Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Michael Kruse and the woman who disappeared in her own home

Share Button

In July 2011, Michael Kruse of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) wrote a haunting story about the “disappearance” and death of a woman named Kathryn Norris. He did it partly by dumpster-diving for personal details about her isolated life and debilitating mental illness, and by writing with restraint rather than melodrama or obvious intent to manipulate the reader. For the following annotation, initially crafted for students of a narrative nonfiction class and a Tumblr series, I asked Kruse to take us through the choices he made as a reporter and a writer. My questions/comments are in green, and Kruse’s are in purple.

A Brevard woman disappeared, but never left home

Last year, a week before Thanksgiving, a man in Cape Canaveral bought in a foreclosure auction a two-story stucco run-down townhouse on a short, straight street called Cherie Down Lane. He went to see his purchase he hoped to fix up and sell.

Kruse

He found in the kitchen dishes stacked so high on the counter they almost touched the bottoms of the cabinets. Teaching point #1: go for the powerful detail and then take it one step further. The writer might’ve stopped with the stacked dishes as an observation but the push of “so high on the counter they almost touched the bottom of the cabinets” gives us a precise image. You do that throughout this piece, to the reader’s great benefit. I’ll underline other examples of admirable detail./pw In the living room on the carpet was a towel with two plates of mold-covered cat food. Empty orange pill bottles were everywhere. In front of the couch, open on a single TV tray, was a Brevard County Hometown News, dated July 24, 2009. The still-life portrait here is just so haunting and well drawn/pw Most of the description of the inside of her house is based on what I saw on the three CDs of cops’ photos and also on what I saw on my own walk-around a couple weeks after she was found./mk

Both bedrooms Nice: “both bedrooms” tells us the place was a two-bedroom townhouse without being overtly descriptive./pw were the same: stuff strewn all over, clothes and fake flowers and plants and a dusty treadmill pushed into a far corner, a mattress propped against tightly shut drapes, and stacks and stacks of books, about religion, about weight loss, about wiping out debts and making fresh starts.

Next to the door to the garage was a bulletin board with a 13-year-old receipt from Home Depot and an inspirational quote: “I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent.” Ugh, heartbreaking/pw From my own walk-around, and I knew the minute I saw that quote that I’d use it pretty much right here, pretty much just like this, before walking the man into the garage./mk

He opened the door to the garage.

Inside was an old silver sedan. Using the vague description instead of the specific gives the narrative some room to unfold, gives the cops something to do, and sets up some forward action/discovery./pw The doors were locked. He looked inside and saw a white blanket on the back seat. There was a pillow on the floor. Hanging from the rearview mirror was an air freshener shaped like a pine tree. Wedged against the console was a thin white candle. He stopped on what he saw in the passenger seat: the mummified body of what looked like a woman. “What looked like” nurtures mystery, leaves room for discovery/pw

The call to the Sheriff’s Office came on Nov. 18, 2010, just before noon. The townhouse, deputies learned, had belonged to a woman named Kathryn Norris, and the 1987 silver Chevy Nova <Now the precise detail, the unfolding of a life./pw was registered to her, too. She had used a normal amount of electricity in July 2009 and much less in August and none after that. <Vague detail perfect here; the writer so easily could’ve overdone it./pw She had paid her mortgage in August and then stopped. Her head was on the floor and her feet were on the seat. The corpse, deputies wrote in their report, <Again, humans doing something; action moving the narrative forward./pw was wearing a dress. <The rhythm of this sentence is terrific. And using the sourcing as narrative gives attribution without calling attention to it./pw

Television trucks showed up. Local reporters talked to her neighbors.

The neighbors said that they seldom saw her but that for more than a year they hadn’t seen her at all. One called her “a little strange.” Another said she “just disappeared.” <Thank you for not naming them and for using half quotes—to me, it’s much more powerful and far more graceful than mucking up the piece with a bunch of other characters. You allow these ghostly characters to move around/through Norris’ world but keep the spotlight on her/pw I actually had a conversation with my editor, Bill Duryea, the national editor here at the St. Pete Times, about maybe using no other names. None. Just Kathryn Norris. We decided at least some other names were necessary, but even so I ended up using basically only the names of her nephew and her two ex-husbands. I didn’t use the names of her sister or her friend from Ohio or any of her neighbors or the cops or the medical examiner or the man who bought her house in the foreclosure auction or the woman who bought it from him. Every single name you throw out there, I think, you’re asking the reader to work a little harder, and therefore making it that much more likely he or she will stop./mk

How could a woman die a block from the beach, surrounded by her neighbors, and not be found for almost 16 months?

