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Death of recluse, 83, a mystery

ETHEL TAYLOR, 83, spent Christmas night alone in her West Oak Lane home, eating smoked-turkey soup brought over by a neighbor.

ETHEL TAYLOR, 83, spent Christmas night alone in her West Oak Lane home, eating smoked-turkey soup brought over by a neighbor.

Her husband had died more than two decades earlier, and as far as several neighbors know, none of her five children came to visit on Christmas.

The next day, she was found dead inside her locked home, a plastic bag over her head and a large television set atop her body, police and neighbors said.

A recluse in recent years, Taylor had regular contact only with a neighbor named Stephanie, who for the last 24 years had bought her groceries, shoveled her walk and brought her smoked-turkey soup for Christmas.

Stephanie - who asked that her last name be withheld - said that when she brought the soup over on Christmas night, she asked to eat with Taylor so that the elderly woman wouldn't have to be alone. Uncharacteristically, Taylor refused her company, she recalled yesterday.

"She said, 'I'm not going to let you in. I'm going to eat and go to bed,' " Stephanie said. "I remember joking with her and asking her if she had a man over there."

The following day, Stephanie said, she repeatedly tried to call Taylor but she didn't answer the phone. After attending a 5 p.m. church service, Stephanie used her key to Taylor's house, on East Chelten Avenue near Stenton, to check on her well-being, she said.

When she got inside, she discovered that the electricity wasn't working - but with a flashlight she could see the grisly scene in Taylor's second-floor front bedroom.

"I can't even visualize her the way I want to right now," Stephanie said. "I can only see what I saw when I walked in."

Stephanie called 9-1-1 around 7:30 p.m., and police came to the scene.

Homicide Lt. Philip Riehl said that, as of last night, detectives were awaiting the medical examiner's report on the cause and manner of death.

Although it has not been ruled a homicide, Riehl said: "I would consider it suspicious at this point."

"There is no forced entry, and there are multiple locks that have to be unlocked before you can get in and must be locked up before you leave," he said.

Police and neighbors had theories. For example: Maybe Taylor had a bag on her head to stave off the rain, or had just come from the shower, when she had a heart attack and grabbed the television for support, neighbor Clarence Copper suggested.

"I hope nobody tried to hurt her or anything like that," Copper said. "I pray it wasn't foul play involved, but there's people out there like that."

Stephanie said that what she saw gave no clue as to how the television got on top of Taylor. She also said that the bag on Taylor's head was "on there enough" to do damage.

Riehl confirmed accounts by Stephanie and Copper that the electricity to Taylor's home was not working when police arrived, and that it appeared as if someone had tampered with it behind the residence. He said that detectives easily restored the power by closing an outside plate.

"More than anything, that's the suspicious aspect of this," he said.

Stephanie recalled Taylor as a "very kind lady" who worked for the government. After she retired, she would sweep Stephanie's walk for her, until she no longer could do it. And Stephanie would shovel her snow and buy her groceries.

She remembered Taylor as making an "unbelievable" peach cobbler and treats she called "surprise cakes" for Stephanie's children on their birthdays.

In each "surprise cake," Taylor would wrap a dollar bill or a toy in wax paper and hide it somewhere in the cake, so that with each slice, you wondered who would get the surprise.

"She's a wonderful neighbor to have. I'm lucky to have had her," said Stephanie, who lovingly calls her "Ms. T."