But this was not the man he had known. The man who had served in the White House for almost 50 years, under every president from Kennedy to Obama. The man who read and catalogued many of the documents that flow through the Oval Office: memos to the president, letters, pieces of legislation, nomination packets, even classified material that required him to have a security clearance.
This man was inexplicably living in squalor, seemingly without electricity or running water, and hiding under a hooded overcoat and multiple layers of clothing no matter how hot it got. He wasn’t just a public nuisance but, Dobbins feared, a danger to himself. For more than two years, Dobbins and James’s family members in Mississippi repeatedly called every city office they could think of — the Department of Mental Health, Adult Protective Services, his council member, the mayor — hoping to get James help and prevent the worst.
Then, on Aug. 1, after the punishing heat wave that pushed the heat index to 112, Dobbins woke up worried because he hadn’t seen his friend in two days. He knocked on the door loudly with a baseball bat. There was no answer. He checked the Rite Aid where James bought his breakfast, which was often green tea and Doritos, but no one had seen him.
So once again, he picked up the phone and called 911. The firefighters who responded had a hard time getting the door open. Something was blocking it. Something heavy, like a body.
The medical examiner would later determine that James, 71, died of heat exposure.
At least that much is known, but there is no simple answer for how a once-fastidious, much-praised civil servant came to this end. Social services officials won’t comment on his case specifically but say they are often constrained when adults refuse help, even when it is evident that they need it.
Now family, friends, former colleagues at the White House and D.C. officials are left to wonder: Could James’s death have been prevented?
* * *
Education was always important to the James family. Theo James’s grandfather is thought to have been the first African American doctor in Columbus, Miss., and his home is featured as an attraction on the city’s conventions and visitors Web site. James’s father, a brick mason, attended boarding school and Tuskegee University, according to Avee James, his sister-in-law.
When Theo James was a senior in high school, his family sent him to live with his aunt in the District, where they thought he could get a better education at Western High School — now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. After graduation, he attended Howard University, and in the early 1960s he started working part-time for the White House, filing documents. In 1970, he gained admission to Howard’s medical school but attended for one year, deciding that his grandfather’s profession was not for him. Instead, he took a full-time job with the White House in the Office of Records Management.
He worked his way up to the classification section, which handles “the more-important documents at the White House — all the things the president sees, with some exceptions,” said Phil Droege, the office’s director.
That meant that during his career, James likely had an inner look at some of the most important moments in history: the civil rights movement, Watergate, Vietnam, Iran-Contra, the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Whenever we had new people or interns, everybody is busy here, but he would take the time to have a chat with them and tell them the history of this place,” said Droege, who worked with James for 19 years. “He lived a good chunk of it.”
James, known to close friends as “Sonny,” was quiet and dignified. “Whether he was speaking to the president of the United States or the cleaning lady, he treated them with the same amount of respect and interest,” Droege said.
He was so self-effacing that some of his neighbors had no idea that they were living near a man who worked in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, had met every president since Kennedy and had pored over some of the most sensitive material of their administrations. “He never talked about his job,” said Bernadette Sykes, who for nearly 20 years lived two doors away from him.
Instead, he talked about philosophy and justice, current events and history. “It was never about what the weather was like,” she said. “It was serious, and it would go on for half an hour.”
James never married or, as far as Dobbins could tell, dated. A slight, skinny man and an early riser, he visited rare-book stores and collected books and magazines. He had little furniture, and the only television he owned was an old black-and-white set Dobbins gave him 25 years ago. Occasionally, he smoked a pipe while sitting on his porch.
In 2006, he was making $62,566 a year and would have built up a solid pension. He gave generously to Catholic Charities.
Evenings after work, he would sweep and rake in front of his home at 1208 Madison St. and then continue on, cleaning up the rest of the block. “We would tell the kids not to litter because Theo would have to clean it up,” said Peggy Kennedy, another neighbor. “And then suddenly, he stopped. It was like he was a different person.”
He started to withdraw at work, too, and reluctantly retired in 2009.
“It may have been that he realized he was having problems that were going to make it difficult for him to continue working at the White House,” Droege said.
