The body of a man, which was discovered while cleaning out the council house he was thought to have abandoned, is likely to have lain undiscovered for over a year, his inquest heard on Monday.
Michael Whiston (76), whose body was discovered in the back bedroom of his home at 3 Sallynoggin Road Lower, Dún Laoghaire, on February 3rd, 2022, was last seen alive on January 8th, 2021 when he collected his pension.
The inquest heard there had been three visits to the house between October 8th, 2021 and January 20th, 2022 by council staff, gardaí and cleaning contractors during which Mr Whiston’s body lay undiscovered as rubbish was piled so high his bedroom could not be accessed.
In a statement John Courage, husband of Tanya Courage – Mr Whiston’s niece – said he had last seen him on Christmas Eve 2019. He said he was the only family member who visited him in his latter years.
“Michael has lived alone since his mam died in about 2008,” said Mr Courage. “Michael went downhill after his mother’s death. For a couple of years he’d come out to our house for dinner at Christmas but after 2010 he stopped coming out altogether.”
He had helped organise a clear-out of the house, when Mr Whiston was out with other family, in 2014. “During a five-hour period they cleared out two trailer loads. When we got back Michael was angry and within six months it was nearly as bad again. After that he wouldn’t let me past the door.” With Covid-19 he stopped visiting him as regularly.
“Michael was one of four. He had three sisters and they had a very bad childhood. I believe this contributed to his depression and the way he lived. Michael never worked and never even left the country,” he said.
Garda Ciaran Stone of Dún Laoghaire told the inquest he accompanied staff from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to check on the property on October 15th, 2021. It had been boarded up on October 8th.
The staff were “concerned the tenant may be there as he had been known to leave and return sporadically”, he told the inquest.
“I was aware I was searching for a possible body and that the property was in bad condition... There was rubbish piled chest-high.” He said having attended a number of previous incidents of deceased people, he was “looking for indications of the same including visual signs, smell and flies... I couldn’t see a body.”
He had to make a pathway through “rubbish including milk cartons, piles of newspapers and alcohol bottles and climb over piles” to see into the kitchen. He was not aware there was a second bedroom at the back of the house.
Carmel Donlon, of the council’s housing allocations office, said the council got a report in January 2021 from a neighbour that Mr Whiston had not been seen since before Christmas 2020.
With no next of kin on file, the council contacted neighbours, consulted RIP.ie, local nursing homes and social workers for the elderly in the area. They also called to the house a few times. The last rent received had been deducted from his pension on January 20th, 2021.
“Normally you would hear if someone had moved or was missing,” said Ms Donlon. Covid restrictions hampered the council’s inquiries. With no response from Mr Whiston, on October 8th, 2021 a security company, contracted by the council, entered the house and took photos before securing it.
A further inspection, involving gardaí and council workers, took place a week later. A termination of tenancy notice was attached to the front door of the house on November 15th, 2021 and in February it was “returned to council maintenance section” to prepare it for reletting, said Ms Donlon.
The inquest heard the body had lain so long it “had gone past” producing a bad odour
Andrew Dempsey, operations manager with specialist cleaners the Ashford group, was contracted to clear the house and went there on January 20th, 2022 to take pictures and price the job. He had to climb across rubbish in the front room and couldn’t fully access the two bedrooms as they were blocked by rubbish.
Cleaners began work, clearing the front rooms, on February 1st.
Noel Cullen, cleaner, said they returned on February 2nd to continue clearing the house. They had to stop for a while after he found an old hand grenade dating from the Irish Civil War in the kitchen. It was removed and made safe. When they resumed cleaning, he finished the kitchen and proceeded to the second bedroom.
“The door only opened about a foot. I turned on the light switch and stuck my head around the door... I then saw practically a skeleton, the remains of a human. The body was in a sitting position on the bed. There appeared to be pillows under the body which was facing towards the door. I then realised that was why they couldn’t find this guy. He was here all the time,” said Mr Cullen. He said Mr Whiston had blankets up to his head.
Detective Sergeant Grace O’Boyle said she was called at 12.19pm to the house after the body was discovered. “He appeared to mummified,” she said. The inquest heard the body had lain so long it “had gone past” producing a bad odour.
Mr Whiston was identified by DNA evidence, comparing samples with nail clippings from his sister, Emer Greir, who had dementia and was estranged from her bothers for many years.
A postmortem by pathologist Heidi Okkers found he had been dead “at least six months”. His body had been partially preserved due to natural mummification and his internal organs were intact.
He was found to have suffered no injuries and had no drugs or alcohol in his system. Evidence of severe heart disease was found. It is likely he had been dead about a year, said coroner Dr Cróna Gallagher.
Describing the case as “sad” and “very unusual”, she returned a verdict of death by natural causes and gave a cause of death of “sudden cardiac death due to severe coronary artery disease”.