of handling her cousin's estate and affairs.
Kajma had to clean the house, locate insurance policies and bank statements, and make sure her cousin's sister, Lorraine, had a safe place to live: She's now in a nursing home in Michigan.
In the middle of this ordeal, her mother, Virginia Kajma, died in February.
"I am in the midst of a nightmare," Kajma said during the spring, when the cleaning process started.
But Kajma, with her salty personality and razor-sharp wit, held it together and took care of Sally Honeycheck's affairs.
For weeks, Kajma fought the stench and dug through the rubbish with a loyal coworker named Tamara Tracy, a 46-year-old receptionist at an accounting firm who donned a hazmat suit in 80-degree temperatures to help clean the Honeycheck house. The duo cleaned for 20 minutes at a time, the odor too overpowering to go any longer. They sorted through decades of memories, trying to figure out what to keep and what to toss, and looking for clues as to what led the sisters down this sad tragic path.
"This is sick," Kajma said one July afternoon ,as she rummaged through the debris: a McDonalds receipt for 20 cheeseburgers. Empty Jets Pizza boxes. Lipton soup containers.
"I'm looking for anything, anything of value," said Kajma, who was determined to find a violin that her mother once played as a child. She didn't find the instrument, but believes she found the receipt for it. Dated 1925, the National School of Violin receipt read $40.
The house on Joseph Campau was full of hidden cash – $10 and $20 bills tucked everywhere. And rat feces. In the cupboards. Beds, Floor. Everywhere.
"I can't believe it. I can't believe people live like this," Kajma said. "How could you breathe in here."
Kajma didn't cry for weeks. She was consumed by anger for a while, noting that she had warned her cousin a few years ago that she needed to get her affairs in order. She recalled doing this over a beer with her cousin at the Polish Yacht Club three years before her death.
"I told her to get a will. Somebody needs to know what you want. I don't want to be the one to have to break in one day and find two dead bodies," Kajma recalled telling her.
"And here we are."
Kajma believes her cousin's mental health deteriorated after she retired about a decade ago. She found photos from 2003 that showed the house was clean and organized, just as she remembered it when she visited there in her youth, when she used to stop to gather lilacs from the bushes.
The lilac bushes are still there. The house is now all cleaned up. Kajma set aside some valuables: family photographs, a gold cross, old pottery and ceramics. She even has an offer on the house.
The reality has sunk in. A few days ago, she read the autopsy report for the first time. The gruesome details broke her.
"I cried for her," she said. "I cried for her, finally."
Contact Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Hoarder living in squalor found dead, eaten by her dog in Detroit