Police doubt foul play in strange case of gaunt old woman whose last 28 years were in seclusion in parents' home

(SPARTA, Wisc.) -- After Roger Young was admitted to the hospital for heart surgery late last month, a relative who had gone to his house to check on his wife made a shocking discovery.

Standing in the kitchen was Roger and Ruby Young's 64-year-old daughter, Anita, pale and gaunt after 28 years in seclusion.

Neighbors had no idea she was there; family and friends thought she was living in La Crosse or Minneapolis, having long ago shed her Sparta roots.

Instead, the 1954 Sparta High School graduate, voted ''best looking'' by her senior class and described by her former schoolmates as bright, popular and brimming with potential, had spent nearly half her life in a sort of prison.

Whether she had built that prison herself as a way to keep out a world she found scary or damaging or was held there against her will is now the subject of a police investigation.

Sparta Police Chief Ray Harris said he expects the inquiry will find it's the former. Roger Young, a retired under-sheriff and police dispatcher and well-known Sparta resident, loves his daughter, Harris said, even if he and his wife never let on she lived with them.

''I think there's nothing to it. There's been so many rumors spread about this,'' Harris said. ''I don't think her mother and dad would harm her, not intentionally.

''If we have to charge, we will charge. But right now I'd be willing to bet $ 100 there's nothing we could substantiate to charge him.''

Uncertain whether she was capable of giving consent, police obtained a court order to take the emaciated Anita Young, who weighed an estimated 80 pounds, to Franciscan Skemp Healthcare in La Crosse, where she remained in serious condition Tuesday. A nursing supervisor and her attorney said she was in no condition to be interviewed.

Friends had last seen Anita Young around 1954, as she headed off to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

''She was a very nice girl. She was very popular in school,'' said Jean Brown, 65, of Sparta.

Others recalled her as quiet, shy, a good student. She was friendly to everyone, but few said they knew her well.

After college, she worked as a lab technician at the University of Minnesota Hospital, although friends had already started losing contact with her. By 1964, former classmates trying to organize a 10-year high school reunion couldn't find her.

What happened next is unclear. In an interview at his home, Roger Young, 87, said his daughter's long-term boyfriend broke off their relationship around 1970. Distraught to the point of being unable to work, Young returned from the Twin Cities to her parents' home in Sparta around 1972, he said. She was 36.

She was ''down in the dumps feeling sorry for herself,'' Roger Young said.

The former beau, Alvin Moga, now living in Independence and married for 31 years, said the two broke up in 1969 after going together ''off and on'' for nine or 10 years. He said he knew nothing of what had become of his former girlfriend.

Allan Beatty, an assistant public defender appointed to represent Anita Young at her hospital commitment hearing, said it may have been Roger Young who objected to the young man.

''Apparently there's some family belief that it had to do with the man's Catholicism,'' Beatty said.** Roger Young denied he ''had anything against the boy.''

''It's a pitiful situation,'' the elder Young said about his daughter's 28-year exile inside his home. ''We feel bad about it that she couldn't snap out of it.''

But what kept her shut away in the tidy, three-bedroom house on the city's east side? And why did so few people in this western Wisconsin city of 8,300 know she was there?

Police are talking to her father. But, Beatty said, ''whether he's the scapegoat or a super-controlling person who did this, I simply don't know.

''It's a pretty bizarre set of circumstances. It's kind of right out of Dickens.''

All agree that Anita Young was not prevented from leaving the house.

''She wasn't locked in a room. She wasn't chained to a bed,'' Police Chief Harris said. ''She was not forced to do anything she didn't want to do.''

She apparently did leave the home sometimes at night, taking a taxi to get food, Beatty said.

Harris, who worked closely with Roger Young during the 12 years Harris was sheriff, said any influence the father might have exerted on keeping his daughter inside likely wouldn't have been physical.

''I don't know how mentally challenged she might be, but he may have, and could have for her own protection, said, 'You're not to be going out,' '' Harris said.

He added that Roger Young was part of a generation for whom a mental illness in the family was often viewed as shameful.

Roger Young, who balked at the idea that he had anything to do with his daughter's seclusion, rejected even the suggestion that she needed his consent to leave the house.

''We have never told the girl she couldn't do anything,'' he said. ''No such thing. Absolutely not. You're getting that from the horse's mouth. Why should I keep her prisoner?''

He added that there were no locks on his daughter's door; that food was available, even if she chose not to eat; and that she had a TV and radio, although she chose not to watch or listen to either one.

He declined to let a reporter inside the house, or to allow his wife to be interviewed.

But Gerald Baumbach, whose mother discovered Anita Young in the house, said his grand-uncle didn't want his daughter downstairs while he was at home. He said Roger and Ruby Young took most of their meals at restaurants and that there was no food in the refrigerator when she was found.

Roger Young said that he and his wife tried to get help for their daughter over the years but that ''she wouldn't cooperate.

''We wanted to do things for her but she never wanted to do anything,'' he said. ''She'd just sit there.''

The discovery of Anita Young on Oct. 20 came as news to several neighbors, including Steve North, who has lived next door to the family the entire time she was there. But Shirley Fokema, who lives across the street and has known the family for 20 years, said she knew the couple had a daughter and ''half-suspected'' she stayed in the house.

Neighbors and other friends were unanimous in their support for Roger Young, whom they described as friendly, helpful and ''a wonderful guy.''

Harris declined to release any police records of the case, and Monroe County District Attorney Dan Hellman wouldn't discuss it, saying only, ''We don't comment on ongoing investigations.''

A social worker involved in the case also would not comment.

In the end, Harris predicted the case would boil down to an extreme case of agoraphobia, an abnormal fear of being in public places. However, the parents could face criminal charges if they're found to violate state laws barring mistreatment of ''vulnerable adults.''

But those are questions for others to sort out. For now, her former classmates are struggling with the news that, through all the years spent looking for her, she was right in their midst.

Jane Larson, who graduated from Sparta High School with Anita Young, said the woman's parents never gave her any indication where she was, even as friends tried to organize regular class reunions. Invitations came back unopened.

''Just the thought that she could have lived there all that time in isolation, I can't tell you the sadness it brings me because it's like a life wasted,'' Larson said.

CORRECTION-DATE: November 1, 2000


Photo was not of Anita Young A photo that ran on page A1 of Wednesday's Wisconsin State Journal was not Anita Young's senior class photo; it was a classmate's. The correct photo is shown her

GRAPHIC: SARAH B. TEWS/WSJ ''Her smile says R.S.V.P.'' reads the caption next to this 1954 yearbook photo of Anita Young.

Roger W. Young, 87, said he tried to get help for his reclusive daughter but she refused it. ''It's a pitiful situation,'' he said.

This is a 1953 Sparta High School yearbook photo of Anita Young. She was a junior and a homecoming court attendant.

Anita Young grew up in this three-bedroom house at 116 N. Tyler St. in Sparta. Years later she would move back there, spending the last 28 years in virtual seclusion in an upstairs bedroom.

(iSyndicate; Wisconsin State Journal; Nov. 1, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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