WORCESTER — Freezing temperatures, a malfunctioning furnace, a temporary space heater and a home in need of repairs may have contributed to the deaths of an actress’s elderly parents who were in failing health for some time before they were found dead Monday night.
The deaths of actress Alicia Witt’s parents, Robert and Diane Witt, in their Sussex Lane home remain under investigation, according to police, who said there was no apparent trauma
Police also declined to say where in the house the Witts were found or if they were together, although a neighbor said he believes they would have been side by side as they were in life.
“Any time I spent around them they were like one person,” the neighbor said. “One soul.”
The couple was discovered after a relative asked police to accompany him on a wellness check about 9:15 p.m., Monday. The previous night was the coldest of the month, with temperatures bottoming out at 15 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
A dispatcher told the responding officers that a relative had loaned the couple a space heater because their furnace had stopped working a week earlier. The officers were also told the couple had “compromised immune systems.”
Firefighters tested the air quality inside the home and found no noxious gases, but that was after other emergency personnel had been in and out, opening doors, which could have caused any existing gas to dissipate, an official said.
Space heaters can pose dangers, Deputy Fire Chief Adam Roche said. Heaters which can use fossil fuels such as propane must be vented to the outside to prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can be deadly.
Alicia Witt unable to reach her parents
Alicia Witt said in a statement that she had been unable to reach her parents and asked a cousin to check on them, which led to the discovery.
Mr. Witt, 87, a former teacher, had been diagnosed with cancer and confined to the couple’s home at the recommendation of his doctor because of the risk of COVID-19, according to court documents.
Neighbors said the couple was somewhat reclusive; rarely did they turn on lights or come outside, and knocks at the door often went unanswered. They had no cable television or computer, court records show.
A neighbor said the furnace had been broken for far more than a week, recalling that in 2018, when the heating system was faulty, the couple declined the neighbor’s offer to fix it.
A neighbor said she saw what appeared to be “someone from the state” dropping off food once a month.
“In the last four years we haven’t seen them at all,” she said.
The couple used city buses for transportation or accepted rides from at least one neighbor. After their Volkswagen broke down, a family of bunnies moved into the vehicle, and Mrs. Witt did not want them to be put out, a neighbor said.
“They were truly one of the most kind and gentle souls I have ever met,” a neighbor said.
Another neighbor talked about how proud the Witts were of Alicia, boasting about her accomplishments and looking forward to her visits.
Court documents indicate Mrs. Witt, 75, may have had health problems related to damage to their home from the ice storm of Dec. 12, 2008.
Records in that case show that Mrs. Witt said she suffered, “severe problems with [her] breathing, with sleeping, congestion and nosebleeds,” along with “difficulty with her memory [and] with communication” because of mold and fiberglass exposure.
Medical examiner performing autopsy
The state medical examiner is performing autopsies on the Witts to determine the cause and manner of their deaths. The results could take weeks or longer.
In a court case filed in 2011, the couple alleged that Hanover Insurance did not adequately cover the damages to their home, though documents show that the insurance company paid out more than $110,000.
However, Hanover’s lawyer wrote in 2017 that, “Apart from certain rudimentary repairs, the plaintiffs have made no effort to repair or replace the damage to their home, and it remains in a state of disrepair to this date.”
The rudimentary repairs included a tarp over the damaged roof, tree removal and wildlife removal, records show. To this day a tarp remains over the roof of the ranch-style home despite a 2014 order from the city threatening to fine the Witts $10,000 if it was not removed.
The Witts had lived in the house since 1979. They had two children, Alicia and her younger brother, Ian Witt.
Diane Witt was listed in the Guinness World Records books from 1988 to 1996 for having the longest hair, which had grown to about 11 feet.
Alicia Witt a child prodigy, actress
Meanwhile, Alicia was termed a child prodigy who, at age 5, quoted Shakespeare and read college textbooks. At age 7, she began piano lessons and excelled beyond all expectations.
She has since pursued an acting career, appearing in movies and TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” “Twin Peaks,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Dune,” and “The Sopranos.”
Court records reveal that Mr. Witt had fallen at least three times and filed legal action related to each of those incidents.
In 2012 he alleged to have fallen outside Sovereign Bank in a case that was dismissed. In 2014, he sought damages for injuries he received in a fall in the Shaw’s Supermarket parking lot on West Boylston Street. And in 2015 he filed a civil action against the City of Worcester when he fell into a hole on Front Street where a tree had been removed. He was awarded $1,000 in that case.
In one of the cases dating back eight years, Mr. Witt wrote that he had “incurable cancer” and was undergoing treatment at Massachuset. General Hospital in Boston.
Chief Roche said firefighters had last been at the home in 2014 though he did not have details about that call.
Brad Petrishen of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: What caused deaths of Alicia Witt’s parents? Here’s what we know.