The Cat Lady

Written by Harold McNeill on November 27th, 2011. Posted in Police Notebook


Photo (Web):  Back in the 1960’s there were still plenty of homes in Oak Bay which could be dressed up like this. On this night I happened to pick one.

Have you ever dreamed you were drifting into a scene that might have been plucked straight from the pages of a Stephen King novel? In the dream you come face to face with a decaying, paint peeling mansion, blanketed in darkness; a cold wind is blowing and rain pelting down as you pick you way through the leafless, gnarled trees in a weed strewn garden. With each step you can’t dispel the feeling that death lurks in the darkness, but on this night you are given no choice but to enter that dark, forbidding place. Then, suddenly, the nightmare becomes reality.

With less than three months on the job, with very little training and working alone on night shift, I found myself climbing a set of stairs directly into the novel. Why was it that people often waited until the wee hours of the morning to call the police to check on the welfare of their loved ones?  In this case they hadn’t spoken to the woman for several weeks.

My Sergeant, the only other person on shift, was booked off downtown visiting his cronies in the Victoria Police Detective office.  Over the two months I had worked with this Sergeant, he often disappeared for hours on end and officers who worked with him were expected to pick up the slack. By now he and his friends likely well into an order of Chinese food while sharing a few drinks in some non-descript back room in Chinatown.

When I climbed from my cruiser, I could barely see the residence, perched high above Beach Drive about 500 feet back from the eastern banks of the boiling waters of McNeill Bay. As I surveyed the scene, spray from the giant breakers pounded against the seawall, flew across Beach Drive and onto the nearby homes.

The ‘South-Wester’, roaring with gale force off the Strait of Juan de Fuca and over Trial Island, also brought with it sheets of pounding rain. As I tooked at the long, brush-strewn, darkened stairs that stretched through the shadows toward the residence, I knew there could be nothing good at the other end. While I was not a particularly fearful man, this place sent tingles up my spine as I made my way up the moss covered steps with a flashlight in one hand and my dated Webley .38 in the other.

While climbing, I occasionally stopped to scan the darkness and listen, but could hear nothing beyond the howling of the wind and pelting of the rain. At the top, I found the veranda piled high with rain soaked newspapers, books and bags of garbage while somewhere around the corner a shutter was banging in the wind. I knocked hard and hollered, never expecting an answer. I tried the door, then pushed it open on rust crusted hinges.

Inside the stench of cat feces and urine was nearly overwhelming. It was place fit only for the walking dead as no person from the world in which I lived, could possibly find comfort in this place. Fortunately, it was early winter and had been near zero for several days, so the acrid smell was somewhat suppressed. It was not possible to imagine how badly this place might have smelled during the heat of summer.

After trying a several light switches, it was clear the power was off and while making my way across the living room, the hardwood creaked with every step. I stopped and stood frozen for a moment as I heard scurrying noises in the background. Scanning the room, my small flashlight captured the ragged outline an emaciated cat, running past a doorway. Cats I can handle, even emaciated ones, but rats are another case. I could only hope those poor, sickly looking cats had taken care of any rat that might have tried to invade into this decrepit house.

In the kitchen, over a dozen haggard felines scrounged inside the open cupboards among the dishes, pots, pans and open jars and tins that contained mold crusted scrapes of dried foodStarving Cats particles. Many of the cats seemed near death and scanning the garbage strewn around the floor, it was clear a few had already succumbed. Those still living were willing to take whatever meager scrapes they could find and it seemed certain that someone, likely a very dead someone, must be in this house as no one would have deliberately walked away and left the cats to starve.

Photo From the Web: This scene is very similar to that in the house on Beach Drive. Over the years, this was not the only house found to be in such a desperate condition where an elderly woman lived with dozens of cats. 

After giving up on avoiding the feces, I went back to the living room where a narrow, winding staircase, lead to an upper floor. As I climbed, several pairs of eyes reflected back from the darkness below…perhaps they knew something that I did not.

