As Natalie Wood lay dead and forgotten for eight years on the bedroom floor, someone went inside her Surry Hills home and stood by her body, neighbours say.
'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.
Two new witnesses contacted police on Wednesday after reading Fairfax Media's report on the sad, lonely death of Mrs Wood, claiming they saw a woman standing in the upstairs bedroom at 139 Kippax Street in 2007, several years after she died.
"We looked up and there was someone in the top window of the house," neighbour Ashley Russell told the Coroner's Court, at her inquest on Thursday. "It looked like a lady and [she] saw us and then stepped back and moved away.
"It was a fleeting glance and that was what made the impression, because the house was otherwise abandoned, as far as we knew."
Neighbours had told Mr Russell and his wife Sandra Byron, who moved in nearby in Kippax Street in 2005, that Mrs Wood had moved away and the property was empty.
Mr Russell said he was "horrified" to learn later that Mrs Wood had died on her bedroom floor in early 2004. She lay there, undiscovered, until July 2011, a month before her 87th birthday.
The unknown woman in the window, who Mr Russell said was aged over 50, would have stood near Mrs Wood's body, which was found lying face up in her bedroom by a broken window. The woman opened and closed the bedroom curtains before disappearing, Mr Russell said.
He was playing with his son's dog in an empty car park across the road at the time. He described his Surry Hills neighbourhood as "a really tight little community". He said he often swept the front steps of 139 Kippax Street and collected the mail – pushing it under the door or marking it return to sender. "We didn't want the street to look deserted," he said.
"I used to package up the mail and think how sad because the whole street was told she had moved away."
Detective Senior Constable Andrew Wells told the Coroner's Court it was possible someone might have entered Mrs Wood's home after she died and opened the bedroom drawers directly above her body.
But the lengthy time between her date of death and when her body was discovered made it forensically "almost impossible" to tell, he said.
Mrs Wood most likely fell in her bedroom in early 2004 and could not get up, he said. Her home appeared long abandoned when police found her body, with cobwebs everywhere, water damage and plasterboard falling from the ceiling, he said.
A tree in the side path had grown up through the window of an upstairs room, he said. "You could actually see leaves through the changes of seasons had fallen and decayed."
There was no sign of forced entry to the home, he said. The thick coating of dust suggested nothing inside the home had been moved in years.
Mrs Wood's neighbours told police then they thought she had moved away and the house was vacant. But they "kept a ready eye" on the home, Mr Wells said, after a spate of burglaries in the inner-city area. Any build-up of mail on Mrs Wood's front step was thrown away by neighbours or marked return to sender. There was no mailbox at the property.
Mrs Wood had fallen out of contact with her brother and sister-in-law, Vane and Enid Davis, Mr Wells said.
"Mrs Wood did turn very recluse and kept to herself," he said. "I don't understand the full reason why that contact stopped."
A frail Mrs Davis, 74, whose husband died in 2009, gave evidence to the court that she last saw her sister-in-law while passing by on a bus in Randwick on January 30, 2004. The last time they spoke was a year earlier, on January 3, 2003, when Mrs Wood visited her relatives at their home in Chifley.
It was their habit to spend Christmas together, Mrs Davis said. However, in 2002, Mr and Mrs Davis instead went out with friends. It is not known whether Mrs Wood spent her final Christmas alone.
Before that, Mrs Wood spent a "lot of time" at their home, Mrs Davis said. When asked why she did not see her sister-in-law over the last year of her life, Mrs Davis said: "There was no reason other than my husband's dementia and [his] getting very sick."
Neither she nor her husband visited Mrs Wood in hospital in November 2003, when she was admitted after complaining of "funny turns". Doctors discovered Mrs Wood had a brain tumour, which was subsequently found to be benign.
Mrs Davis said she did not recall being contacted by a social worker at that time asking if Mrs Wood could come and live with them.
The inquest continues.