Elderly Hoarders Rescued From Under Trash Heap

Police wore hazmat suits before entering home

By Ivanna Hampton and Phil Rogers
|  Tuesday, May 25, 2010  |  Updated 6:06 PM CDT
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An elderly pair of South Siders were recently held hostage for weeks -- by their own trash.

An elderly pair of South Siders were recently held hostage for weeks -- by their own trash.

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An elderly pair of South Siders were recently held hostage for weeks -- by their own trash.

The surreal situation -- which is straight out of the TV show Hoarders -- began when Thelma Gaston, 75, fell through mounds of trash in her home on the 1500 block of East 69th Street in the Grand Crossing neighborhood.  When she couldn't free herself from the rubble, her 76-year-old husband Jesse tried to her rescue her, but he suffered the same fate.

Luckily Chicago police conducted a well-being check at the home Monday evening and found the couple alive. A concerned neighbor called after noticing the couple's absence.

"I went over there and there was padlocks on the doors," said neighbor David Oatis, who visited the house yesterday and found no signs of life.  I said, 'well, there ain't nobody home!'"

Police noticed a pungent smell and alerted fire officials. When firemen forced their way into the house, they found it stacked and strewn with garbage and debris. The yard was filled with trash and filth.  Even the garage was stacked floor to ceiling. 

Neighbors said while they often saw the husband outdoors, they had not seen Thelma Gaston in years. Some didn't even know a woman lived in the house.

"I didn't know her, period!" Valentine said.  "I never seen her.  I never seen her in the 4 years I've been here!"
 
Next door neighbor Hattie Fields said she had tried repeatedly to get something done about the trash strewn property.

"I reported it to the alderman's office," Fields insisted. "I gave her pictures. I reported it to streets and sanitation. We had a neighborhood organization and they came by and nothing was ever done! ... I didn't want to be next door to all his plunder!"
 
A spokesman for 5th ward alderman Leslie Hairston said the only complaint they had ever received about the property concerned a complaint about rats in the alley last August. 

"This is an unfortunate situation," said spokesman Rosanlind Moore.  "But there is no blame to be made here."
 
Family members who visited the house Tuesday expressed shock at the way the couple had been living. 

"My God, we had no idea," said Mary Funches, Jesse Gaston's niece.  But she insisted the family was virtually cut off from the couple, and had no knowledge of the conditions in the house.
 
"I can't remember the last time we were in that house," Funches said.  "It was very difficult to keep in contact with them, because, if you made an attempt to try to call them or stop by, they never called, he never kept any kind of contact with his family at all!"

Jesse Gaston's sister, Rosa Funches, said she saw her brother at least twice in the last month, but never inside the home.  She said she has no idea when or why things took a bad turn for the couple.

"He was a zoologist and she was a teacher, so their lifestyle, oh my goodness, I don't know when it changed.  They had a good life," she said.
 
The couple was taken to Jackson Park Hospital, where they were admitted in critical condition.
 

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