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The other side of the coin
Legend has it that new Marine recruits must make their beds with sheets so taut that the sergeant can bounce a quarter off of them. While these stories are mostly folklore, all military personnel will agree that there is a perfect way to make a bed, cover a pillow, and polish shoes, so they sparkle every single day. In military culture, everything must be kept in perfect condition. How could it happen that this onetime decorated Marine was found dead in her home amidst piles of trash and filth, a victim of hoarding?
In New Jersey during the 1960s and 70s, a similar spirit of perfection could be found at institutions like County Children’s Home, a temporary orphanage for girls, where they checked the bedding regularly for perfect corners.
Cara spent years in both settings, carefully making beds in the orphanage, then later, as a U.S. Marine, always dressed impeccably. So, how could it happen that years later, at the end of her life, this onetime decorated Marine was found dead in her home amidst piles of trash and filth?
The emergence of a hero
Cara’s childhood had been fraught with troubles. Her parents met as patients in a hospital after her father, who struggled with chronic alcohol use, had attempted suicide. Her mother had suffered a break from what would come to be known as Bipolar Disorder. Their shared difficulties began a romance that led to marriage and four children.
Cara’s father abandoned the family when she was five years old. Eleven years later, at the age of 16, her mother went missing. Cara, being the oldest sister, had to take on adult responsibilities at a young age. These included keeping the house in order. Her sister Ann recalls, “there wasn’t a dirty dish, a misplaced item, or clutter of any kind in our childhood home. We were quite poor, and we didn’t have any toys or dolls to play with.”
Their shared difficulties began a romance that led to marriage and four children.
A family separated
For some time, Cara managed to keep the younger children clean and fed, and made sure they attended school. Ann remembers her saying, “We’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay clean and quiet and keep going to school, so no one will know what’s going on.” It wasn’t long, however, before authorities came to place the children into the orphanage, where they were separated into different wards. “My sister never had a childhood. She tried to organize and run a house when she was so young. Then, in the institution, we had to keep ourselves clean and neat, beds made perfectly. Cara showed me how to do military corners, and the woman in charge would bounce a quarter off it. I still make a mean bed, and Cara could too,” said Ann.
After about a year, they learned that their mother had been placed in a prison infirmary after she had a severe manic episode, and had been in a catatonic state. Cara and Ann went to visit her, but this would not be an idyllic reunion by any means. Their mother had fallen into a deep depression and, while she was ultimately able to return home, she would never fully recover. Cara waited until Ann was a little older and better able to care for herself before she joined the Marines. She was stationed in San Diego and then Okinawa for four years. Cara received several medals during her active duty, a hero in service to her country. She was a person who fiercely chased physical strength, and the Marines was a perfect fit for her.
Cara and Ann went to visit her, but this would not be an idyllic reunion by any means.
A beloved big sister
Ann recalls traveling to see Cara in the days when she was in the marines, “I’d never traveled before that. All the good things in my life came from Cara. She took me to my first movie. We went to see the David Letterman show in New York City. She was the best sister, and I always looked up to her. She was my best friend.”
While Cara was telling Ann everything was okay, she was secretly hoarding, among other things, empty boxes from items she ordered online. She sustained herself on nothing but Pepsi, vitamin water, beef jerky, and nuts.
After years of service in the Marines, Cara took a civilian job where she worked until retirement. A longtime fan of Doris Day, she had a shaggy sheepdog like the one that appeared on The Doris Day Show. Ann stayed in touch and called every day, even though they lived more than a thousand miles apart. As the years passed, Cara grew more distant and private, and she would hang up if Ann asked too many questions. Cara discouraged her sister from visiting. “I saw the place only once, right after she moved in. She had a bed, and there were lots of moving boxes, but nothing unusual. It was clean. I just assumed she was going to buy furniture,” Ann said.
But her assumptions were incorrect. For the next ten years, while Cara was telling Ann everything was okay, she was secretly hoarding, among other things, empty boxes from items she ordered online. She sustained herself on nothing but Pepsi, vitamin water, beef jerky, and nuts.
In addition to the food and drinks, Cara collected lots of dolls and toys. She was unable or unwilling to throw out what appeared to be at least a thousand boxes, cans, and other trash. Things were piled four feet high in some places, and to the ceiling in others. There were so many boxes that entire rooms became inaccessible. There was so much garbage that the front door was not passable, and there was no access to the bathroom upstairs. Underneath one six-foot-high pile of trash lay her marine medals. Beneath an old, empty refrigerator was a beautiful picture of her grandparents.
During their daily texts, there were a few clues that belied Cara’s seemingly carefree stance. Cara felt deserted after her first dog died, and then much more so when her mother died in 2003. Cara had health problems too. As a child, she’d suffered rheumatic fever, and she was on heart medication. Ann knew Cara was also on antidepressants. She had struggled with her weight all her life, and in 2003 underwent gastric bypass surgery. Cara lost a lot of weight and had a procedure to remove excess skin. She developed complications from that including a severe infection, and then congestive heart failure.
