Howard Baney was surprised to find a reporter at the side door of the house he'd been working on. Baney heard a knock and yelled for him to enter, thinking the visitor was someone else.
Baney emerged at the top of a landing and stopped cold partway down the stairs.
Baney hadn't returned any of The Buffalo News' messages. An attorney responded to say Baney and his family were out of the country and uninterested in talking about the people who had lived at 2025 Grand Ave. or what happened there.
"I really don't understand," Baney said. "What's so interesting?"
Four months earlier, Baney had discovered his elderly cousin's mummified remains in the basement. Teddy Wroblewski had been missing for two years, lost in his own home.
Wroblewski and his mother were known around the neighborhood as hoarders who roamed after midnight to rummage through people's garbage for goodies. They lived in squalor yet didn't seem to mind.
Mounds of newspapers, empty boxes and filthy rags were piled throughout the house. Windows were boarded. They used utilities as a last resort. They didn't plug in their refrigerator. They read with flashlights and candles.
Mother and son were inseparable until late summer 2008, when Anna Wroblewski was admitted to the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center's nursing home.
In February 2009, Teddy went missing. He was 79.
Anna, 97, died that August.
The two lived and died like paupers, but documents filed in Niagara County Surrogate's Court estimate Anna was worth $2 million, including a $1.2 million Merrill Lynch mutual fund. In March 2010, with Teddy still missing, Baney's attorney petitioned the court to grant Baney control of her estate.
The court granted Baney limited administrative powers to cover expenses such as Anna's outstanding medical bills and funeral costs. He had her buried in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery. There was no memorial service. He instructed Zajac Funeral Home not to run a death notice in the paper and didn't notify family in Florida of her death.
Baney acted similarly after Teddy's body was found. No funeral. No death notice. No family notifications. Baney had him cremated for $225, and took the ashes home rather than spend $450 to bury him in a family plot that already was paid for.
"When they found Ted and I called [Baney] to ask about services, he never called me back," said Roger Spurback, who oversees the Niagara Falls Block Club Council and befriended the Wroblewskis in the 1990s as a neighborhood intermediary. "I wanted to give him a burial myself."
Teddy was an only child. He never married and had no offspring. He had one first cousin, Bill Westlund (their mothers were sisters). Westlund died in 2001, but New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law, Article 4-1.1 would give Westlund's four children priority over Baney (the son of Anna's cousin) when it came to the Wroblewski estate.
When speaking to police about Teddy's disappearance in 2009, Baney and his attorney, David Boniello of Niagara Falls, acknowledged Westlund would be the Wroblewskis' heir and that he lived in Florida. When asked last week, Baney said he had no clue where Westlund was.
Westlund's widow, Mary Ann, and their four children didn't know Anna and Teddy were dead until The Buffalo News informed them last weekend. Mary Ann Westlund called Baney's decisions to bury Anna in an unmarked grave and to not put Teddy's ashes with her "rotten."
And of Baney's unwillingness to inform the Westlunds the Wroblewskis were dead at all?
Why would he, theorized Michael Westlund, the oldest child. "He's got the golden ticket."
The Westlunds have begun exploring their legal options with the Wroblewski estate.
All of this is at least remotely interesting.
> Lost in the clutter
On Grand Avenue, neighbors remain incredulous Teddy Wroblewski went missing in his own home for two years.
"It's a disgrace," Josephine Nudo said. She and her husband, Lou, moved into their house four doors down from the Wroblewskis in 1954. "The cops were over there. You mean to tell me that Teddy was downstairs in the basement, covered with debris, and these [idiots] didn't know he was down there for two years? Nobody smelled him?"
Niagara Falls police searched the house repeatedly for Teddy. Baney was in and out of the home dozens of times to clean it out in the two-year interval between the time Teddy disappeared and his discovery.
"We looked for him on many occasions," said Capt. William Thomson, head of the Niagara Falls detectives. "We made every effort to find him and did the best we could. Based on the circumstances, we just couldn't."
Hoarding is a fascinating pathological condition that has gained exposure with two television shows. "Hoarders" on A&E was nominated for a 2011 Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program. "Hoarding: Buried Alive" is on TLC.
The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding as "the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them," and adds the problem "often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter."
The Wroblewskis and their home fit those descriptions. The house was built in 1939. It has two bedrooms and one bathroom and measures 968 square feet, smaller than most houses in the neighborhood.
Every room was crammed with junk. Piles of newspapers, phone books and magazines were everywhere. Teddy kept duplicate issues of Vibe. He could go years without bathing, but he had stacks of Gentleman's Quarterly and Esquire.
A mound of grungy underwear. Egg cartons, coffee cans and cereal boxes. Bags of clothes in the bathtub. A wheelbarrow inexplicably in the attic. A box of Pampers. Crusty socks hanging on lines in the basement. Scrap wood. Prescription medication bottles. Calvin Klein shopping bags. Several rusted shopping carts in the backyard.
