Johnny Griffin, 59 and a retired D.C. government employe, was a familiar sight to his neighbors on Perry Place and 14th Street NW. He did the shopping and other chores for his 72-year-old sister and her 54-year-old son, both invalids.
Yesterday, when neighbors hadn't seen Griffin for about three days, they called police and asked them to check on the family. When Fire Department paramedics entered the home, they found Griffin's body in a second-floor bedroom. He had apparently been dead for two or three days.
Downstairs in the living room, they found his sister and her son. They were lying in their own excrement, huddled around a battery-operated space heater, in a house that had been without heat for nine months and without water for a year and a half. Police said they hadn't eaten since Monday.
Police said the cause of death will be determined by an autopsy today, but that Griffin may have died of hypothermia or a heart attack.
His sister, Sarah Griffin, and her son Ulysses, were taken by D.C. fire department ambulance to Howard University Hospital, where they were undergoing tests last night. Both were listed in fair condition, a hospital spokesman said.
Police said the two "were just too old to care for themselves," and that they relied on Johnny Griffin to see to their daily needs. Ulysses, known by neighbors as Newt, is a diabetic who suffered a stroke last summer, friends said, and Sarah suffered from "old age."
Police and fire officials said they were called to the home on Perry Place NW, by neighbors.
"Me and a friend were at the laundromat saying we hadn't seen anyone over there in a few days," said Margaret Baltimore, who lives across the street from the Griffins. "We knew the son, Newt, was sick, and there hadn't been any lights on in the house the past couple of nights."
Baltimore said she and Harold Miller, an employe at the laundromat, knocked on the front door and called by telephone but received no answer.
The owner of the corner market also became concerned when Griffin, who bought coffee and hot food for the family every morning and afternoon, didn't show up for two days.
At 6:30 a.m. yesterday, Miller called police, who broke into the house through a basement window and found Sarah Griffin and her son in the living room, one lying on a couch and one on the floor, both "disoriented," police said. They said a television was on, and between them was a battery-operated space heater. Neither mentioned Johnny Griffin, police said.
"They police went in and found the mother and son and then they left, saying they couldn't do anything because they both refused medical treatment," Baltimore said.
About five hours later, she said, "I called police again and I explained the conditions."
Fire department paramedics arrived at 12:15 p.m., about the same time as Junior Bellamy, a friend of the family.
"Apparently they didn't go through the house the first time they were there," Bellamy said. "I knew the uncle was living there, and we went upstairs togther and found his body."
"It was terrible. There was no heat or hot water. They had two lamps, two TVs and two small heaters, but it was still cold inside," Bellamy said. "They had no blankets. When it got cold, like on Sunday and Monday, they relied on Johnny to go out and get them warm food."
Paul Young, a spokesman for the Washington Gas Light Co., said the Griffins owed "several hundred dollars" in back heating bills, and their heat was cut off on April 23, 1984.
Terminating service, Young said, "Is the last thing we want to do . . . . It's the last resort."
Young said that the company makes every effort to notify customers before shutting the gas off and tries to reach some arrangement for scheduling payment of back bills. However, he said, "Once it's off . . . we expect to hear from the customers. But if we don't, we don't know if the person's moved out or what."
A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works said that water service to the home was stopped on July 20, 1983, because of an unpaid bill of $1,435.
Valdon Walker, a social worker with the D.C. Department of Human Services, said the city is seeking alternative placement and support services for the Griffins.
They are physically incapacitated and not ambulatory, he said. City officials are trying to track down leads on family members to see if any could take them in.
DHS spokesman Charles M. Seigel said the two were to stay at the hospital overnight and be released this morning and that the social worker will find housing for them.