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Bones in bedroom

The Baltimore Sun

It is a house stuck in time.

A calendar hanging on the kitchen wall open to July 1978. Shoes and clothes, long out of style, spilling from plastic bags.

And in one of four upstairs bedrooms: the skeletal remains of what could be a human body, on a grungy orange blanket, surrounded by adult magazines - one a Playboy, vintage 1982.

Earl Harris, a contractor hired by the new owners to empty the two-story, white-shingle house on Mannasota Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, made the gruesome discovery yesterday. Authorities say it is too early to determine whether the bones are indeed human, but Harris said he saw a human skull, hair and scraps of decaying clothes.

Area residents said an elderly couple had lived there many years ago and were regarded as neighborhood recluses. "We used to call it the ol' haunted house," said Diana Whitney, a 19-year resident of the block. Her boyfriend, Richard Szczypiski, said children who played on the street "were too scared to go in it."

It appears the 2,252-square-foot house, built in 1920, has gone through many owners. In 2000 it was appraised by the state at more than $72,000, but in February this year, it was sold for just $4,997. Marcel Umphrey, who runs a start-up rehab company, bought it a few months ago at a tax sale.

Umphrey said he walked through the house before he bought it but didn't go into any of the bedrooms. "There was too much trash," he said last night. "There were newspapers from the 1980s. It wasn't livable at all."

After buying the property, one of six he is renovating, he sent Harris in to clear out the debris, the start of a $200,000 rehab. Harris began work at 9 a.m. By 9:30, he had found the body and had called police. And Umphrey.

"I was shocked," the new owner said. "This is the first house we've renovated where we made a discovery like this."

"It sounds like something off The Wire," he said, referring to the gritty HBO crime drama about Baltimore life. Last season's plot line involved corpses found in boarded-up houses.

Homicide detectives could draw no conclusions yesterday.

Dr. David R. Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said the first step will be to determine whether the remains are human. If they are, investigators must try to identify the body. With no soft tissue, fingerprints are not possible, Fowler said.

Dental records might work, but doctors sometimes discard old files. Fowler said they could enlist the help of a forensic anthropologist who could try to determine sex, age, race and an approximate height and weight from the remains. Police will interview former homeowners and neighbors, and determine when bills were last paid.

"It is a long process of chance," Fowler said.

Renee Faulkner, who has lived next to the house for seven years, said it never appeared that anyone really lived there. She said a woman stopped by a couple of times a week to take out garbage. When the grass and weeds grew too high, she said, city crews would come and mow the lawn. A light could sometimes be seen in the kitchen.

But a few years ago, people stopped coming. The light in the kitchen went out. The yard grew into a tangle of weeds. City work crews came, but instead of trimming the grass they boarded up the door and windows. The upstairs windows were covered with newspapers, allowing stray cats a way inside.

Now, the house is falling apart. The front porch sags, asbestos-laden shingles are falling off, ceilings are sagging and the banister railing is missing. Rooms are filled with a jumble of debris - television sets, five of them, strewn in various rooms. A rusted refrigerator stands empty in the kitchen, its door half open.

Everywhere, plaster is crumbling. Walking from one room to the next means wading through trash a foot high. A child's tricycle is in the kitchen. Men's and women's clothing hangs from racks and is scattered on the floors. A Baltimore magazine, from 1983, is on the top of the stairs.

Numerous crates used to carry cats or small dogs can be found, as well as two-liter soda bottles filled with urine, giving off an unbearable stench. The 1978 calendar hangs on an otherwise barren wall in the kitchen. Someone wrote "gas man" on the July 13 square, and crossed it out. On July 22 and 29 - Saturdays - someone scrawled "off." On July 1, "Off. Don't work." There are readily evident clues to names of the old occupants.

Upstairs, where Harris found the remains, were bones of what appeared to be a long-dead cat. The room looks as though it had been ransacked.

"I think the early '80s was when this house was really being lived in," Harris said.

He said he would be back today, to continue emptying the house of its long-forgotten contents.

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