MILWAUKEE – Saturday started out strange enough when Milwaukee-area real estate agent Jack Alves and two prospective buyers found live kittens in the trash cart behind one of the houses they were touring.
Then it got much worse.
As they walked through a different house shortly after noon, this one a vacant city foreclosure on the corner of 25th and Michigan streets, Phil Gustafson looked in a first-floor closet and quickly ran from the room.
“There’s a dude in there!” he told his friend, Keith Frank Jr., who had joined him in searching for a fixer-upper to buy.
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Alves stepped toward the closet, announcing who he was and that he was showing the house. The man did not move.
“I didn’t touch him,” Alves said.
He called 911 and soon the house was buzzing with paramedics and police officers. They knew what this was.
The man was dead.
“He was facing the inside of the closet, laying on his side, his back to the door. I could not see his face. He was covered with a blanket or a coat partially,” Alves said.
The weather was cold on Saturday, and Frank remembers it seemed even colder inside the unheated house. The bizarre find added to the chill.
“Needless to say, we’re not very interested in that property anymore,” Frank said.
The four-family structure had been carved into a rooming house maze. Thieves had stolen the sinks and pipes, holes were smashed in the walls and ceilings, and paint is peeling off in sheets. It’s going for the price of a used car, $15,000, though the city estimates it would cost at least $109,000 to make it livable.
Milwaukee has more than 1,000 of these foreclosed houses to sell. Buyers were found for more than 380 homes this year, but others keep popping up as owners stop paying the taxes and walk away. This particular property, built in 1905, was taken by the city in 2012.
John Ernest Abbott looked at this old place and he saw home, at least for the night. His address, as listed on the morgue report, was “Homeless in Milwaukee.”
His identity was learned from his fingerprints. The report says it’s unclear when Abbott was last known to be alive.
Somehow Abbott broke into the house, possibly by removing a board over a window, but there was no evidence he had been there long.
He curled up in the closet to sleep and never woke up. His body measured just 22 degrees, matching the temperature in the house. There was no sign of trauma.
Abbott was 53, and had suffered from mental illness, in particular schizophrenia, for at least 30 of those years, according to court records and a statement his brother, Ronald Abbott of Milwaukee, gave to the medical examiner.
He said he has been looking for his brother for years. He said Abbott had never married but had a daughter whose whereabouts are unknown. However, in conversations with psychologists trying to determine his mental competency for trial, Abbott said he never had children.
It was another act of trespassing that landed him in court in that case. He pleaded guilty to breaking into a house in Franklin a year ago this week. He was looking for a place to sleep and seemed incensed that he was prosecuted. “It’s not murder, it’s homelessness,” he told one psychologist.
He spent parts of this year in jail and at Mendota Mental Health Institute. On the day of his sentencing, Sept. 23, it was determined he had already served enough time, and he was freed. It was back to the streets for him.
He said he sometimes sought shelter under bridges. With an eighth-grade education and almost no work record, he lived on a Social Security disability check. He had just $2.57 in his pocket when he died. A voice in his head sometimes told him to harm others or himself, perhaps by jumping in front of a speeding car or train.
One of the competency reports said this, “He said that he spent his time panhandling, socializing with persons met on the street, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He identified that he enjoyed the freedom associated with street life.”
The Milwaukee Rescue Mission, located a walk away from where Abbott died, does not turn away anyone when the weather turns this cold, except for dangerously violent people. Abbott could have slept at the shelter and been warm. He had stayed there on and off since 2008, but not since March 5 of last year.
An autopsy was done, but the exact cause of Abbott’s death is yet to be known. He had reported having a clogged artery in his heart, chest pains and trouble breathing. He was treated on various occasions at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex.
Upon release, he would stop taking the antipsychotic medications that could help him. The reason he shared with a psychologist might surprise you: “I’m so lonely, and sometimes the voices make me feel not as alone.”
This weekend, Alves expects to be back out there showing houses to Gustafson and Frank. They will open closets with apprehension.
“I’m probably going to be a little more cautious,” Alves said. “I have been in some of these houses in the dark with these guys, and I’m probably not going to do that.”