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'Not cool anymore' to be neighbourly

Situations like Natalie Wood's, who lay dead in her house for 8 years, are a lot more common than we think says Reverend Bill Crews of the Exodus Foundation.

PT3M6S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-322so 620 349

Natalie Wood died aggrieved and alone after falling out with her closest relatives. Yet her sister-in-law, who refused to take her in when she was sick, is now likely to inherit the estate of ‘‘the woman Sydney forgot’’. 

State Coroner Michael Barnes ruled on Thursday that Mrs Wood died in about February 2004 after she fell in her bedroom at 139 Kippax Street, Surry Hills, and was unable to get up or seek help. She lay there dead and alone for eight years, before police found her body in July 2011, a month before her 87th birthday. ‘‘Human sensibilities are naturally offended by the thought of an old woman decomposing in her house without anyone inquiring to ascertain what had become of her,’’ the coroner said at the inquest into her death. 

Declined respite care: Natalie Wood at the age of 20. Police say the cause of her death "will be forever undetermined" because of the time it took to find her body.

Declined respite care: Natalie Wood at the age of 20. Police say the cause of her death "will be forever undetermined" because of the time it took to find her body.

‘‘That the death of a life-long resident of a high density housing area should remain undiscovered until after all the flesh had rotted from her frail bones caused public disquiet,’’ he noted.  He rejected the evidence of Mrs Wood’s sister-in-law Enid Davis that the family were on good terms before her death.

He found Mrs Wood was likely ‘‘aggrieved’’ and ‘‘disappointed’’ that her brother Vane, who died in 2009, and sister-in-law did not share Christmas with her in 2002, as was their custom.  Mrs Wood was further aggrieved in November 2003, after being admitted to hospital complaining of ‘‘funny turns’’, when her closest relatives refused to let her live at their Chifley home, the coroner said. Doctors discovered Mrs Wood had a brain tumour, which was later found to be benign. ‘‘On two occasions a social worker called her brother’s house to see if she could be discharged there but this was declined,’’ Mr Barnes said. ‘‘When she ceased all further contact they were not surprised and did not assume anything untoward had become of her.’’

Despite this, Mrs Davis is now likely to inherit the spoils of Mrs Wood’s estate: $79,270 in a Commonwealth Bank account and her now derelict two-bedroom home, worth $800,000 or more.

Enid Davis at the inquest of her sister-in-law, Natalie Wood.

Enid Davis at the inquest of her sister-in-law, Natalie Wood. Photo: Peter Munro

The coroner’s declaration that Mrs Wood died in 2004, when her brother was alive, means the Supreme Court is likely to award her money and assets to her brother’s estate, of which Mrs Davis is the sole beneficiary.

The laws of intestacy changed in 2010. A rival claim by Mrs Wood’s cousins, some of whom were in the Coroner’s Court on Thursday, relied on the date of death remaining July 2011, when her body was found. 

The coroner also rejected the evidence of Mrs Wood’s neighbour Ashley Russell, who told the court he saw a woman standing in her upstairs bedroom in 2007, several years after she died.  Mr Russell, who said he was standing across the street at the time, was unable to accurately describe the house, Mr Barnes said. His claim to have seen a middle-aged woman through the French doors of the two-storey terrace was ‘‘most unlikely’’, Mr Barnes said. 

Neighbour Ashley Russell at the Natalie Wood inquest.

Neighbour Ashley Russell at the Natalie Wood inquest. Photo: Peter Munro

Earlier, a frail Mrs Davis told the court that Mrs Wood had spent a “lot of time” at their home. When asked why she did not see her sister-in-law over the last year or so of her life, Mrs Davis said: “There was no reason other than my husband’s dementia and [his] getting very sick.”  

She was not the only one to overlook Mrs Wood, alive or dead. Public authorities and utility companies chasing unpaid bills all failed to realise she was long dead.  Energy Australia and the City of Sydney Council each sent debt collectors to Kippax Street, with no response. Sydney Water sent out overdue notices over five years, from 2005, despite receiving nothing in return. The Commonwealth Bank and Centrelink, which stopped paying her pension in 2008 after there had been no withdrawals for years, also failed to realise something was amiss.

But the coroner rejected a call by police for a monitoring system to ensure such neglect did not reoccur. ‘‘Platitudinous comments about a need for a more caring society would achieve nothing,’’ he said. ‘‘Nor am I persuaded that public authorities or private providers should be required to go looking. Cases like this one are extremely rare. The burden of addressing them via some protocols requiring such organisations to investigate are unwarranted in my view.’’