Her Brother's Keeper

Mary Dixon didn't think much about it when her brother, Hosea Wilcox, wandered off after they'd argued in front of her neatly kept Allapattah home. He'll be back in a little while, she thought. After all, the 73-year-old Wilcox had a habit of coming and going from the pink, two-bedroom house where he had lived on and off since moving from Savannah in January. "I said, `Well, he's just mad because I told him he couldn't stay here any more,'" says Dixon. "I told him, `I'm 68 years old and I can't be running behind you all the time. I just can't.' He just about burned the house down a few times with his cigarettes and I just didn't know what to do, so I told him he was going to have to get his own place."

But Wilcox didn't come back that night. Or the next. The tellers at the NCNB bank branch on NW 36th Street, most of whom recognized Wilcox from his frequent visits to withdraw small amounts of cash for cigarettes and wine, hadn't seen him. Still, Dixon wasn't too worried. "I just thought he was angry and he wasn't coming around," she says. "But he never went off like that. He would always come back and ask me to fix him a sandwich or something."

Dixon says Wilcox came to live in Miami after his daughter tried to place him in a nursing home in Savannah and he refused to go. A World War II veteran who last worked as a janitor at the Crystal House in Miami Beach, he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. "He would fall asleep with a cigarette in his hand or he'd just put them down and forget," says Dixon. "But he's not a mental case. He just gets confused and forgets things, but he's not a mental case."

Wilcox had a habit of snuffing out his cigarettes on the freshly painted outside walls of Dixon's house, staining it with black spots, and because he wasn't taking care of his room, his sister moved him out to a small utility room at the back of the house, where he slept on a mattress on the floor. He filled the room with chairs, tables - anything he found in trash piles around the neighborhood. "He is the type of person who can't pass a piece of junk without bringing it home," Dixon recalls. "Lord, he had that room so full, I couldn't even get in there to wash."

About a week before he disappeared, Wilcox rented a room in an Overtown boarding house, but the landlord complained that he left the door open with the key in the lock, forgot to turn off the lights, and burned the bedding with his cigarettes. After only two nights at the boarding house, Wilcox returned to his sister's house. On May 9, Dixon brought police officers to the house to complain that she wanted to kick him off her property. The two argued, and Wilcox wandered away.

By May 31, after she had not seen or heard from her brother for more than three weeks, Dixon was worried. She telephoned relatives in Savannah, thinking Wilcox might have found his way back there, filed a missing-persons report with the Miami Police Department, and brought a photograph of her brother to the Miami Times, which ran a short item requesting information about the missing man.

Juan Fuentes, a detective with the police department's Missing Persons Unit, recalls issuing a statewide "be-on-the-lookout" bulletin and checking with major hospitals, the morgue, and the Dade County Jail. No Wilcox. "The family told us he did walk out of the house from time to time and drift for a while," Fuentes says. "Other than that, we had very little to go on."

Even after the month of June passed without word from her brother, Dixon continued to hold out hope. "I didn't know what had happened, but I didn't think he was dead," she says. "I did hear on the news one day they found a body in Biscayne Bay, and I went down to the morgue. But they told me it was a younger man. What I thought was that he was someplace where he couldn't contact me, or he had lost his memory and couldn't call me. I even thought maybe he had gotten into a cab, because he had a habit of getting into cabs when he had no money to pay for it, and they dropped him off somewhere far off and he didn't know how to get back."

Finally, on July 11, Mary Dixon received a call from Harbor View Hospital, a private psychiatric facility on NW South River Drive. Wilcox had been taken to the hospital for an evaluation and was about to be admitted. For the previous two months, she learned, he had been in the care of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. "Can you believe it?" asks Dixon. "We have the police out there looking for him, and all this time these people from the state knew where he was?"

Soundra Conklin, the lead social worker at Camillus House downtown, says Wilcox had wandered into the homeless shelter in early May. Workers there felt he was not able to care for himself, and they requested that HRS Adult Protective Services come to pick him up. Wilcox was taken to the Alzheimer's Retirement Home, a six-room, HRS-licensed facility at 18405 NW 42nd Place. HRS spokeswoman Olga Connor says state confidentiality laws prohibit her from discussing specifics of the case, but Nadine Proctor, the retirement home's owner, is somewhat more forthcoming. Although she says she cannot divulge medical information or the date Wilcox arrived, Proctor says he was in her care for nearly two months. "He was in very poor condition when he got here," she offers. She didn't call Mary Dixon, she explains, because Wilcox never told her that he had relatives in town. "Nobody ever said anything about any relatives," says Proctor. "I can feel for any family members he had out there that might have thought he had disappeared or was dead. Somebody should have said something. But we had no idea."

On July 11 Proctor sent Wilcox to Harbor View for a psychological and physical evaluation, which she says is a routine procedure for the Alzheimer's patients she cares for. At the hospital, Wilcox mentioned that his sister lived in Miami, and he gave hospital workers her phone number.

Hosea Wilcox has been moved to a foster home in North Dade, because Nadine Proctor believes he needs more care than she could provide with the twenty dollars per day HRS provides.

After Wilcox was placed in HRS custody, the police had virtually no way of tracking him down. "If HRS doesn't check the national or state computer, nobody is going to know he's a missing person," says Detective Fuentes. "There's no way we were going to know where he was. You know what it's like to track down a 73-year-old guy in the City of Miami when we have 2000 missing people every year in Miami alone and only two detectives to look for them? Something doesn't match up if they have a 73-year-old man in a hospital or wherever and they don't tell anyone or don't check with family members who might be looking for him.

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William Labbee