How could a woman go missing inside her own home?

• • •

Kathryn Norris moved to Florida in 1990. She was intelligent and driven, say those who knew her back in Ohio, but she could be difficult. She held grudges. She had been laid off from her civil service job, and her marriage of 14 years was over, and so she came looking for sunshine. She knew nobody. Using money from her small pension, she bought the Cherie Down townhouse, $84,900 new. <Nice collapsing of time here./pw It was a short walk to the sounds of the surf <A short walk to the “sounds of the surf” lets the reader hear the surf. “Surf” is such a sensory word./pw and just up A1A from souvenir stores selling trinkets with messages of PARADISE FOUND<This may be my favorite detail in the whole piece. In class we talked about how you might’ve reported this detail and I told them to notice that you didn’t just explore the n’hood and go ‘Oh, souvenir shops, good detail’—you went deeper by examining the souvenirs down to the inscriptions and used one to provide poignance./pw I was in Cape Canaveral for three days in early December to open the reporting on this. On my way from Cherie Down Lane to a nearby restaurant to talk to one of her neighbors, I stopped in at one of the big souvenir stores on the strip on A1A in Cocoa Beach, and I looked very specifically for items with slogans having to do with fun or sunshine or paradise. I put in my notebook FUN IN THE SUN and PARADISE FOUND and ultimately decided to go with the latter./mk

She started a job making $32,000 a year <This is the kind of sourcing I’d be curious to hear about. Dumpster item? Court records. Because she filed suits against her former employer, her work history was detailed, even scrutinized, and became public record, obviously, available to anybody who took the time to care to know – critical, really, to even make the initial investment of time to try to tell this tale. For me, years and even decades after these court cases were active, all the paperwork created was so, so helpful. There was material to work with, from the outset, and the more material you have, the more ammunition you earn to go get more./mk Can you say a bit about how even within those items you had to make judgments about what documentation/items were credible/usable and which ones weren’t?/pw I don’t think it’s that different than talking to somebody and having a sense of whether the person is shooting straight or stretching the truth. If something seems off, check it out, to the extent that that’s possible. One major dumpster item I didn’t use was a letter that included the following: “When I hurt most I hibernate until I can believe there is reason to go outside again.” Problem was, I didn’t have a date, and I didn’t know the recipient, and some of the clues in the content didn’t pan out, and I tried to put together the pieces but it just didn’t happen. So I didn’t use it, at least not explicitly, but it did of course add to my overall understanding of some of what was going on in her head./mk as a buyer of space shuttle parts for a subcontractor for NASA. She went out on occasion with coworkers for cookouts or cocktails. <Thank you for not slowing down the narrative with quotes from those people talking nonsense about how “nice” Norris was and how “ordinary” and how “surprised” they are, etc. Those kinds of additions feel obligatory but often mean so little. It’s important to talk to those people because the reporting informs the story, but they needn’t show up in the story./pw  lot of people I talk to, for this story or any other, I’m actively not looking for quotes, because I know there’s almost no way certain people will be named characters. What I’m looking for from them are details that will make the story just a little better. One choice detail in one sentence in a story from an hour-long conversation? Totally worth it./mk She talked a lot about her ex-husband. She started having some trouble keeping up at the office and was diagnosed in December of 1990 as manic depressive.