Squirrels overtook the attic. In the basement, neatly shelved and with the labels facing outward as if for sale at a general store, were rows and rows of unopened cans, jars and bottles. They had a surplus of chunk tuna, beef gravy, minced garlic, tomato sauce and shaving cream. An unrefrigerated brick of margarine sat on a shelf below "Finding Nemo" bubble bath.
"Whoever buys that house ought to dig up the floorboards," Mary Ann Westlund said. "They were nutty enough to bury stuff."
Teddy had a cache of prescription medications: Prozac (depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder), Celebrex and Arthrotec (arthritis), Betagan and Alphagan (glaucoma) and Cialis (erectile dysfunction).
That a person could remain missing for so long in such conditions is not unique.
One week after investigators in Tyvek suits combed Wroblewski's home but failed to find him, Eunice Burwell-Workman was found under an avalanche of debris at home in Oakland, Calif. She had been missing for six years. Last year, 16 months after anybody saw Kathryn Norris, she was discovered dead inside her car in the garage attached to her foreclosed Cape Canaveral, Fla., home.
To search Billie Jean James' property last year, Las Vegas police used helicopters with infrared sensors and search dogs that helped detect bodies after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Her husband finally found her in the house.
A work invoice Baney and his attorney submitted to the Niagara County Surrogate's Court for reimbursement from Anna's estate stated he spent one hour in the basement to shut off water lines and prevent flooding on Dec. 9, 2009, seven months after Teddy was last seen.
The best guess is that, sometime in February 2009, Teddy navigated the mounds of clutter and eased his way down the basement stairs.
He went behind the furnace for some reason. There, on the dank concrete, he died.
Some of his rubbish collapsed atop him. Maybe the impact killed him. Maybe he remained conscious and starved to death over the coming days.
Nobody can definitively say how Teddy died or whether foul play was involved.
Baney finally discovered his cousin's body on March 31 of this year. He didn't contact police. He called his lawyer, Boniello, who was there when detectives and crime scene investigators arrived.
Teddy's body was so decomposed he was identified through serial numbers on a plate and screws inserted in a medical procedure. His missing persons report and other police documents over the years listed Teddy at 6 feet and 180 pounds. His remains weighed 104 pounds.
> An unkind upbringing
Anna Bodnar was 16 when her parents arranged a marriage for her with Andrew Wroblewski, a Polish emigre 18 1/2 years her senior. Anna was still 16 when Teddy was conceived. He was born May 13, 1929, into a chaotic and frequently cruel existence. Dark family tales and the Niagara Falls Gazette police blotter reveal Andrew, a machinist at General Abrasives, was volatile and domineering at home.
"They didn't talk about the father much," Mary Ann Westlund said, "and when they did it was through clenched teeth. The father was very abusive to his wife and Teddy."
Spurback said Teddy would explain the burn marks on his hands were from being forced to clean hot coal out of the furnace with nothing more than a pair of gloves that often caught fire.
"He made his son do a lot of things that in today's society would have put the father in jail for child abuse," Spurback said. "Ted had a very harsh existence, and that drew him closer to his mother.
"Even when he was in his 60s, he was still a mama's boy. He was never out of her sight for more than four hours at a time. He treated her like she was princess of the world."
Anna Wroblewski was known as a marvelous seamstress. The old-timers on Grand Avenue still rave about the way she dressed.
"They were peculiar, but she always looked sharp," Lou Nudo said. "She was a knockout, looked like a million bucks."
She eventually became worth 2 million bucks, according to her estate records, but the family never lived comfortably or peacefully.
"My mother-in-law would say Anna could do anything," Mary Ann Westlund said. "She was the most talented person. It pained my mother-in-law. You could see the heartbreak it caused with the way Anna was."
In July 1932, Andrew Wroblewski was convicted of third-degree assault for attacking his brother's wife after their small children got into a playtime quarrel. "When she appeared in court today," read the Niagara Falls Gazette article, "Mrs. Martin Wroblewski appeared to have suffered a severe beating."
Police were a recurring thread in the Wroblewski tapestry for the next 80 years. A tenant accused Andrew of pointing a gun at him in November 1933; Anna accused the man of beating her, and they all went to court.
Anna, closer in age to Teddy than she was to her husband, was excessively protective of her son. She was said to be deeply affected when the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby dominated the news. On Teddy's third birthday -- a Friday the 13th and the morning after the Lindbergh baby had been found -- the headline in Niagara Falls blared "Wide search for baby slayers; Whole world aroused by brutal murder of Col. Lindbergh's son."
"If Anna left the house, Teddy was to hide under the bed with a butcher knife in case somebody came by," Mary Ann Westlund said. "Now, do you think that would warp a kid?"
Teddy still managed to do well. His grades were in the 80s and 90s through the fourth, fifth and sixth grades at Niagara Street School. But they started to dip into the 70s in the seventh grade. He struggled in math and English. He never graduated, leaving school in 1946 at the Thanksgiving break to join the workforce.
