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He died in vast isolation

Times Staff Writer

THE blind man died alone in front of his television in a lounge chair, near a table covered with medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands and a cereal box stuffed with mail. Each rubber band marked a prescription he recognized by touch. Each envelope contained information he could not read. He never received letters, only bills.

A neighbor called police after she noticed a pipe had burst at his house. His double-door garage was cloaked in a frozen waterfall. Police discovered the man inside, still as the icy water. His television still buzzing, his living room blanketed with dead flies. His electric bills had gone unpaid, but the company for some inexplicable reason had not shut off power. Warm air had preserved his face almost perfectly, like a dried rose.

They found him 13 months after his final breath.

Headlines called him the “Mummified Man.” Media as diverse as his hometown weekly newspaper in Southampton and newscasts in India and Japan reported the death of 70-year-old Vincenzo “Ricardo.” Hardly anyone got his last name right -- it was Riccardi.

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Neighbors in this oceanside Suffolk County neighborhood, 85 miles east of Manhattan, couldn’t believe a dead man had been inside the brick house with yellow shingles for all that time. Several didn’t even know there was a house tucked in the web of trees and shrubs 500 yards from the street. Some only visit their homes here in the summer, and the growing population of year-round residents has not been around long.

Those who have lived here for decades vaguely remembered the man who used to wander the blocks tapping his cane, sometimes roaming onto a neighbor’s lawn until someone pointed him in the right direction. Some described him as short and stocky. Others said he was tall and heavyset. Some thought he had gray hair. Others said he was bald.

“I wasn’t close to him,” said Pete Urchuiolio, who grew up in a house next to Riccardi’s, “just neighbors.”

Susan Haines can see Riccardi’s house from her front lawn and remembers when he built it on the 2.2-acre lot in the 1980s. “My God,” she said, “why didn’t anybody think about him?”

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In Colombia, a man asked his family in America if they had heard about the mummified man and wondered what kind of people forgot about their elderly like that.

In East Quogue, N.Y., a 10-minute drive from Riccardi’s house, the sister of the man in Colombia listened to the news and cried. Adriana Molina, 41, may have been the last person who hugged Riccardi. The caretaker used to wash his clothes and bathe him. She knew his hair was gray and his build was tall and strong. She knew he used to stand straight and walk with his chest puffed out. She knew one of his eyes was a puddle of pink and gray, while the other was brown, and she remembered how both always stayed open, looking nowhere.

He wrote a song for her once: “Adriana, Adriana, you are my eyes.”

If only she had not given up on him over a year ago, Molina said shortly after Riccardi was found Feb. 15. If she had put up with his violent tantrums longer, maybe the man she called “Mr. Vincent” would not have died alone.

HE told her he would pay her $20 to clean his two-story house, to scrub its grimy kitchen and bathrooms, to clear its fireplace heaped with trash. Twenty dollars -- take it or leave it.

Molina had shown up at Riccardi’s house one afternoon in 2003 with her daughter after a 91-year-old client told her about the blind, diabetic man who was on his own. The client knew Riccardi from a local senior center. Molina thought she could help.

She had lived in the U.S. for five years and still could not understand why Americans sent their grandparents to nursing homes or let them live alone. In Colombia, she said, families took care of their seniors.

When Molina started her cleaning company, she met elderly people who “just needed company, just to talk.” She did more than clean. She took aging clients to the library, the grocery store, the doctor. She gave them music, painted their nails, washed their hair.

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Molina’s daughter, Kelly, now 21, remembered being at Riccardi’s house that first day and giving her mother a look that said, “Don’t do it.” The man was rude. Twenty dollars, she thought, was not nearly enough.

The kitchen was covered in grease from steaks he’d cooked. Discolored button-down shirts -- he mixed colors in the washer -- hung all over the place because he had no dryer. He left spoiled food on the lawn, saying it was for the animals.

The upstairs had a separate kitchen and roomfuls of vintage furniture. It was left almost untouched because Riccardi stayed on the first floor to avoid stumbling on the stairs.

Molina told her daughter not to worry about the money or the filth: “The guy needs help.”

She read his mail aloud and washed dishes. In between, Molina asked Riccardi about his family. Didn’t he have anyone? Could she call someone for him? She knew only of a cousin of his who lived in the neighborhood. He was about Riccardi’s age, and he used to come by with gallons of milk. But Riccardi told the cousin to stop.

Molina was struck by Riccardi’s independence. He shaved and cooked. He gave himself insulin injections. He kept track of his money by folding the ends of bills differently. He tied ropes around trees down a long gravel and dirt driveway to help guide him through his yard, to the mailbox, to the street.

Molina knew Riccardi was born in Italy on April 4, 1935. He gave her the information so she could help him refill prescriptions and make doctor’s appointments. He talked of missing Italy. Molina remembered Riccardi telling her that he wanted to take her there. She thought of an Italian musician she enjoyed, Andrea Bocelli, and gave Riccardi a CD of his music. Riccardi knew of the artist and told Molina that Bocelli was also blind. He played the song “Vivere,” and swaying from side to side, Riccardi danced.

Molina said Riccardi hugged her once -- it helped him imagine what she looked like. He spent Father’s Day with her family. He went to the mall with Molina and her son, Mateo Torres, now 13, and paid for lunch. He talked baseball with Mateo, who said he thought of him as grandpa.

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In time, Riccardi revealed facets of his past to Molina. He used to be a carpenter. He’d had a wife, but she’d moved out several years earlier. Then she died. He’d had a daughter, Maria, who died young. He called her “my little baby.”