After the diagnosis, she made daily notes on index cards. She ate at Arby’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. Sometimes <The specificity of “daily notes on index cards” works beautifully juxtaposed with the vagueness of “sometimes she did sit-ups….” It’s like varying sentence length, but with detail/pw she did sit-ups and rode an exercise bike. She read the paper. She got the mail. She went to sleep at 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. <Nice./pw Her heart raced. So the above-mentioned dumpster: The significant amount of public record she left behind made this story possible. I could see on the computer in my cubicle that there was a lot of stuff to be had. It made a trip to Cape Canaveral a no-brainer, and worthwhile. I gave myself three days and two nights. The plan was to hit the courthouses, talk to neighbors, learn as much as I could. And then I got lucky. I pulled up at 232 Cherie Down Lane as the man who’d bought it in the foreclosure auction was cleaning it out. I introduced myself and he invited me in and we talked for a while. Then I let him get back to work but stuck around and started to walk around and make notes. I asked the man if I could take some of the stuff. Sure, he said, because Kathryn Norris’ nephew and sister already had been down from Ohio to get what they wanted. To him, at that point, it was all trash; to me, it was potential information. I grabbed a laundry basket and started throwing stuff in there. He saw what I seemed to be interested in, receipts, notes, scraps of paper, envelopes with return addresses, books, magazines, coffee mugs, fridge magnets, and he said: You know, a lot of that kind of stuff I already threw out, and it’s out in the dumpster. And so I took the laundry basket and went outside and in my shirt and tie climbed in. I spent a while down in there, just trying to collect as much material as possible, but it wasn’t until later that night back at the hotel that I kind of realized what I had. Phone bills and letters and notes, in some cases detailed, DATED index cards. “Dropped fork at lunch.”/mk

“Dropped fork at lunch,” she wrote.

“Felt depressed in evening and cried.”

“Noise outside at 4 a.m. sounded like a dog.” <Teaching point: If given the opportunity, let us hear your story subject’s voice, both to give that person a voice and to provide storytelling texture. Any time you can break something up with dialogue, awesome. Readers connect to dialogue, and dialogue is easy on the eye. And these three excerpts are perfectly rendered because it isn’t too much — each nugget suggests something devastating about her state of mind/life, which was in fact anything but mundane. Her life must have been (as a chronically depressed person’s life often is) extraordinarily complicated and at times horrifying/pw I had kind of a surprising amount of Kathryn Norris’ own words, from depositions, transcriptions from hearings, notes and letters, and you’re right. Very helpful. Especially when the person is no longer alive. Helped with some select dialogue. Also helped me just sort of hear her and try to understand her as I thought about the story and went about structuring and writing. I love depos from dead people. They’re the golden words of ghosts./mk

She found it difficult to focus when she went back to work. She told people all the pills to settle her moods made her feel like she was taking whole bottles of Nyquil<Her words in a depo./mk There were times when she just sat at her desk. She was demoted. <Perfect pull-back on detail/pw In the summer of 1993, she spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, where she was under suicide watch. She visited her sister in Ohio to try to get well. She went back to work in the fall. It wasn’t long, though, before she was let go. <All deft restraint and collapsing of time/pw

Stronger pills made her sluggish. She slept constantly. She gained weight on her 5-foot-1 frame, 150 pounds, 160 pounds. “I’ll be fine here,” she wrote to her sister, “until April 1994 when the unemployment runs out.” <Nice to hear her voice here/pw

She met a man at the post office that May. They were married in October.

• • •

Bill Kunzweiler was 15 years older. Their marriage was more utilitarian than romantic. They lived in the Cherie Down townhouse, and he was to pay the mortgage, and she would provide “wife-type services and support,” is how she put it. <Sourcing?/pw Divorce records./mk He had his activities, softball, garage sales, Sundays at the Baptist church, and she had done some of those things during their brief courtship. Not anymore. They didn’t sleep well together. She snored. He wiggled. He had told her he’d been married three times, but the number, she discovered, was actually 11. She was the second Kathryn. She moved into the other bedroom and locked the door.

They separated in June of 1995. He called her a money grubber. She called him a fraud and a predator of lonely women like herself.

When she was alone, she explained during a divorce hearing in 1996, she grew unreliable and reclusive. <Again, nice integration of attribution that keeps our eye on the action and moves the narrative forward/pw

“I have learned I attach myself to one person,” she said, “and they become my safety person.”

And if there’s no safety person?