The detective remarked, “In all my years, I have never seen a case of hoarding like this.”
Hindsight is always 20/20, and in Ann’s mind, hints of how dire the situation was started to surface when Cara called during a heatwave in mid-summer 2019. Cara’s car battery had died, and her home air conditioning wasn’t working. A repair person had worked on the outside unit, but it still was not functioning. When Ann asked more questions, Cara was unusually tight-lipped. Ann started to wonder if maybe Cara had not wanted to let the service person inside for some reason. She grew even more worried by mid-August when a second heatwave struck, and Cara was suddenly not responding to her calls at all.
Calling for help
Ann called the police department in the town where Cara lived and insisted something must be wrong. Then, to her surprise, the police in Ann’s own hometown showed up at the door and asked her to please call a particular detective in New Jersey. On the telephone, the officer told Ann that when police arrived at Cara’s home, they could not open the front door because it was barred with piles of garbage. It took an entire day for them to get to her remains. They’d entered through a small, second-floor bedroom window. Once they made their way through mountains of rubbish in the bedroom, they found her severely decomposed body on the landing at the top of the stairs. The detective remarked, “In all my years, I have never seen a case of hoarding like this.”
Picking up the pieces
Manny was sickened and did not think he could go on with the job. He was ready to quit. After a short break, Manny composed himself and realized that he had to see this through. In a characteristically heroic deed, he had the dog cremated at his own expense.
Ann traveled to New Jersey. Her sister’s body was in such a state that cremation was the only option. She could not make it past the garage door because of the awful smell. Ann’s head was spinning with questions. She wondered, “How could my sister have lived in this?” Ann was compelled to find Cara’s cell phone, hoping she might find some answers there. She hired a local contractor, Manny Ventoso, Jr., to help with the clean-out. Job one was to locate Cara’s cell phone. “Manny was a Godsend,” Ann said, “he helped me through every minute of this; he is so compassionate, and genuinely cared about my family and me.”
Everyone was shocked to find the complete absence of furniture. There were no couches, no chairs, and not one single dish in the kitchen, nor food in the fridge. Instead, they found dozens of dolls and toys, a Cabbage Patch doll in once-perfect condition, covered in trash that had leaked through its packaging. Cara had never unpacked a single one of her original moving boxes.
The cleaning crew was quite shaken when they reached the second-floor bathroom and discovered the partially-decomposed corpse of a dog. There was a water dish and a dog toy nearby. With that, Manny was sickened and did not think he could go on with the job. He was ready to quit. After a short break, Manny pulled himself up and realized that he had to see this through. In a characteristically heroic deed, he had the dog cremated at his own expense.
After a full six months of taxing, dirty work, Manny and his crew had removed enough debris to fill ten twenty-foot dumpsters.
Tough to handle
Ann was beyond horrified. She knew Cara loved dogs and had always known how to take care of herself and others. Her best guess was that, as Cara grew more ill and the trash piled around her, she gave up the living room and front door, the kitchen, half of the second floor, and the bathroom. Perhaps the dog got sick and died, and Cara could not carry him out of the house. Or maybe she thought to keep him close by. Most of the boxes that Cara did empty were filled with excrement, as Cara could no longer get to the bathroom. Excrement was everywhere.
After a full six months of taxing, dirty work, Manny and his crew had removed enough debris to fill ten twenty-foot dumpsters. Then, when they thought the job was complete, he got a call from the realtor. The home’s entire structure, even the subfloor, had to be removed and rebuilt. It would be the only way to eliminate persistent odors.
I know she could not have realized it was as bad as it was. Until I saw the pictures, I could never have guessed, in a million years, that my sister could be that sick.” Ann continues, “I took her home and made sure she got a military funeral.
Back Home Again
Ann wants us to know that Cara was a kind, caring, and protective sister who was struck down by a terrible illness. She still has many questions but also accepts that she will have to live with a lot of unknowns. There was an autopsy, but what remained of Cara’s body was severely damaged. Ann did not get all of the answers she wanted. Medical examiners said Cara’s death was most likely due to heart failure.
Ann states, “I know she could not have realized it was as bad as it was. Until I saw the pictures, I could never have guessed, in a million years, that my sister could be that sick.” Ann continues, “I took her home and made sure she got a military funeral.”
Ann takes some comfort in knowing that her sister is home again. “Cara was all I had left of my family and, for so many reasons, I looked up to her. She was so strong, so independent, so capable. She made me laugh all the time, and wanted nothing but the best for me. Cara can now rest peacefully with our mom and grandparents.”