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COLUMN ONE

He died in vast isolation

To the world, Vincenzo Riccardi was the `Mummified Man,' found in front of his TV after 13 months. His life was the saddest poetry.

March 31, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Southampton, N.Y. — THE blind man died alone in front of his television in a lounge chair, near a table covered with medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands and a cereal box stuffed with mail. Each rubber band marked a prescription he recognized by touch. Each envelope contained information he could not read. He never received letters, only bills.

A neighbor called police after she noticed a pipe had burst at his house. His double-door garage was cloaked in a frozen waterfall. Police discovered the man inside, still as the icy water. His television still buzzing, his living room blanketed with dead flies. His electric bills had gone unpaid, but the company for some inexplicable reason had not shut off power. Warm air had preserved his face almost perfectly, like a dried rose.

They found him 13 months after his final breath.

Headlines called him the "Mummified Man." Media as diverse as his hometown weekly newspaper in Southampton and newscasts in India and Japan reported the death of 70-year-old Vincenzo "Ricardo." Hardly anyone got his last name right -- it was Riccardi.

Neighbors in this oceanside Suffolk County neighborhood, 85 miles east of Manhattan, couldn't believe a dead man had been inside the brick house with yellow shingles for all that time. Several didn't even know there was a house tucked in the web of trees and shrubs 500 yards from the street. Some only visit their homes here in the summer, and the growing population of year-round residents has not been around long.

Those who have lived here for decades vaguely remembered the man who used to wander the blocks tapping his cane, sometimes roaming onto a neighbor's lawn until someone pointed him in the right direction. Some described him as short and stocky. Others said he was tall and heavyset. Some thought he had gray hair. Others said he was bald.

"I wasn't close to him," said Pete Urchuiolio, who grew up in a house next to Riccardi's, "just neighbors."

Susan Haines can see Riccardi's house from her front lawn and remembers when he built it on the 2.2-acre lot in the 1980s. "My God," she said, "why didn't anybody think about him?"

In Colombia, a man asked his family in America if they had heard about the mummified man and wondered what kind of people forgot about their elderly like that.

In East Quogue, N.Y., a 10-minute drive from Riccardi's house, the sister of the man in Colombia listened to the news and cried. Adriana Molina, 41, may have been the last person who hugged Riccardi. The caretaker used to wash his clothes and bathe him. She knew his hair was gray and his build was tall and strong. She knew he used to stand straight and walk with his chest puffed out. She knew one of his eyes was a puddle of pink and gray, while the other was brown, and she remembered how both always stayed open, looking nowhere.

He wrote a song for her once: "Adriana, Adriana, you are my eyes."

If only she had not given up on him over a year ago, Molina said shortly after Riccardi was found Feb. 15. If she had put up with his violent tantrums longer, maybe the man she called "Mr. Vincent" would not have died alone.

HE told her he would pay her $20 to clean his two-story house, to scrub its grimy kitchen and bathrooms, to clear its fireplace heaped with trash. Twenty dollars -- take it or leave it.

Molina had shown up at Riccardi's house one afternoon in 2003 with her daughter after a 91-year-old client told her about the blind, diabetic man who was on his own. The client knew Riccardi from a local senior center. Molina thought she could help.

She had lived in the U.S. for five years and still could not understand why Americans sent their grandparents to nursing homes or let them live alone. In Colombia, she said, families took care of their seniors.

When Molina started her cleaning company, she met elderly people who "just needed company, just to talk." She did more than clean. She took aging clients to the library, the grocery store, the doctor. She gave them music, painted their nails, washed their hair.

Molina's daughter, Kelly, now 21, remembered being at Riccardi's house that first day and giving her mother a look that said, "Don't do it." The man was rude. Twenty dollars, she thought, was not nearly enough.

The kitchen was covered in grease from steaks he'd cooked. Discolored button-down shirts -- he mixed colors in the washer -- hung all over the place because he had no dryer. He left spoiled food on the lawn, saying it was for the animals.

The upstairs had a separate kitchen and roomfuls of vintage furniture. It was left almost untouched because Riccardi stayed on the first floor to avoid stumbling on the stairs.

Molina told her daughter not to worry about the money or the filth: "The guy needs help."

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