“I stay within my home.” <I thought about this quote for days, I don’t know why. It’s such a strange thing to say and it tells me something about her though I’m not sure what./pw

• • •

She did go outside and leave the townhouse, occasionally, to go to the doctor, to go pick up pills, to go get takeout from Olive Garden or Outback<Sourcing?/pw Index cards from the dumpster./mk to go to Walmart to buy things she didn’t need, like eight of the same dresses, mostly so she could take them back later. <Sourcing?/pw Her first ex-husband./mk She worked some in her garden during the day, planting trees of lemons, limes and tangelos. She once walked across the street and gave a neighbor a banana tree. Late at night, she dragged her garbage can to the end of her driveway, {wearing her housecoat}, and neighbors heard her call for her cats. She set up cinder blocks in front of her yard that said NO PARKING<!!!! Sourcing?/pw Her neighbors and also cops photos. I’d heard about them in my door-knocking and phone-calling reporting, but then there they were in photos, in the garage, in the background behind the car, after the cops finally finished the investigation and all that stuff became public record./mk She put boards on her windows for hurricanes and left them there for months.

Inside, as a year became five and as five became 10, <Beautiful collapsing of time/pw she saved coupons and recipes, birthday cards and Christmas cards. She lived on dwindling savings and her small pension and $526 a month of Social Security disability pay. <I’m guessing court records, not dumpster/pw Court records./mk She had credit card bills and owed doctors money and had trouble paying them back. She made contributions to the Christian Broadcasting Network. She joined AARP. She started sleeping on the couch.<Diary?/pw Her nephew./mk

She sued a man who years before had bumped her in the parking lot of a Cocoa Beach Publix. A judge dismissed it because the man was now dead. She continued to haggle over money with her second ex-husband. She accused a man she had worked with of sexual harassment. She sued her former company for back pay.

“And your ability of clear judgment is impaired?” an attorney for her old company asked her in a deposition.

“Still,” she said, “yes.” <Nice pacing from suing the dead man to this quote—we see her decline and then we hear that, amazingly, she knows this about herself/pw

She hired attorneys and then stopped responding to them. She stopped paying them. She filed motion after motion in courts, on her own, which judges dismissed as nonsense. She stopped showing up for court hearings. She didn’t go to scheduled depositions. “Avoiding service,” process servers wrote in their notes.<Showing the process servers writing this stuff down keeps the action moving while at the same time gives voice/detail, great/pw “Defendant is barricaded in her condo.”

Her brother-in-law called to tell her that her mother was ill and near death. She didn’t answer the phone. This was in 2002. He called the Sheriff’s Office to get a deputy to go to the townhouse to let her know. She didn’t answer the door. He called the Sheriff’s Office again two days later to tell her that her mother had died. She didn’t answer the door.

Finally, in 2003, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest for contempt of court because of the missed depositions and hearings, and deputies managed to coax her out of the townhouse, taking her away in the back of a cruiser. The arrest report said her hair was brown and her build was “stout.” She now weighed 220 pounds. She was sentenced to a week in county jail.

Neighbors talked. They decided <Very nice; “decided” keeps us in-narrative, plus it cleverly suggests gossip/pw she had been arrested for using the Internet to steal people’s identities. It wasn’t true, but she was on the Internet, leaving wee-hours posts on genealogy forums like Cousin Connect and Ancestry.com.

At the time, she was around 50 years old, and totally disabled. Her mental illness and now also a thyroid condition and a circulatory disease left her aching and fatigued, with dry skin, a dull mind and a slow heart. <Sourcing?/pw Court records. When you’re asking people for money because you can’t work, they want to know what your ailments are, and this came in a note from one of her doctors./mk She was not who she was. The Internet didn’t have to know.

“I am the grandchild of Joseph Mulford and Elizabeth Downey,” she wrote on Ancestry.com.

“I am the granddaughter of Zelma’s oldest sister.”

“I have copies of many of the Yenger family records.”

“I am very eager to talk with you.”

“Contact me.”

