inquest | 

OAP’s skeletal remains lay undiscovered in council house for year, despite official visits

The discovery of Michael Whiston’s (76) mummified remains were made by cleaners employed to clear rubbish from what officials believed was an abandoned property

Garda Ciaran Stone and Detective Sergeant Grace O'Boyle leaving Dublin District Coroner's Court earlier today after giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Michael Whiston, who lay undiscovered at his home for around a year. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin© Colin Keegan

Seán McCarthaighIndependent.ie

The skeletal remains of the tenant of a council house probably remained undiscovered for 12 months despite three visits inside the property in the intervening period by council staff, their agents and gardaí, an inquest has heard.

A sitting of Dublin District Coroner’s Court heard concern had been raised about the welfare of the tenant, Michael Whiston (76) with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council by a neighbour. This was over a year before his body was found in the back bedroom of his home at Sallynoggin Road Lower on February 2, 2022.

The discovery of Mr Whiston’s mummified remains were made by cleaners employed by the council to clear large amounts of rubbish from what officials believed was an abandoned property.

The single-storey, two-bedroom cottage had been evacuated just hours earlier after an unexploded hand grenade was discovered in a frying pan in the kitchen before being made safe by army bomb-disposal experts. The grenade was believed to date from the Irish Civil War.

A post-mortem examination on Mr Whiston’s body revealed he had died of a suspected heart attack which had probably occurred in early 2021.

Detective Sergeant Grace O’Boyle told the inquest that there was no evidence of foul play.

Det Sgt O’Boyle said a canvas of residents in the area was unable to determine when Mr Whiston had last been seen alive, while there was no evidence of any visits by him to local doctors or dentists.

However, gardaí had been able to confirm that he last collected his pension on January 8, 2021, before it was stopped the following week.

She described the deceased as a single man with no history of employment, adding that he was “a recluse who rarely left his house”. He was agoraphobic and an alcoholic.

Garda Ciaran Stone described how he went to the property on October 15, 2021, with council staff on the understanding that a body might be discovered as the premises were “in a bad condition”.

Gda Stone said Mr Whiston was known to leave and return to the house sporadically.

He told the coroner Cróna Gallagher that the front door was blocked by mounds of rubbish, while it was “chest-high” in the sitting room.

Gda Stone said there were none of the usual signs or smells, such as the presence of flies, that would lead someone to suspect there was a decomposing body. There was, however, a smell of “spoilt milk and old newspapers”.

He stated that a mantelpiece collapsed when he leaned on it to balance while trying to climb over a pile of rubbish to see into the kitchen. He was unaware at the time that there was another bedroom at the back of the kitchen, as access to the kitchen was blocked by rubbish.

In response to questions from Dr Gallagher, he said he was satisfied that no third parties had been dumping rubbish in the property.

An administrative officer with the housing section of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Carmel Donlon, said the council had been contacted on January 11, 2021, by a neighbour of the deceased who was concerned that he had not been seen since the previous Christmas.

Ms Donlon said Mr Whiston, who had been a tenant of the property with his late mother, Marie, since August 2008, had no known next-of-kin.

She claimed the council had checked with neighbours, the RIP.ie website, local nursing homes and social welfare workers as well as calling to the property over the following months.

She gave evidence that no rent had been paid on the property since January 20, 2021, which started a process for the council to consider the house abandoned.

Ms Donlon said workers with a security firm had called to Mr Whiston’s home on October 8, 2021, and taken photos inside the property before replacing the front door with a heavy, metal security door.

She said an inspection of the property was carried out by council staff in the company of gardaí on October 15, 2021, while a notice was attached to the door three days later notifying the tenant that the council intended to terminate the tenancy.

The inquest heard another notice confirming the termination of the tenancy was posted on the door on November 15, 2021.

Ms Donlon said it was standard procedure for the council to wait another two months before repossessing a property.

She told the coroner that the only way the council had of contacting Mr Whiston was by knocking on his door. Ms Donlon said the council was hugely dependent on tenants, their families and the community to find out if tenants were no longer in a property.

“Generally, it works,” she remarked.

The inquest heard that there had been previous incidents in 2015 and 2016, when he had not paid his rent for long periods, but there was no past history of complaints about the condition of the property.

Ms Donlon said there were a variety of reasons why tenants would not pay their rent and death was “not usually the first thought”.

She said the council had not assumed that Mr Whiston was dead as the events had occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic when “people did behave very differently”.

The official also stated that council staff were “not so proactive” in pursuing tenants for not paying rent at the time.

She said there would have been no need to carry out regular inspections of the property while Mr Whiston was a tenant.

Andrew Dempsey, the operations manager of commercial cleaning company the Ashwood Group, said he had visited the property on January 20, 2022, to price the job of clearing waste on behalf of the council.

Mr Dempsey said he was only able to stick his head around two rooms to take photos because of the scale of the rubbish. He did not notice any of the usual signs that would suggest there was a dead body on the premises.

The inquest heard it would take four workers three to four days to fully clean up the property.

Another employee of the Ashwood Group, Noel Cullen, said he discovered a skeleton sitting up on a bed in the back bedroom of the house on February 2 this year. Mr Cullen had been permitted to return to the property following the discovery of the hand grenade.

The inquest heard Mr Whiston’s identity had been confirmed by a DNA sample taken from his sister, Emer Grier.

In a statement, John Courage, the husband of Mr Whiston’s niece, Tanya Courage, said the deceased had lived alone in the house in Sallynoggin since his mother died in 2008.

Mr Courage said his relative, whom he had known for 25 years, had gone downhill after his mother’s passing.

While Mr Whiston would normally come to his relatives’ house for dinner at Christmas, Mr Courage said he stopped after 2010.

He described how at one stage Mr Whiston’s siblings arranged to have his house cleared of rubbish because it was in a really bad state and neighbours and the council had been complaining.

Mr Courage said there was a plan to get Mr Whiston out of the property to allow it to be cleared. However, Mr Whiston was angry at discovering what had happened.

The inquest heard cleaners had removed two trailer loads of newspapers, tins and magazines but the amount of rubbish was just as bad again within six months.

Mr Courage said his relative would not invite him into the house on subsequent visits and would sometimes just shout out without opening the door.

He believed the last time he saw Mr Whiston alive was during a call at Christmas 2019.

Mr Courage said the deceased was one of four children who had a “very bad childhood” which he believed contributed to Mr Whiston’s depression.

The coroner said a post-mortem examination revealed he had severe coronary heart disease and had probably suffered a cardiac event resulting in instant death in January 2021.

Expressing sympathy to Mr Whiston’s relatives, she returned a verdict of death due to natural causes.


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