The message scrolled across Detective Carlos Hilliard's pager toward the end of another long day: skeleton found in a bathtub in a Northwest Washington rowhouse.
After 22 years on the police force, Hilliard was used to such calls; usually the remains turn out to be those of a dog or a cat or some other animal.
Not this time.
Hilliard drove to the rowhouse, where officers were interviewing neighbors and the man who had found the bones, an investor whose group bought the property at auction in a tax sale.
The lights did not work, so it was hard to see, Hilliard said, but he could make out disarray, mildew, spiderwebs, peeling paint, broken furniture and heaps of newspapers and boxes. Sheets of classical music were scattered around a baby grand piano on the main floor.
Reaching the second floor, Hilliard went into the bathroom. The skeleton lay on its back in the tub. Clothing hung from a hanger on the shower rod.
In the bedroom, Hilliard found a wallet, and inside was a CVS receipt for a 99-cent can of shaving cream. It was dated March 18, 2000. There was also a driver's license with a photograph of an elderly man whose address matched the house's: 513 Florida Ave. NW. Hilliard had his first clue.
A Dapper Figure
Edmund A. Wilson traveled across the District in his long career as an Avon salesman, dapper in tie and jacket as he delivered eyeliner and perfume. Tall and thin, he worked until he was at least 80 and slightly stooped. He seemed to enjoy talking with colleagues but spoke little about himself.
Then, sometime in the late 1990s, Wilson stopped showing up. Neighbors no longer saw him lugging groceries home to the Florida Avenue rowhouse where he had grown up and which he had owned for 40 years. One neighbor assumed that he had moved to a nursing home.
Wilson last paid his property taxes in 1999. The next year, the electricity was turned off for nonpayment. In 2002, the District auctioned his house; the sale became final this May, six months before the new owners surveyed the property for the first time and discovered the skeleton.
Unclothed and dried up, the remains appeared to be those of a man in his seventies or eighties. Investigators are trying to determine the cause of death and identify the skeleton, but they say it may have been Wilson's. "This guy lay down to take a bath and died," said Hilliard, a member of the special victims unit. "And not having anyone to check on him, that's where he remained."
The corpse, investigators say, may have been in the tub for as long as five years.
The 500 block of Florida Avenue, not far from the Howard Theater, is in a neighborhood full of the sounds of power tools, with developers transforming dilapidated brick buildings into sleek condominiums.
Since the discovery of the skeleton, there's been another chatter, as neighbors wonder how someone who had lived among them for so long could disappear so quietly, so abruptly, without raising questions. "It's like a soldier missing and no one inquiring about him," said James Patterson, 69, his Washington Redskins cap pulled low as he stood a couple of blocks away outside the nook of a candy store he owns.
"He's a man who has a home. A middle-class man, maybe even a rich man," said Patterson, who did not know Wilson. "He's not flat on the ground. I don't understand it. Nobody asks nothing about him?"
Eight doors from the three-story house where Wilson lived, Aaron T. Whitaker, who has had a dental practice there for 20 years, said he could not recall ever meeting Wilson. Since the discovery, he said, he has found himself thinking about what it's like to be old and to live alone. "It's unbelievable that a person could pass as though he were never here," Whitaker said.
To a large degree, the reason for the mystery is the man himself. By neighbors' accounts, Wilson was that most singular urban archetype: the recluse. He never married or had children. They noticed him, it seems, out of the corners of their eyes, as he caught the bus or took out the trash or made his way up his black metal stairs.
Alfred Bank Michaux, 78, lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years and is one who claims direct contact with Wilson. On a number of occasions, he said, he swept Wilson's steps and took out his trash, sometimes going into his home, which he said was cluttered with stacks of newspapers and Avon cartons.
"The only time you'd see him was coming out of his house with that Avon bag, going to catch the bus," said Michaux, who had bought some Avon products for his wife.
