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'Reclusive' family, morbid secret
Maybe the most troubling thing for those who knew Margaret Bernstorff is that they never really knew her at all.
In all the years neighbors helped the elderly woman carry groceries to the door of her Evanston home, she never spoke of her sister Elaine. When they stopped seeing Bernstorff's brother, Frank, on tree-lined Judson Avenue, she told some of them he had moved to Indiana to live with relatives.
And when a local contractor who did repairs on her home inquired a few weeks ago about her other sister, Anita, Bernstorff told him she was upstairs, not feeling well.
Just days after neighbors tried to persuade the 94-year-old to move into a nursing home, police discovered she had been living with the bodies of her three siblings. Elaine Bernstorff died in her 60s in the late 1970s; Frank Bernstorff died at 83 in 2003; and Anita Bernstorff, 98, died in May.
"They were private people, and we wanted to respect their privacy," said Gianna Panofsky, who has lived on the street for 45 years. "They didn't belong to society; they belonged to each other and that's it."
It's not uncommon for elderly people to retreat into their own worlds and try to preserve their independence, experts say. And it appears society's informal watchdogs such as churches, family, friends and doctors did not apply to the Bernstorffs, neighbors said.
"If you don't have any of those safety nets, you fall through the cracks," said Celia Berdes, an assistant professor of medicine in the Buehler Center on Aging, Health & Society at Northwestern University. "I think that's what happened in this case."
Nancy Flowers, Evanston's community health division manager, said she had contact with Bernstorff, but never was allowed in the home until last week, when she reported the case to police. Bernstorff, who is staying at a nearby nursing home, is doing "just fine," Flowers said.
Margaret Bernstorff's attorney, Eric Parker, said she is cooperating with police.
"She's a nice lady. She's led a very private life. She wants her privacy respected," he said.
Officials at the facility where Bernstorff is staying said she was not up to speaking with anyone.
By all accounts, none of the four Bernstorff siblings ever married or had children. Their parents, Frank and Lilian, died decades ago. Margaret Bernstorff was occasionally seen gardening in her yard and most recently attended a 4th of July block party. But neighbors said they never saw anyone visit the home, and it was rare for anyone but family to cross the Bernstorffs' threshold.
Al Redmond did odd jobs for Margaret Bernstorff and rented garage space from her. He said he went in the home only once and saw stacks of old newspapers—piledto the ceiling in some cases—in every room.
"She usually never let me in," Redmond said. "I just assumed she was embarrassed because of the way things were in there."
He said Bernstorff sometimes walked with a cane, and he offered on occasion to drive her to a doctor, but she always refused.
On Friday, police were called to Bernstorff's home and discovered the bodies. The remains were found in different parts of the two-story, Victorian-style home and some were covered with blankets, police said. All died of natural causes, the Cook County medical examiner's office said.
There is no evidence of Social Security fraud, and Bernstorff has not been charged with a crime, police said. It's unclear how the Bernstorffs survived financially over the years.
Police Cmdr. Thomas Guenther said although Margaret Bernstorff was "fairly lucid," her rationale for keeping the bodies in her home "is still up for questioning."
Flowers, her attorney and police declined to comment further on her case.
The family moved to the Evanston home in the 1920s, when Bernstorff's father was a professor of German studies at Northwestern University.
Neighbors said Bernstorff is a "sweet" woman who would smile and make small talk and thank them for kind deeds with flowers from her garden.
"She was very reclusive," said neighbor Patricia Krafft, who has lived on Judson Avenue since 1960.
On Halloween, Bernstorff passed out crackers to trick-or-treaters. A neighbor said he sent his son with candy so she could hand that out.
Berdes, the assistant professor of medicine, said Americans generally place a high value on independence and senior citizens can carry that too far for fear of being placed in a nursing home.
"It's a very sad, very extreme case," she said.
Courtney Flynn is a Tribune reporter; Brian Cox is a freelance reporter.