The Importance Of Others

The following article in the Sunday edition of the Omaha World-Herald is tough to believe; but it’s true.

And sad. It’s very, very sad.

Woman’s body discoverd more than a year after her death

By Erin Grace
World-Herald Staff Writer

Karen Freelin died in her home along busy 90th Street in Omaha, and no one knew for more than a year.

She was finally discovered this month when the flash of a city housing inspector’s camera illuminated her body, lying on the living room couch as if sleeping.

Kurt Holmstrom then turned a flashlight on the couch. And called his boss, who called 911.

The reclusive woman, age 59 when last seen in March 2005, had been living in the house with no heat, water or electricity. There were people in her life, including a brother, but she held the world at arm’s length, never letting anybody get close.

When Holmstrom found her, lying under a crocheted afghan, a flashlight near her head, he saw a few clues about how she had lived in that cold, dark home.

Candles had been burned. A camp stove with a propane tank was in the bathroom.

Within reach of the couch were a walker, a cane and a table. Resting on the table were an alarm clock, a pen and paper and a plastic, hospital-issue water jug with a straw.

Freelin had set out a will, handwritten and dated March 18, 2005, on a hutch along with her driver’s license and Social Security card.

Authorities can’t determine when she died, though it was some time after she left Methodist Hospital in mid-March 2005, following a three-week stay. And it was well before Holmstrom’s visit Oct. 4, 2006.

Holmstrom was responding to a call that the front door was ajar at a modest ranch house at 837 S. 90th St. Neighbors had long thought it was vacant. A different city inspector had visited two months before in response to complaints about peeling paint and weeds growing out of the gutters.

Holmstrom entered the home about 1:30 p.m. and began taking photographs. He stopped when he found Freelin.

Omaha police say Freelin’s death is not suspicious. The Douglas County acting coroner said the condition of the body prevented a determination of either the cause or the approximate time of death.

It appears that the intensely private woman died in a manner consistent with the way she lived: quietly.

Karen Freelin was born in 1945 to James and Bernice Freelin. She was the second of two children. Her brother, Jim Freelin of Glenwood, Iowa, said he had not been in contact with his sister. He said this was a tough time for the family, his sister’s death was tragic, and he did not want to comment further except through his attorney.

“Karen, all her life, was a very private person,” said the attorney, Mary L. Hewitt. She added that Jim Freelin respects his sister’s privacy and doesn’t want to violate that by talking about her.

Not much is known about that private life.

Freelin graduated from Westside High School in 1963, but her senior picture doesn’t appear in the school yearbook. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1971.

After her father’s death in 1979, Freelin moved in with her mother at the tan house on 90th Street.

Freelin worked as a substitute teacher on and off for District 66 and Millard, but her employment was so sporadic that the human resources staff at Westside recognized her name but “couldn’t place a name with a face,” said the district’s spokeswoman, Peggy Rupprecht.

Freelin subbed just a few days for Westside each year beginning in 1992 and subbed 37 days in 1997. In 2002, the last year she subbed there, Freelin worked one day.

In Millard, she subbed a total of 38.5 days between 1990 and 1996.

Freelin’s mother died in 1999, and Freelin later became friendly with a retired neighbor, Kathryn Bilyeu.

Bilyeu described Freelin as “not sociable.”

“No husband or children. She didn’t have anything to do with any of her relatives, that I know about,” Bilyeu said. “She was just quiet.”

Bilyeu left for her regular winter vacation and returned to contact Freelin. She tried calling, knocking on the door and writing letters – but got no response. She figured Freelin had moved.

She learned otherwise in early 2005. Bilyeu saw police at Freelin’s home and learned her neighbor had been living with little food and no power for months. The Omaha Public Power District shut off electricity in May 2004, and Metropolitan Utilities District discontinued water and gas a few months later, in September of that year.

By the time a rescue squad showed up on Feb. 24, 2005, Freelin needed help.

Paramedics, responding to a 911 call to check on Freelin’s welfare, took her to Methodist Hospital.

A hospital spokesman, citing federal patient privacy laws, said he couldn’t say anything about Freelin’s case but could confirm that she was admitted on that date.

Freelin’s mail carrier had alerted authorities. Freelin had placed a hold on her mail in late 2004, saying she was going to have surgery, according to the U.S. Postal Service in Omaha.

When the held mail was not picked up and there was no sign of activity at the house, the carrier had the station contact police, said Postal Service spokesman Roger Humphries.

Once Freelin arrived at Methodist that February, the hospital contacted the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging to help Freelin.

Diane Stanton, a social worker specializing in high-risk cases, visited Freelin at the hospital.

“She was ill,” Stanton said. “She had no utilities, no way of paying for her hospitalization and no food. . . . She was such a sweet little lady.”

Stanton visited Freelin five times at Methodist over the next two weeks. She helped Freelin apply for food stamps and get her set up for other social services. She found charitable organizations that would pay to restore electricity and heat to the home. She brought in donated clothes for Freelin to wear.

Stanton’s main goal, though, was to find Freelin a place to go after the hospital.

Stanton said Freelin didn’t share many details of her life but told her she had left work when her mother fell ill. Freelin mentioned a brother and a friend but didn’t give Stanton the contact information.

“She was going to call me and give me those numbers,” Stanton said, “but she never did. Everyone was under the impression she was going to stay with a friend.”

After Freelin’s release from the hospital, Stanton never heard from her. Stanton went to Freelin’s home several times and knocked on the door – but got no answer. Mail she sent to Freelin’s address was returned, stamped: “Moved. Left no address. Unable to forward.”

Stanton figured Freelin had gone to live with someone else. Freelin’s case was closed.

More than a year later, in July 2006, the phone rang at the city’s Code Enforcement Office.

A neighbor complained that Freelin’s house was vacant, in disrepair and overgrown.

A housing inspector visited the property, wrote up a notice of violations and sent it to Freelin in September.

On Oct. 4, the second call came, Holmstrom investigated, and Freelin, finally, was found.

Holmstrom was jolted, then saddened by a lesson he said the experience underscored:

“Keep in touch with everybody.”

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