Wilson, he said, told Michaux that he was an only child and that his mother had been overly protective. "He said his mother wouldn't let him go out and play," said Michaux, leaning on his cane as he gazed at Wilson's former home. "He never associated with anybody. . . . He was always by himself."
Wilson's presence on the block goes back to at least 1923, when his mother, Caroline J. Dudley Wilson, bought the house, which she shared with an assortment of boarders, including a barber, a chauffeur, a servant and a bellboy, according to the 1930 U.S. Census. In answers to that survey, Caroline Wilson gave her age as 43, her birthplace as North Carolina and her occupation as housekeeper. She also said that she was the mother of 12-year-old Edmund, who was born in the West Indies, and that his father, unnamed in the census, was Jamaican.
It is unclear what became of Caroline Wilson and the father, but her son took over the rowhouse in 1962, according to D.C. property records. His name replaced hers in the city directory in the mid-1960s and next to it, "SLSMN," the abbreviation for salesman.
As far back as the 1950s, Wilson sold Avon products and regularly racked up enough sales to be included in the company's prestigious President's Club, reserved for the top 10 percent of salespeople in the country. Ruth Black, who managed Avon's Northwest Washington office in the late 1970s, said Wilson was so adept that she could not recall his ever needing help. "He knew what he was doing," she said.
As recently as the late 1990s, when he was nearly 80, Wilson regularly visited the office on the edge of Mount Pleasant to drop off orders and pay bills. "He wasn't one who shared information," said Cynthia Lowery, an Avon manager from 1997 to 2000. "He was focused on business."
At some point, Lowery said, his visits stopped, but she thought little of it because that sometimes happened with older sales staff. She could not recall how her office responded to his absence but said typically the staff sends letters and makes phone calls to inquire. "If we don't hear from them, we have to make the assumption that they decided not to continue their business," she said.
"I do know that we did miss him," she said.
On the Auction Block
Wilson left far less of an impression on Florida Avenue, particularly in the past decade. Stanley Mayes, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who until 1995 maintained an office three doors from Wilson's house, said he liked to take the Avon boxes the elderly man put out with the trash to use for files. "I'd see him out there with that little hat, maybe cleaning up his steps or putting out the boxes," he said. "But I never did any interacting with him."
Shelby Howard, 54, an engineer whose apartment adjoins Wilson's rowhouse, said he thought that he had moved to a Florida nursing home. "I forgot I had a neighbor," he said.
After Wilson failed to pay $336 in property taxes and did not respond to subsequent warnings, his was among the houses that the District put up for auction in 2002, a sale the city holds annually to pressure owners to pay their back taxes.
Edward P. Wilson, who is no relation, and Barry Gediman were the winning bidders, buying it for $2,264.54. But they did not take possession until this year, and only after the District sought to give those with a claim to the house a chance to get it back. No one came forward. Maryann Young, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which administers the auctions, said it is not general policy for a D.C. government employee to inspect the property before the transfer.
Edward Wilson would not comment on the purchase, and Gediman did not respond to a phone message. An associate, Jerry Nielsen, discovered the remains on a visit Sept. 26, police said. When investigators arrived, they said, they were struck by many signs of disrepair. In the kitchen, they found no stove or refrigerator.
"The scene tells you that in the latter part of his life, he wouldn't leave his home," Hilliard said.
The remains were taken to the chief medical examiner's office, which has brought in a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution.
On Florida Avenue in the days after the discovery, Taw Vigittaboot, who opened a Thai restaurant next door to the rowhouse, said he swept up and threw away the junk mail piling up outside. He didn't get it all. On the top step was a hearing notice from D.C. Superior Court. Slipped under the front door was an unopened Pepco bill.
Inside the house where Edmund A. Wilson spent his life, visible through a grimy ground-floor window, was a room filled with strips of rotting wood, cans of roof coating, oversize bags of plaster and an open hardback ledger.
Beneath it all was a cardboard box with "AVON" printed in bright-blue lettering.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt, newsroom intranet editor Jacqueline Dupree and staff writer Cheryl Thompson contributed to this report.