Wanda Taylor, 51, died unexpectedly on Wednesday Feb. 27, on her bed inside her apartment — No. 5, at 607 Summer Street in Eureka. Later that night, Taylor's sister, Barbara Mitchell, received the news by telephone from their brother Michael.
Mitchell lives in Orick. The rest of the family lives elsewhere in California and in other states. So it fell to Mitchell to take care of initial details — a difficult position for anyone to be in. But according to Mitchell, her sister's landlords, Floyd and Betty Squires — a couple infamous in Eureka for their low-rent and often trouble-ridden apartments — didn't make things any easier. On the morning after her sister's death, says Mitchell, Floyd Squires told her she had to clear out her sister's apartment that very day.
The Squires deny this. Floyd Squires, by phone last Thursday, said that Mitchell indicated she wanted to clear out the apartment immediately, and so he hired two workers to help her. "There was no reason she couldn't have taken longer," he said.
But suppose Mitchell's claim is true — did the Squires break the law? And, even if not, where's the compassion for a grieving family?
Last Thursday, Mitchell sat at her desk at a podiatry office in Arcata, where she's the office manager and podiatry assistant, and told her story.
Taylor, Mitchell said, was her half-sister, although as close as a sister can be. Her sister had mental problems, she said, which increased after Taylor's dad died some years ago. "She loved to do decoupage. She was always telling me stories and stuff I knew were not true. She had these imaginations. And she was loaded with tattoos on her arms. But each one of them had meanings for her. She said we were related to Willie Nelson."
Taylor also had severe neck pain — an old injury from her paramedic days, for which she took prescribed Vicodin. She wasn't working anymore and survived on Social Security checks.
Mitchell had talked to her on the phone two days before she died. "She had been sick the week before with a real bad cough," said Mitchell. "She called me on Monday — she'd given me a knife set, and she wanted to know if I liked it. And I told her I loved it, because it was in different colors. She sounded a little bit better."
On Wednesday, she was dead. Mitchell called her sister's landlord, Floyd Squires, the next morning. She told him that her nephew — Taylor's son, Jesse Cantrall — was coming up from Martinez on Friday to go through his mother's things, and could they get into her apartment then?
"He said, 'OK,'" Mitchell recalled. "Then he called me back about 9:45 and said there was stuff out in the hall, and he didn't know if it was my sister's things or not. So he told me to get over there."
When Mitchell got there, she saw the stuff on the landing but it wasn't her sister's. Squires let her into the apartment. Mitchell said she noticed that a piece of wall was missing in the bathroom and that there were cockroaches running up the curtains.
"He [Squires] asked me, 'Well, how long do you need?'" Mitchell said. "And I said, 'Maybe a week or two. I work full time and can only come by on the weekend and evenings.' And he said, 'I can't give that to you. You've got to get out of here today.' He said he was worried about break-ins."
So Mitchell went out to buy plastic bags and to rent a storage unit, then came back and starting sorting things into a trash pile and a keep pile. She took a load to the unit. When she got back, one of the Squires' workers was in her sister's apartment stuffing things into bags. "He didn't care what it was or anything else, he was just stuffing," she said. Another worker showed up.
"They put dirty dishes, everything, in trash bags," she said. "I took stuff out of the refrigerator to throw away — you know, there was food in pans and stuff, and I said, 'Don't put these in bags, I'll come back and clean 'em.' So I came back — all the dishes, they had turkey grease, spaghetti and stuff, it was all thrown in the storage bags."
They also threw in things belonging to Aaron Kangas and his 15-year-old son, Charlie, who'd lived with Taylor since November. (The Kangases said last week that the Squires told them they had to leave, and yet the Squires wouldn't let them get into the apartment to get their things. They're now staying in a motel.)
Mitchell said she just kept taking loads to storage, until she quit at 5 p.m., worn out. "I was in shock," she said. "If I had been thinking right that day, he wouldn't have pushed me. But I wasn't — you get a shock, a call that you're sister just passed away, and you just talked to her two days prior... ."
When she called the Squires to say she'd be back the next afternoon to finish, Betty Squires answered. "She said to me, 'If I'd known your sister was a drug addict I would've kicked her out a long time ago,'" Mitchell said. "Come on, you don't say that to someone whose sister just died."
She said her nephew showed up midday Friday to find that most of the rest of his mother's things had been taken out onto the landing, or dumped outside on the ground, and were being picked over by people walking by. (Squires confirmed, later, that his workers had done that. "I thought she was going to stay later," he said.)
Cantrall said last Friday by phone that when he went into the apartment, it was not only nearly empty but in the process of being gutted — carpet and sink already removed. "What upset me was I didn't get to go through my mother's things," he said. "I talked to the deputy, Roy Horton, and he told me the landlord couldn't touch anything. It's just wrong what he'd done."
Cantrall said he will have to come back soon to help his aunt pick through the stinking mess in the storage unit. Mitchell, meanwhile, says she might file a civil suit against the Squires — especially, she said, since a neighbor told her that Taylor had paid her rent a month in advance. She also is upset with how the Kangases were treated.
Floyd Squires, however, says Taylor had paid only through the end of February. As for the roommates, he said he didn't tell them to leave.
Last Friday, by phone, Deputy Horton said he tended to believe Mitchell's and the roommates' story. "I told them [the father and son], they can't just kick them out," Horton said. "My understanding is, they're allowed to stay 30 days if they've established residency."
The law is, however, rather specific about what happens to a lease when a tenant dies. This Monday, civil self-help attorney Rachel McVean explained that if a tenant is on a month-to-month lease, then, according to California civil code, if the tenant dies her lease expires 30 days from the last time she paid the rent. So, if Taylor had paid her rent on Feb. 1, then it was good through March 1, said McVean. Her roommates' tenancy would end at the same time, with the lease. "And the landlord doesn't have to give them notice," McVean said.
This means that, if what Squires says about the rent is true, Taylor's family — and the Kangases — would only have had a few days to empty her apartment because she died so late in the month. Even so, the Squires might still have jumped the gun by a couple of days if what Mitchell says about being rushed is true.
Late Monday afternoon, Coroner Frank Jager said the results of the autopsy on Wanda Taylor had come back. "She died from a morphine overdose complicated by severe pneumonia," Jager said. "The doctor felt the pneumonia we found was probably enough to cause her death. But the morphine levels in her system were five times the amount considered potentially toxic."
Jager said the overdose is being ruled accidental. Taylor was prescribed morphine and oxycodone, which is opiate-based. "The more you take, it kind of zones you out, and if you're sick you might [be affected] more. And, unfortunately, it's a downward spiral."
Mitchell and the rest of the family planned to hold a service for Taylor sometime this week in Martinez.