Reclusive woman’s death sobers small SC community
AP Photo SCORG101
By SEANNA ADCOX
Associated Press Writer
SANDY RUN, S.C. (AP) — Mary Sue Merchant died of natural causes in a tightly locked house on 25 acres in this small community, with only a dog for company. Now her small town is reflecting on why no one noticed for 18 months.
Nobody knew the reclusive widow was gone — not even when the house was sold for back taxes while her decomposing body lay inside. Sometime later, the lonely dog died of thirst in the same room.
"We didn’t know this lady existed," Sheriff Thomas Summers said.
Only after the 72-year-old woman’s body was found last week did it occur to neighbors they hadn’t seen her in a while. And some people wonder if they’ve lost a fundamental connection of small-town life.
"We’ve lost the community," said the Rev. Neil Flowers, who plans to talk about Merchant on Sunday at Beulah United Methodist Church, a few miles from where Merchant died. "We do our own thing. We lead busy lives. We go and go and go ... and stay within our comfort zone."
By all accounts, Merchant and her husband kept to themselves. They had no children. The sheriff and coroner say one neighbor told them David Merchant was once a prison guard who feared retribution from former inmates — but officials couldn’t confirm if he worked for the state.
David Merchant died in October 1985 at age 53 and his widow apparently lost touch with her own older sister years ago, said Calhoun County Coroner Donnie Porth, who’s trying to determine that woman’s last name and track her down. A sister-in-law who tried to call — once — found the phone disconnected and assumed Merchant had gotten a cell phone, Porth said. Through the coroner, the woman declined to speak to The Associated Press.
"It’s a sad tragedy this lady had absolutely nobody who cared enough to check on her — very sad," the sheriff said.
His deputies check on about 200 senior citizens monthly in this county of less than 15,000, about 20 miles south of Columbia in central South Carolina. "But we have to know they’re there," he said.
Sandy Run, which lacks even a traffic light, is an unincorporated community: a wide spot in the road that drivers could miss if they blink.
It’s the kind of place where locals can usually be counted on to say that everybody knows everybody else.
But safety nets for seniors who live alone failed in Merchant’s case, or didn’t exist. Authorities believe she didn’t attend church. Her only prescribed medicine was for glaucoma, so she wasn’t on any medical check list.
Many older people rely on family to check in on them, especially in rural areas, said Mary Beth Fields, aging services coordinator for the area.
"You’d hope neighbors would call," she said.
Mail should’ve been a red flag. But Merchant had a post office box, so no mail piled up for neighbors or a carrier to notice. Her electricity was cut off in February 2008 after three months of unpaid bills.
Meanwhile, the brick ranch home sat partly obscured by trees and brush from the road, Merchant’s white four-door Chevy parked in front and a faded "Beware of Dog" sign on a telephone pole.
Four days after Merchant’s body was discovered with a loaded .38-caliber revolver beneath her pillow, neighbor Ed Spradley heard the news from a reporter. He said he never talked to Merchant, but realized it had been a while since her car had moved.
Across the street, neighbor Tonya Craven said if she’d known Merchant was all alone, she’d have checked on her. But she said they spoke only once when Craven’s dog ran away.
Merchant fed and cared for about 15 wild dogs, so Craven wanted to see if her dog had joined the pack. "She was very generous to them," Craven said.
While talking with a reporter, it occurred to Craven she hadn’t seen those dogs in some time.
Merchant’s unpaid property taxes led to her discovery.
When she didn’t pay a $234 bill in January 2008, the county mailed delinquency notices to her post office box, which came back as undeliverable. The property, worth about $160,000 according to county records, was sold Dec. 1, 2008, for $20,000, said county administrator Lee Prickett.
The buyer, local real estate agent Thomas Kohn, did not return messages seeking comment.
No one from the county walked the property before selling it. Prickett said that’s considered trespassing because owners in debt have a year to pay.
But authorities say Kohn noticed Merchant’s car never moved, so he asked deputies to check.
Officially, it’s only assumed the remains discovered Thursday are Merchant’s. Dental records are being checked before she is buried beside her husband in a prepaid plot in Newberry. An autopsy Friday determined she died of natural causes, though specifics are unknown due to the condition of the remains, said Porth. How long the dog — breed undetermined — lived without its owner is unknown; there was plenty of dog food in the house, but no water, Porth said.
Becky Rucker, owner of the local florist for 30 years, said she vaguely remembers David Merchant, but has been trying to recall what Mary Sue Merchant looked like.
"It’s so sad. It makes me feel bad for our community," she said. "In this day, we’re supposed to be out of everybody’s business, but I think sometimes that goes too far."