A piece of fabric was the first clue that investigators might have found Janet Kelly’s body as they dug in the yard of her daughter’s Florida home.
A few bones were uncovered, then a blanket, and under that, a skeleton on its side in a fetal position. A thin chain was around the skeleton’s neck, and silvery metal gleamed from a hip replacement.
Fourteen years after Patricia Hodges dumped her mother’s body into a 4-foot-deep hole where, Hodges said, she could “sit and watch the birds,” investigators unearthed Kelly’s skeleton.
On Feb. 27, Hodges, 65, of Marietta in southeastern Ohio, is expected to plead guilty in federal court in Columbus to cashing her mother’s Social Security checks while her body moldered in the makeshift grave.
The official charge? Willfully stealing $142,000 from the United States.
If not for suspicious Social Security investigators, Kelly’s body might never have been found, Marietta police detective Troy Hawkins said.
“Apparently, once you hit 100 years old, Social Security wants to physically lay eyes on you,” Hawkins said. So in December 2011, a Social Security manager went looking for Kelly at 1322 Colegate Dr. in Marietta, where her checks most recently had been sent.
Her mother was “on a cruise,” Patricia Hodges told the manager. But when Hodges couldn’t provide any details, the manager called in an investigator.
After the investigator and Hawkins had questioned Hodges several more times over several days, she said her mother had died of natural causes in 1997 when she was 88. Instead of having a funeral and burying her in a cemetery, “she took her out and buried her in the backyard” of the Lake Worth, Fla., house they had lived in.
“She said she was scared and didn’t know what to do,” Hawkins said. “In my opinion, she did it to continue the Social Security benefits.”
By then, investigators already had searched for Kelly at the Marietta house. They’d dug up what looked like a grave in the backyard but found only a dead dog.
Inside the house, they found a marijuana-growing operation. Hawkins arrested Hodges and her husband, Marvin, 67, on charges of cultivating pot. That’s when Hawkins admitted to her mother’s death and unconventional burial.
After Florida investigators unearthed Kelly’s body, a Florida medical examiner performed an autopsy. No cause of death could be determined, according to a Palm Beach County sheriff’s office report. Officials at the medical examiner’s office said on Friday that no further information about the case could be released, including the final resting place for Kelly’s remains.
Public records show that the Hodges bought the Lake Worth home, a three-bedroom ranch, in 1995 and sold it in June 1997. Records also show that Kelly had sold an apartment in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1994.
Hawkins said it was never clear why neighbors or other relatives didn’t try to contact Kelly after her death.
“It was definitely a strange case,” he said.
Both Hodgeses pleaded guilty to the marijuana charges last year. She was sentenced to six months in prison; her husband was sentenced to eight months.
Mr. Hodges, who had previous convictions for bank robbery and burglary, was not charged in the Social Security case. Mrs. Hodges, who has past drug convictions, could be sent to federal prison for as long as 10 years and fined $250,000 for stealing her mother’s checks. Contacted at her home on Friday, Mrs. Hodges would not comment.
Investigators in Florida have not charged her with abuse of a corpse.