One day, Riccardi said he missed his son. He gave Molina his son’s number and asked her to call him. He refused to tell her why the two were not speaking. Molina left messages: “This is Adriana Molina. I need to talk with you.” They never talked.

Molina thought Riccardi must have done something awful for his family to abandon him. But she would not judge him. “I try to not think too much what happened, what bad he did,” she said. “I think in that moment he needs me, and God put me there for some reason.”

She thought of her own father. When she was growing up, he was an alcoholic and he physically abused her mother. She can remember the fear she felt when he was around. But he is 64 now, and she has forgiven him. Her father was not a good person, she said, “but no matter, if he needs me, I’m there.”

Molina said she believes that when people grow older they feel guilty about their past, and they become afraid of dying. That is why she could not understand, no matter what Riccardi had done, why he had been left to fend for himself.

Riccardi’s son has not spoken publicly about his father. Other family members said his son asked them not to speak to the media, and some said it was not their place to comment. Reached by phone, Riccardi’s sister-in-law, Dina Fayad, said, “I don’t know how he was living. I hadn’t talked to him in years.”

IN October 2005, Molina showed up at Riccardi’s house, and no one was home. She returned a few days later. Still no answer. The mail had piled up, so she thought something must be wrong. She left a business card on his door, first writing on the back: “If somebody knows something about Vincent please let me know.” She notified police. Two days later, an officer called to tell her Riccardi was in a psychiatric hospital.

Molina went to pick him up. Riccardi told her he was trying to open a can when he accidentally sliced his neck. He called 911, but when officers arrived they thought he had tried to kill himself. Molina never found out whether it was an accident.

She remembered that Riccardi asked hospital staff to return the rosary beads he kept in his left pocket and a gold Virgin Mary medallion that he wore around his neck.

She asked why the necklace was so important to him.

“My mom gave it to me,” she recalled Riccardi saying, “and I want to have it with me when I die.”

Molina’s daughter had warmed up to Riccardi and welcomed him to their home for Thanksgiving in 2005. Riccardi arrived wearing the leather jacket he put on for special occasions. He drank one glass of scotch. He gave Kelly and Mateo $10 bills.

Before Kelly moved to California to attend college, she gave Riccardi a radio she had bought because she didn’t need it anymore, and she knew Riccardi liked music. Soon after, Riccardi called Molina, screaming that her daughter had given him a stolen radio. He wanted her to take it back immediately before police came to his house and put him in jail.

Molina cried. How could he accuse Kelly of stealing something to get him in trouble? Kelly had given it to Riccardi as a gift. How could he say such a mean thing?

When Riccardi heard Molina’s sobs, he apologized.

But his outbursts and paranoid behavior got worse. Once, after Molina cooked for him, she recalled, Riccardi accused her of putting scissors in his soup. He screamed, “You’re trying to kill me!”

He became irritable with others too. Pam Giacoia, director of Southampton Town’s senior services, remembered that a van picked him up for lunch every once in a while. But Riccardi started accusing staff of poisoning his cookies.

Winter came, and Riccardi stopped shaving. Molina said he complained about problems with his dentures, that it was hard to eat the steaks he enjoyed. He lost weight. He stopped visiting the senior center for lunch. He talked of how hard his life was, Molina said, how hopeless it seemed.

Molina grew tired of trying to calm him down. She needed to spend more time with her husband and children. She was caring for three other elderly clients who needed her too. Riccardi called at all hours, asking her to come around every day. Molina said that when she could not be there, he asked her to close her eyes for five minutes, and “try to live.”

She would obey, imagining life in the dark and feeling guilty for not doing enough.

“I was so tired. I swear to God,” Molina said. “I let him treat me bad sometimes. God knows, I tried hard.”

Molina’s daughter saw her mother’s stress. Kelly said every time Molina tried to take a break from Riccardi, he persuaded her to come back. Kelly told her mother she had done enough for him.

In December 2005, Molina was at Riccardi’s home, she said, when out of nowhere he accused her of trying to kill him again. He started swinging his cane, trying to hit her. Swoosh. He hated everybody. Swoosh. “Nobody loves me!”

“Calm down,” Molina said. “I love you.”

He flung his cane a few more times as Molina dodged each swing. “Get out of here!” Molina recalled him yelling. Riccardi told her he did not need her help anymore. He was getting a nurse to care for him instead.

“Good for you,” she said. “Good luck.”

She went to the driveway, sat in her car and cried. “God,” she remembered saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

Three weeks after police discovered Riccardi, his house remained much like Molina had seen it on that December day more than a year ago when she said goodbye.

Molina went back after hearing the news. A rusted beige Pontiac was parked in the driveway, second-floor blinds parted slightly, weeds and bushes neglected and brown. Through a window, she saw an orange juice box, a pair of his sneakers, the dead flies, the television, the medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands.

She saw the radio Kelly had given him, tipped over on the floor.

Molina couldn’t bear to think of him dying this way. She blamed herself. “Why didn’t I have more patience?”

She never found out why his family never came, or how Riccardi came to be alienated from them. She didn’t want to know. “I just know the time we spent together was special,” she said, “and I know his heart was good.”

A few days later, Kelly told her mother about a poem someone had anonymously posted about him online:

Vincenzo Ricardo lived all alone

Diabetic, and blind -- left all on his own.

For a year, no one saw him

For a year no one cared

So a man sat dead, while his TV blared....

Out of sight, out of mind,

As the days moved forward

Just a crabby old man

Whom the neighbors ignored....

He was just an old man

Who needed a friend,

No one deserves

This lonely an end.

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com


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