After retirement, he cut himself off from almost everyone. He stopped the long sidewalk chats with Sykes. He lost touch with his co-workers. He stopped calling Mississippi to speak with his brother and his two nephews and niece, even as his brother’s chronic anemia worsened. His family wrote him letters, begging him to come home, where they could look after him. But he demurred.
They wanted to come to Washington to get him, said Avee James, the sister-in-law. But they had three children to worry about, their means were limited and James’s brother was in and out of the hospital. They were in almost daily contact with Dobbins and repeatedly calling the same city agencies that Dobbins had been trying.
“They said they couldn’t do anything unless he agreed to it,” Avee James recalled. “They said they couldn’t force him.”
A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Mental Health declined to comment on any interaction it might have had with James, citing privacy concerns.
But in a statement, she wrote: “A person has the right to refuse mental health services like any other health service (a person with cancer can refuse chemotherapy). And the law is clear that government can only commit a person to a psychiatric facility against their will if there is a clinical assessment of danger to self or others. If we think mental health services would be helpful but commitment is not called for, we make every effort to encourage treatment.”
* * *
In the months after James’s retirement, his condition got worse. When Dobbins bought him a new pair of pants, he put them on over the fetid, stained pants he was wearing. The trash inside his home grew to three feet high. The grass in his front and back yards grew waist-high. The rear first-floor windows cracked and fell out. James started drinking and chain-smoking cigarettes.
Dobbins outfitted his own home with nine smoke detectors in case the trash in James’s home caught fire from the cigarettes.
If James had running water or electricity, he didn’t use it. He would go to McDonald’s or to Dobbins’s home to charge the disposable cellphones he occasionally bought. Dobbins believes that the utilities were shut off (citing privacy concerns, Pepco and DC Water would not say whether James had water and electric service).
Back at James’s old office, retirement letters flowed in.
President George H.W. Bush wrote: “You leave with pride for having served with honor and distinction.”
Nancy Reagan wrote: “You have every reason to be proud.”
President George W. Bush wrote: “Laura and I send our best wishes as you move on to the next chapter of your life.”
James ignored entreaties from former colleagues to get in touch. He never saw the letters.
* * *
Dobbins and James’s family continued to call city agencies, but it was clear that James didn’t want help from anyone: He shooed away the social workers and mental-health counselors who showed up on his doorstep, Dobbins said. He told them that he was fine and got angry at Dobbins for calling them.
Last year, Dobbins stepped out his front door and saw James slumped over on his front porch, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. Shortly afterward, Dobbins found him again in a state of exhaustion on his porch. “Please call 911,” James whispered. Both times, he was hospitalized.
By then, Dobbins was exasperated — with the city and with his old friend. He wrote the mayor’s office a lengthy letter detailing James’s living conditions and efforts to get him help: “I believe that the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions constitute a public nuisance and pose an imminent danger to Mr. James and to his adjacent neighbors.”
Numerous city agencies responded to Dobbins’s pleas to help his friend. But he said he remained frustrated that James wasn’t getting the help he needed.
In response to an inquiry from The Washington Post, a spokesman for the city’s Adult Protective Services unit said that it “aggressively investigates reports of alleged abuse, neglect and exploitation of frail, elderly and disabled adults and intervenes to protect vulnerable adults who are at risk of harming themselves or being harmed by others.
“We are very concerned about this tragic death, and are conducting an investigation of all circumstances surrounding this matter.”
On Saturday morning, James was buried in Columbus, not far from the home he grew up in.
* * *
Last summer, the city sent a hazmat crew to remove 10 buckets of human feces and urine from James’s porch, charging James $1,895. Earlier this year, it sent a contractor to fix the rotted wood on his deck, scrape away peeling paint and repaint the wood surfaces. For that, it charged him $6,035.
When James did not pay either bill, the city placed a lien on his house; it has not been removed, and accruing interest has added more than $700 to the bill.
On Wednesday, nine days after James was found dead, someone from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs affixed two $500 citations to the plywood board that the city put up to cover his front door.
One was for “Excessive vegetative growth.”
The other: “Excessive trash, debris, and unsecured vacant property. Hazard to human life.”
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.