For at least 18 years, up until the day he died in February, Charles Coffman Jr. would tell whoever asked that he had placed his widowed mother Alma Ella Coffman in a Virginia state hospital far from the family's home in Mount Rainier.
Last week, an estate lawyer searching in the run-down house for documents yanked open a closet in a darkened bedroom, and beheld a leathery-skinned, henna-haired, partially mummified corpse. Prince George's County police concluded it was the body of Alma Ella Coffman, dead for almost two decades.
Charles Coffman Jr., a 55-year-old man who apparently had never had a job, died of natural causes Feb. 5 at his mother's house at 3417 Newton St. Police speculate that his mother's death went unreported for 18 years so that he could collect her monthly Social Security checks.
"We suspect foul play," said county police spokesman Arthur DiGennaro Jr., adding that police have only tentatively identified the body as the mother of Charles Coffman. County police have asked the Social Security Administration to examine the signatures on 18 years' worth of checks cashed under Alma Ella's name.
The affair unfolded last week when lawyer Michael Chapdelaine, at the behest of relatives, obtained a court order to search the one-story frame house where Charles Coffman had been found dead on the couch.
Entering with one of the Coffman family's longtime neighbors, the pair probed a room that Chapdelaine described as "cluttered beyond description" with old newspapers, cans and trash. It was a crypt-like room, in fact, with heavy curtains that asmitted no light, and only a naked bulb dangling from the ceiling.
Chapdelaine, and later police, had learned from neighbors along Newton Street that whenever someone had asked Charles about his mother, he had said he had placed her in Western State Hospital in Staunton, Va. After his death, neighbors had called the hospital and learned she had never been a patient there.
"I put two and two together," Chapdelaine said. "It all made me believe there was a possibility that the body was there and that's what we were looking for when we went into the house."
In the bedroom, they came to a closet door where the junk was the deepest, and there was masking tape and electrical tape stripped along the jamb.
The lawyer and the neighbor opened the door.
"It wasn't all that dramatic," Chapdelaine said. "It wasn't like we opened a door to get a coat and a body fell out." The pair dug down under several layers of heavy material.
"I didn't know what it was -- a rug or a mattress or something," Chapdelaine said. "I haven't flipped open any mummies lately, but certainly this one was in a bad state of decay. When we found it was a body, we called the police."
According to police, in the 18 years since the body had been in the closet, the white woman's skin had turned brown and acquired a leathery texture. She was dressed in an olive drab Army jacket, a white waitress uniform, nylon stockings and white leather shoes, perhaps the uniform she had worn as a waitress at the now-defunct John's Restaurant in Mount Rainier.
"The skin is very, very hard." said Sgt. Robert Law of the county police. "Mismovement might crack it. It's just like bacon rind when it dries up."
According to medical examiner Dr. Thomas Stone, the medical examiners see a handful of mummification cases a year. It is not as uncommon an event as the general public might believe.
"Bodies after death can follow any number of paths to change; one is mummification. If you are laid to rest in a dry environment you're not going to be subject to outside forces. As long as the air is reasonably warm and dry and free of insects, the body can mummify."
Like many in Mount Rainier, Newton Street is home to a mixture of retired senior citizens who have lived there for a generation and young newcomers who do not know all of their neighbors.
The house itself was always dark, no lights on at night, no windows open in the summer, nothing. He kept the house completely closed up," said a neighbor who lived three doors from Coffman for three years. "It just looked like a vacant house," she said. Josie Bass, who also lived a few doors from Coffman for eight years, said she never imagined anyone living in the house "with paint faded almost down to the wood."
All I saw was the old guy who lived in the house. He always had on a long strange Army-colored coat. And a shopping bag.He always had a vacant look in his eyes. He never spoke. I would say 'good morning' or 'good evening' and he never spoke."