She ripped out a page from the local section of Florida Today, on Aug. 18, 2006, and underlined information about free adult games of Scrabble, checkers and cards. “Come out and enjoy a game with friends,” it said, “or just socialize and meet new people.” <This whole thing: amazing detail; sourcing?/pw Just a ripped-out piece of newspaper I found in the dumpster. I took it only because she had underlined something and because there was a date on it. Thought it could be of some use./mk 

She started making long phone calls back to Ohio, 85 minutes, 134 minutes, 200 minutes.<Sourcing? God it’s just heartbreaking to know that a person’s entire life, even the most private parts, can wind up in a dumpster and then simply be gone. Here’s something I’m wondering: As reporters we mine for details about story subjects’ life; to “luck into” a dead person’s personal treasure trove in a dumpster is both extremely helpful, assuming the material is credible and that you can make sense of what you’re finding, but it also raises questions about boundaries. Did you wrestle with yourself over the idea of mining her discarded life? Mind you, I would’ve done the same thing, and I believe the details contribute to our understanding of disability and mental illness, but I’m just curious about whatever conversations you had with yourself on the privacy issue/pw Certainly privacy is something I thought about. I actually talked about it at one point with my friend and colleague, Ben Montgomery, and he sort of said: BUT THIS IS WHAT WE DO. WE MINE LIVES. In this instance, when I showed up, what I was looking at was stuff left behind by not only her but also by her next of kin. I didn’t hesitate much if at all before getting down in that dumpster. I think what we owe the people we write about is authenticity in our approach and sincerity in our reporting. It’s not like I was the first person to write about her. The local papers did their thing in the first couple news cycles. So did the TV trucks. They came and went. I let them leave. And then I drove over there. The last thing I wanted to do was ride easy fodder for news of the bizarre, that constant titillating churn, and offer up some flimsy, monochromatic portrait of the mummified body of the odd recluse of Cherie Down Lane. I didn’t want to dishonor her. By reporting, really reporting, by going to the courthouse, by making phone calls, by knocking on doors, by getting in that dumpster, I don’t think I did./mk She called her friend from high school and for hours she stayed on the phone as her friend recovered from knee surgery. She called her first husband, Jim Norris, to try to make amends, she told him, and he kept answering her calls because it sounded like she needed someone to talk to. She called her nephew, Brent Henninger, more than anybody else, he said, and he tried unsuccessfully to make her stop crying. He told her he was going to come down from Ohio to visit, but she told him no, please.

“I won’t let you in.”

• • •

Toward the end, in the last few years, she called the Sheriff’s Office to say a white truck was parked in front of her townhouse. She called to say now it was a black car. She called to say her water line was broken and she couldn’t shut it off. She called to say there was somebody outside in the dark, pounding on her windows, and she was home alone and scared, and now there were two voices, and the pounding was getting louder. A deputy was sent to Cherie Down Lane. Nothing. She didn’t answer the door.

She put up a camera by her front door and a camera on her back porch. She watched a monitor inside. She drilled holes in her garage door so she could look out without others looking in.<Sourcing?/pw Her nephew./mk

On July 23, 2009, she called the Sheriff’s Office again to say she believed her ex-husband and some of her neighbors had conspired to make her car stop running. A deputy went to check and concluded there were no signs of vandalism or mischief and the car was just old and broken down.

She started writing a letter to a friend. The last couple months, she said in her shaky-handed writing, had been confusing. She no longer knew what was real. She never sent the letter. She called her nephew and left a message. It’s Aunt Kathy. Everything between you and me is fine. I love you.

She left her car keys in her dark blue purse on the cluttered kitchen table. She went out to the garage. She shut off the electricity. She got in her car. Maybe she felt safe inside her locked townhouse, inside her locked garage, inside her locked car. The thin white candle was the only light. <How do we know she lit it?/pw At some point, the flame flickered, then went out. Obviously, I didn’t see her light the candle, but the candle looked used in the cops photos, and she had shut off the breakers in the garage and she needed light somehow, and she had jammed the candle right between the center console and the passenger seat, so I figured it was reasonable to believe that’s what the candle was for./mk

• • •

In Brevard County, in Cape Canaveral, and on Cherie Down Lane, where the affordable, same-shaped<Nice./pw sun-strained units are filled with retirees and winter-only residents and year-round tenants who struggle to pay the rent, here is some of what happened around Kathryn Norris over the next almost 16 months:

An elementary school started a new year, ended the year, started another. A space shuttle took off and came back five times. A neighbor saw her cats. A neighbor crossed the street and picked her limes. A neighbor noticed her garbage can hadn’t moved. A neighbor saw some fluid leaking out from under the door to her garage and wondered if it was motor oil or something else. A neighbor had a Christmas party. A neighbor on New Year’s Eve sat down on his couch and put a .22-caliber pistol to the side of his head behind his right ear. Pulled the trigger. People walked by to the beach.