Or at least that's what his transcripts say. Nobody around Grand Avenue or family members who would speak for this story recalled Teddy ever having a job.
The Niagara Falls Gazette first printed Teddy's name in July 1948. He was arrested for disorderly conduct when caught sorting through someone else's garbage before dawn. The report said he was "held for a mental examination." He and his father were charged with second-degree assault in May 1954 for jostling a worker off a ladder, making him fall 15 feet to the ground.
Andrew Wroblewski died of natural causes in December 1976, but the neighborhood drama continued without him.
Jim Brundage was one of the kids the Wroblewskis often battled with. He still lives on Grand Avenue with his mother.
"They accused me and my friends of killing her husband, throwing rocks at her house, obscene phone calls, threats in the mail," said Brundage, 45.
A police activity report for Teddy shows consistent problems, but there was a spike of 34 incidents (as either victim or suspect) between February 1992 and October 1996. Most of the problems were related to his nighttime ventures in search of discarded bric-a-brac. He was arrested in 1994 for third-degree criminal trespassing, accused of standing on a garbage can to peer inside a bedroom window.
Throughout the 1990s, Anna and Teddy viewed their house as a bunker like never before. Neighbors of all ages were fed up with their antics and refusal to maintain the property. A newspaper story noted someone blew out their front window with a stick of dynamite. A concerned local businessman replaced the window with bullet-proof glass.
Teddy accused neighbor David Morrissette of punching him in the eye, knocking off his glasses and stomping on them in May 1995. Later that month, Anna was arrested for pulling a knife out of a paper bag and threatening Morrissette at Jubilee Foods. Teddy accused Morrissette of chasing him down by car through an alley in March 1996.
There was more, and in 1998 U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin awarded the Wroblewskis $55,101 from Morrissette for harassment. The Wroblewskis never collected. Morrissette, who moved to the Town of Porter before the judgment came down, eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Roger Spurback of the block club council might have been the Wroblewskis' only friend. Distrustful of police and attorneys, they asked Spurback to help them cope in the neighborhood. He said when he met the Wroblewskis, he quickly realized he couldn't challenge their lifestyle. He was certain they'd reject him, too, and perhaps have nowhere else to turn.
Spurback said he made the decision to "advocate for them and help in any way that I can, let them live in the environment and seek reasonable accommodations later on."
Over the years, he made only minor inroads, like bringing them boxes of Kleenex so they would stop using other people's discarded tissues and napkins to blow their noses. To give Teddy and Anna something to eat aside from the scraps they harvested from the Como Restaurant's garbage, Spurback would bring them bread from Di Camillo's. A loaf would last a month.
> Suspicious events
On Feb. 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center, killing 50 people.
Earlier that day, two workers at Anna Wroblewski's nursing home, who days before had convinced Teddy Wroblewski to take a shower and let them cut his hair, were concerned enough about his whereabouts to visit 2025 Grand Ave. Then they made the case's initial report to Niagara Falls police.
Also that day, a collections agency received an uncontested $21,567 arbitration award against Howard Baney.
It wasn't Baney's first trouble with debt. Niagara County court records show a collections agency won a $40,610 judgment against Baney in October 2006. The verdict wasn't paid until July 2010.
It's uncertain how Baney erased the bigger debt after four years and a contempt-of-court request from Investment Retrievers Inc. Baney, 59, lives with his 88-year-old mother on Park Place. He has owned Baney Enterprises, a business listed in fringe online directories under antiques, used furniture and flooring. He and his mother also own a few properties.
Spurback finds the circumstances odd and is disturbed by how Baney insisted on keeping the Wroblewski deaths a secret.
"I'd been over there to Ted's house for years and never seen [Baney]," Spurback said. "Ted never mentioned him. Then [Baney] started showing up at the Memorial Medical Center when Anna Wroblewski went in there."
Lou Nudo speculated Teddy Wroblewski's death could've been foul play, partly because of the prostitutes several of the neighbors mentioned they saw entering and leaving the house.
The police knew how much the Wroblewskis were worth. "We were suspicious in the beginning, but it never really was a homicide investigation," Thomson said. "A missing person can turn into a homicide investigation, depending on what happened. But in the end, we weren't able to prove there was a homicide."
During his brief encounter with a Buffalo News reporter, Baney reiterated his wishes not to be interviewed for this story. He said the ordeal had been too difficult for him and his mother.
Thomson said he was relieved to find Teddy's remains in the basement. Police feared he'd been randomly abducted or inadvertently picked up by a garbage truck as he crawled around a dumpster and taken to a landfill. To die the way Teddy did was a favorable scenario.
The epilogue, however, is tough for others to accept. It could get more interesting.
"Teddy was, in his heart, a very good " said Spurback, his voice breaking. "He was a very good person, a very good person. And he doesn't deserve to be forgotten about like the trash that he picked up."