Cass County investigates brother of emaciated man found dead in unheated rural farmhouse
By Emily Welker /The Forum
FARGO – Cass County authorities are investigating the brother of a 58-year-old man found dead, emaciated and gnawed by rodents in an unheated and filthy rural farmhouse after the brother told deputies he had neglected the man before his death.
The living brother had been in control of the 58-year-old’s financial affairs and provided him with a daily meal, court records say. So much trash had stacked up inside the house that he could only open the door a crack and hand the food and drink to his brother, according to a search warrant affidavit filed Monday in Cass County District Court.
The farmhouse was full of excrement because it hadn’t had running water for six months, authorities said in the warrant application. Though they once lived together, the living brother told investigators he moved to a shop on the farmstead that was heated. Utility records indicated the house had little or no heat since June 2013, according to the affidavit.
Cass County Sgt. Mitch Burris said the case is being investigated as a suspicious death.
“It’s an investigation that’s in the infant stages,” said Burris, who added that it is an extremely rare case for Cass County.
The living brother hasn’t been charged in connection with the death. His name is being withheld by The Forum because he isn’t yet charged. The name of the deceased brother and the area where they lived aren’t being disclosed to avoid identifying the living brother.
Attempts to reach the living brother Tuesday were not successful.
Piles of garbage
The warrant affidavit says Detective Patricia Wasmuth was dispatched to the rural Cass County farmhouse Jan. 12 on a report of the unattended death of a man. A neighbor across the road and the man’s brother told Wasmuth the 58-year-old seemed agoraphobic and had not left the farmhouse for four years. Agoraphobia is a disorder that can cause some people to have severe anxiety about being in wide-open spaces.
The neighbor told deputies she could often hear the brothers yelling at each other from across the street.
Inside the home, deputies found the dead man surrounded by stacks and piles of garbage. Rodents ran across his body, which was so thin the bones protruded through his skin. His feet and ankles showed the purple marks and open sores of frostbite, the search warrant says. The temperature outside had been as cold as 20 degrees below during the recent cold snap.
The brother who died was dressed only in a belt holding up a makeshift diaper, with some torn clothing cuffs around his ankles. There were fresh rodent bites on it. The smell was so strong it was nearly impossible to remain inside, the affidavit says.
The coroner told deputies they would have to come back with proper breathing apparatus and a hazmat suit to protect them from the detritus of the garbage, the rodents and the human excrement.
‘Couldn’t take it anymore’
The 58-year-old’s brother told the deputy there had been no running water or working plumbing in the home for six months. For the past several years, he said he had brought his brother one meal a day and a 16-ounce bottle of water. Sometimes he would also bring him a Hi-C or hot chocolate from McDonald’s, and baked goods from Cash Wise, the brother told authorities.
In an interview two days later on Jan. 14, the brother told Wasmuth he had cared for his brother for the past four years, but he admitted he had been neglecting him the past six months, authorities claim in the affidavit.
His life would be better without his brother in it, and he had expected his brother’s death for some time, he told investigators.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” the search warrant affidavit quotes the brother as saying in that interview.
The man said he heard his brother call for help and did nothing on Jan. 10, two day before deputies first arrived. He saw him that night and the next, and finally called 911 on Jan. 12 and told the dispatcher his brother needed help.
The man also told Wasmuth he hadn’t been able to forget what his brother had said to him three years earlier, after the sibling had been in a car crash. The now-dead brother told him he wished the crash had killed him, he recalled for investigators.
He did have “a little bit” of regret over his brother’s death, he told the detective.
The brother also told Wasmuth he managed the dead man’s financial affairs, which included his Social Security checks, plus a trust their father left for him. He was the owner of the farmhouse, the shop and all the outbuildings on the property, the brother said.
The brother told the detective he had more than $500,000 in his bank account. The detective’s investigation showed that the trust for the dead brother was down to its last $6, and the brother was in fact in charge of the dead man’s financial accounts.
Deputies seized financial documents from the property, including bank statements and tax forms.
Though he wasn’t speaking about this case specifically, Joseph Parise, who is the managing attorney of the public defender’s office based in Moorhead, said in potential neglect cases that involve two adults, a formal arrangement would typically need to be in place to establish one as being responsible for the other.
That could include having power of attorney or a court order of guardianship or conservatorship, he said.
A search of North Dakota court records showed no conservatorship or guardianship cases involving either brother.
Cass County Social Services Director Chip Ammerman said Tuesday he could not comment on whether anyone had ever reported the man or his brother to the county’s adult services division, citing confidentiality rules.
Burris declined to provide further comment, since the case was such a new one.
“Everybody has been cooperating” who was involved in the case, he said.