Her nephew from Ohio called the Sheriff’s Office in March 2010 and said he hadn’t been able to get in touch with her, which wasn’t so unusual, because once he and his family hadn’t heard from her for two years, but now he was worried. A deputy went to the townhouse to check on her. No signs of forced entry. No insect activity on the windows<Nice pull-back of detail/pw Nothing suspicious. She didn’t answer the door.

A neighbor called the sheriff’s office to say her gates were broken and the townhouse seemed vacant.

The bank foreclosed. People hired by the bank went inside and took pictures of her stuff. They took pictures of her car. That happened twice. “Diligent search and inquiry,” they wrote. “Confirmed residence is unoccupied.”

And Kathryn Norris had her 56th birthday. And her 57th. The summer heat made decomposition quick. Eager flies found ways inside, through tiny slits and vents, seeking their sustenance from the moisture of death. <Great sentence/pw I talked to two experts on decomposition before I found my way to a third, at the University of Florida, and his specialty was more specifically the manner in which Kathryn Norris decomposed. I told him the details, the dates, the car, the garage, the position of the body, etc., and he told me there was no way to know 100 percent exactly how someone decomposes, but almost certainly here’s how and when she decomposed. Fascinating conversation./mk Her neighbors who shared a wall were still in Cincinnati for the summer. Winter months brought cooler weather. The air dried out, and so did she, as her skin turned brown and thick. The flies moved on. She could have stayed that way for years.

• • •

The man who found Kathryn Norris fixed up the Cherie Down townhouse and sold it in April to a woman from Orlando. She uses it as a weekend getaway for her family and friends. The neighbors hear their music and laughter. The woman says her neighbors seem friendly. The neighbors say so does she. They say hello. <Thank you for not taking the spotlight off of Norris by getting into a bunch of business about what it’s like to live in a dead woman’s home/pw

• • •

The remains of Kathryn Norris had to be kept as evidence until the county finished the investigation of her death. That was just last month. The medical examiner identified her using DNA from her hair that matched DNA from her sister. She had no drugs in her system, but that was expected, given the extent of the decomposition.

The autopsy used words that were clinical and factual but also incomplete. Her remains were labeled unremarkable. The cause and manner of her death were listed undetermined.

The manner is a mystery. The cause is not.

She disappeared long before she died.

She was buried in Ohio. There was a short service. Her brief obituary said she would be missed.<Dead-on kicker./pw

*This is the second installment of Line by Line, an occasional series of long-form annotations adapted from a former Tumblr project. For the first, I talked to Jon Franklin about his classic “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.  




5 trackbacks

  1. [...] Tuesday! on Tumblr. Earlier, we featured the Tampa Bay Times‘ Michael Kruse and his story about a woman who disappeared inside her own home; and  Jon Franklin‘s classic “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” the inaugural winner [...]

  2. [...] bits are Nutt. For more annotations, see the Tampa Bay Times’ Michael Kruse on  his story about a woman who disappeared inside her own home, and Jon Franklin‘s classic “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” the inaugural winner of the Pulitzer [...]

  3. [...] • I also wanted us to read Michael Kruse’s piece about a woman who died in her garage and whose body went undiscovered for a long time, even after the house went into foreclosure. The pop-culture angle here is difficult to determine, but I wanted us to examine the power in the details of the things we own and keep in our homes. Once you’ve read it, you really must read this. [...]

  4. [...] (Klik her for en nørdet gennemgang af, hvordan Michael Kruse researchede de mange detaljer i historien – og hvorfor det er vigtigt). [...]

  5. [...] with the Annotation Tuesday! line-by-line conversation with Kruse on how he reported and wrote the [...]

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*