On the way up I called out several times but never seriously expected anyone to answer. At the top and on approaching the first door along the hall, I paused only for a moment to listen, gave one last call, and then pushed it open with my foot. Holding my gun in one hand and flashlight in the other, I slowly scanned the room and although I expected the worst, it still startled me when my light illuminated a human arm hanging from the side of a bed.

On closer inspection, the arm was attached to the body of an elderly woman who apparently had died in her sleep. While there was no immediate evidence suggesting the death was anything other than natural, it was still an unsettling experience to be standing there in the darkness next to a dead body (my first on police call), while not having any backup and with no radio contact to the outside world.

As procedure required a Doctor attend to pronounce death before the body could be removed, I spent a few minutes searching for the phone, but finding none, retraced my steps from the house, down the stairs and back to my patrol car where I radioed the office telling the dispatcher to contact the duty doctor and to shake loose the Sergeant from his nighttime revelry. Thirty minutes later both the Doctor and a disgruntled Sergeant, arrived at the scene.

When the investigation was complete, photos taken and body removed, I made a quick trip downtown to Government and Fisgard to the only all night convenience store in the city, grabbed a bag of cat food and headed back to the residence. After dumping the full bag on the floor, I put out water and left those cats to finally taste something better than scraps on which they had existed over the past few weeks.

A few days later, the medical reports arrived and, as expected, listed the cause of death as natural, likely due to heart failure. It was also learned that while the woman was of considerable means, over the past several years she had absented herself from her family and friends, preferring instead the company of her cats. It seemed sad for this woman to die while all alone, but not likely as sad as a call I attended just a weeks later.


Link to Loneliness, Life’s Last Companion


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  • Harold McNeill

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you and trust all is going well. Our family members are all doing well but it must be pretty tough for a lot of people. I had once heard you were going to do some writing but never heard anything further. I would be most interested, but do you think the OB News have archives back to that time. Any link or information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Did you keep copies? Regards, Harold

  • Rick Gonder

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Harold
    About 22 years ago I spent several weeks going through the OBPD archives. I wrote several stories that were published in the OB News. Feel free to use if they are of value to what you are doing.
    Keep this up, I’m enjoying it and it brings back memories.

  • Harold McNeill

    April 12, 2020 |

    Hi Susan,

    Glad you had a chance to read. I decided to update these stories by proofreading as there were several grammatical errors in many. Hopefully, many of those glaring errors have been removed.

    Many of the stories carry a considerable amount of social comment regarding the way the criminal justice system is selectively applied. Next up involves a young woman from near Cold Lake, Alberta, who was abducted by an older male from Edmonton. Her story is the story of hundreds of young men and woman who have found themselves alone and without help when being prayed upon unscrupulous predators.

    Cheers, Harold

  • Susan

    April 8, 2020 |

    Great read, Harold!…and really not surprising, sad as that may sound.
    Keep the stories coming, it is fascinating to hear them.
    Love from us out here in the “sticks”, and stay safe from this unknown predator called Covid.

  • Harold McNeill

    February 17, 2020 |

    Update:  Times Colonist, February 16, 2020, articles by Louise Dickson, She got her gun back, then she killed herself,” and,  Mounties decision to return gun to PTSD victim haunts her brother. 

    Summary: I don’t know how many read the above articles, but they contained the tragic details about young woman, Krista Carle’, who took her own life after suffering for years with PTSD. While tragedies such as this play out across Canada every week, the reason this story resonates so profoundly is that the final, tragic, conclusion took place here in Victoria. Continued in the article.

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    Testing the comments section after changes made. Updated: February 10, 2020

    Further to the update below (February 1, 2020), I note that since the government announced a “No-Fault” insurance plan for BC, Robert Mulligan is taking a slightly different tack, suggesting that no-fault will only increase the problems by taking away the right of an injured party to sue.

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    Statements like this appear to be simple fear-mongering. As was the case in the past, people who commit criminal offences, as well as other forms of negligence while driving, may well lose their insurance coverage and in all likelihood would be sued by ICBC to recover costs of the claim. (Link here to Mulligan’s full conversation on CFAX radio)

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