IRIS HAD WILTED long ago, around the time her brother died, neighbors believe.
She used to clean the windows of her Kensington home every morning, but in recent years, Iris Galarza, 88, smelled of urine. She wore plastic bags on her feet and stopped three times a day at the corner store, where the owners gave her food out of pity.
When she didn't get her food there, she got it at shelters or by picking through trash cans, neighbors said.
The deaf woman's house had none of the things a house should have — no running water, electricity or heat, according to court records. It overflowed with papers and trash, and had no fridge, sink or stove. Mud filled the toilet and tub.
"If you didn't know her, you'd consider her homeless, but she has a home," said neighbor Hector Rodriguez.
Now police are investigating whether the woman responsible for receiving her Social Security checks, Nancy Gonzalez, stole the money she was supposed to use to pay Iris' bills and to purchase necessities, court records show.
No charges have been filed, and Gonzalez denies any wrongdoing.
"That's just the way she liked to live," Gonzalez said of Iris, while standing recently outside her own well-kept house in Torresdale.
Gonzalez is paid around $60,000 a year as a secretary for the president of City Council, according to city payroll records.
Gonzalez, 51, has worked at City Hall for 32 years. She is a secretary for Council President Darrell Clarke, after working for years under former Council President Anna Verna.
A spokeswoman for Clarke's office declined to comment. Verna, meanwhile, said she was shocked to hear of the investigation. She said she didn't know much about Gonzalez's personal life but knew her to be a hard worker.
"I'm almost speechless, I guess I just can't imagine," Verna said. "I would find that hard to believe with Nancy."
A larger problem
Gonzalez at one time was married to Iris' nephew, William Galarza, according to court documents. She became Iris' Social Security representative payee in 2005 because Galarza's criminal record, for sexually assaulting a child, prevented him from being a payee, according to court documents.
The Social Security Administration's representative-payee program came under scrutiny in Philadelphia last year when it was alleged that Linda Ann Weston, a payee for 10 mentally disabled people, kept many of them imprisoned in a Tacony basement.
The investigation into Iris' story also highlights the growing problem of elder financial abuse in Philadelphia, a crime many believe is underreported. Although about 450 cases of elder financial abuse are reported on average each year in the city, the estimated number of cases may in fact be as high as 19,000, according to Joe Snyder, director of older-adult protective services for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
"We've been saying for years there's a tsunami of abuse and neglect and exploitation out there and it's been going on for some time," Snyder said. "The one key issue is ageism. People just don't care about the elderly.
"Number Two, people don't think it will ever happen to them or will be related to them. Absolutely anybody can be a victim and absolutely anybody can be a perpetrator."
In an interview with the Daily News, Gonzalez claimed that all of Iris' bills were "up to date."
Police say in court documents that Iris' house had no running water, electricity or heat, and neighbors who lived near her say she lived in squalor.
The couple who owned the corner store where Iris came three times a day for free food — usually some combination of coffee with milk and soup, rice or beans — said she'd been coming around since they opened more than six years ago.
"My mother is dead and so I look at her like my mother," said the owner, who asked that her name be withheld. "She had a home near the store, but I see no family there. I never see nobody."
Hector and Rose Rodriguez, who live across the street from Iris' house, said she already was living on the block of Hancock Street near Norris when they moved in 30 years ago. They said Iris never married and lived with her brother until he died.
Over the years, Iris slowly deteriorated, but she'd always still smile and wave, Hector Rodriguez said of his neighbor. Recently, Iris always had dirt on her face, seemed cold in the winter and was never in clean clothes, her neighbors said.
"The way you saw her, she was so dirty you'd be afraid to touch her," Hector Rodriguez said. "When we used to see her around, we would say, 'This is one of the persons the city needs to help.' "
Another neighbor, a 77-year-old woman who asked not to be identified, said Iris often asked for food and picked through trash cans. She said she never saw anyone visit her.
"She looked like she was abandoned and no one was taking care of her," the woman said. "We all felt sorry for her, but no one knew what to do."
Police get involved
It wasn't until December, when two police officers on patrol spotted Iris receiving free food from the corner store, that anyone did anything. The cops followed Iris to her house and knocked on the door. She let them in.
A heavy stench hung in the place, trash and dirt were everywhere and there were no working utilities or appliances. "Horrified" was how the cops described their reaction in paperwork to the putrid conditions inside.
When confronted by police, Gonzalez told the cops that Iris' utilities were all paid and Galarza told them he'd just remodeled her kitchen and basement.
"Mr. Galarza was unaware that the officers he was speaking to were the same officers that had gone inside the house four days prior and were aware they were both lying," police said in court documents.
Once police became involved, Iris began living with Galarza in his home with the supervision of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, according to court documents.
In a January interview with police, Gonzalez said she'd been Iris' payee since 2005 and received about $685 a month in Social Security payments for Iris. She said Iris' money is directly deposited into a bank account in her name and the utility payments were electronically deducted. She also told police she got grants from the city to help pay for Iris' utilities when she fell behind in paying them, according to court documents.
Gonzalez described Iris to police as a trash hoarder who lived in a rat-infested home and had not washed or changed her clothes in six years, court documents said.
When interviewed at her home last month, Gonzalez, a slight woman with dark hair, a pleasant smile and neon-green fingernail polish, claimed Iris was always fine "health-wise."
"Her hygiene, there was nothing we could do," Gonzalez said. "It was just the way she was used to living."
Gonzalez acknowledged having control of Iris' Social Security checks for a while because, she said, Iris would cash them and lose the money. However, Gonzalez swore that all the bills were paid on time. Gonzalez claimed that Iris asked people for food because she would store it away.
"It's not like she was hungry," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said she is no longer Iris' Social Security payee and she believed that the old woman was "fine now" living with William Galarza.
'That breaks my heart'
Iris' former neighbors said that she'd been back on the block in March — in nothing but a bathrobe and pajamas, but she looked clean — and that she was asking people to open the door to her house. Someone called the police, but William Galarza got there first.
"Her nephew came around and said she got out of the house. I was like, 'You left her alone?' and he said he had to work," said one neighbor. "That lady should be in a nursing home where they take your check and take care of you."
On three occasions, a Daily News reporter went to speak with William Galarza and to see Iris. William was gone each time, but Iris wasn't.
Electric candelabras, their plastic stems yellowed with age, flickered in the front windows of Galarza's home next to large sculptures of pudgy-faced cherubs.
Iris came to the door and pulled back the blinds. Her eyes were large, cloudy and glassy, her frame short and slight. She had a shower cap over her hair and was wearing a pink robe with a little red heart on the chest.
She smiled and pointed her finger toward the door. It was bolted shut from the outside.
Even after the bolt was slid over, the door wouldn't budge. Iris made a twisting motion with her hand, as if she were turning a key. Another lock apparently prevented her from opening the door.
She pointed to herself and gestured that she didn't have the key.
Executive Fire Chief Richard Davidson, speaking generally, said that from a firefighting perspective locking someone in a house has inherent dangers.
"If you lock any person, whether it's an elderly, young person, adult or child, and they are unable to get out if a fire starts, that is a dangerous situation," he said. A police source said the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is supposed to be sending someone to check up on Iris every two to three hours. A PCA spokeswoman said the agency cannot discuss individual cases.
Meanwhile, the store owner who fed Iris three times a day began crying when she learned that Iris had family and someone who was supposed to care for her.
"I was looking all over for somebody to help her," said the store owner. "That breaks my heart." n