I STEPPED through a hole in the wooden fence surrounding the Mantua home and beheld the filthy wonder of the once-majestic property.
The yard was shin-deep in trash. The second floor's bay window was gone, opening a huge hole to the elements. An extension cord ran from the house to an alley light, dangerously affixed there by God-knows-who.
As I picked my way past another missing window, the spring breeze caught the stench of feces (Animal? Human? Does it matter?), jolting me to my senses. I hadn't told anyone that I'd be eyeballing the property that morning. If I came to harm in this abandoned hellhole, no one would think to look for me here.
"Ronnie, you're an idiot," I said, as I suddenly noticed the "No Trespassing" sign affixed to the back door. Then, as I hightailed it back to safety: "Damn you, Gosnell!"
As in Kermit Gosnell - the notorious West Philly physician convicted in 2013 on three counts of murder for the medical atrocities committed at his abortion clinic at 38th and Lancaster.
Remember how Gosnell's clinic was dubbed "House of Horrors"? Well, he owns another horror house: his abandoned home, which is falling down at 32nd Street and Mantua Avenue, less than a mile from his old medical office.
It's scaring the hell out of neighbors.
"Squatters have ripped up the house from the basement to the ceilings," says Virginia Brooker, 73, a gracious retiree who has lived two doors down from Gosnell's place since 1973. "They've stripped the plumbing. They store their clothes and bags on the porch. They come and go like it's their own home."
Brooker's fiance, Howard Williams, 89, worries that the building will collapse and kill someone. Or that a squatter will start a fire that spreads to the well-tended homes on this otherwise lovely stretch of 32nd Street.
In its heyday, the massive Victorian rowhouse - a mansion, really - must have been magnificent. It's easy to imagine Gosnell sipping morning coffee on its wraparound veranda. Or picking tomatoes from what had been his lush vegetable garden. Or ogling sunset views of the Art Museum from the third-floor turrets.
That would have been long before the house was searched in 2010 by Philadelphia crime-scene investigators after the FBI raided the Women's Medical Society, Gosnell's clinic. Inside the home, they found squalor: plates of food on the floor, a bedroom so cluttered you couldn't see the bed, a basement thick with fleas.
City records show that Gosnell, who is doing three consecutive life sentences at Huntingdon State Correctional Institution, hasn't paid real-estate taxes on his property since 2012 and is in arrears by $7,479.42.
None of that bothers Lawrence Resnick, a developer who owns the rental house next door to Gosnell's home. He'd buy the place today if it were available.
"I want it," he told me.
Brooker says that others have expressed interest in the house, too, and it's no wonder: Development is booming in hot-and-getting-hotter Mantua, which is adjacent to Penn and Drexel and has fast access to major roadways and public transit.
So what's stopping Gosnell from selling? Given the horror he inflicted on the city, the least he should do is give someone a chance to transform the blighted corner into a gorgeous one.
Brooker says she has written Gosnell to ask his plans for the property. He has yet to respond. I hoped to get an answer for her from lawyer Jack McMahon, who represented Gosnell at trial. I thought he'd have an understanding of Gosnell's mind-set these days. But McMahon didn't return my calls.
I had no luck either when I visited Gosnell's wife, Pearl, who lives elsewhere in the neighborhood in a home small enough to fit inside the splendid one she once shared with him. Convicted on charges related to her husband's crimes, she is on probation.
("I'm sorry for my part in this horror," she'd said at her sentencing. "My husband is in jail forever, which is where he should be.")
When I asked what she or her husband planned to do with the Mantua house, she responded, "There's nothing I can tell you," then quietly closed the door.
At least Licenses & Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams was forthcoming when I shared neighbors' worries with him. He said the house was classified unsafe in November 2013 and was cleaned and sealed in October 2014. All seemed stable until last month, when L&I got a new complaint about unsafe conditions. Last week, L&I received a complaint about a break-in.
When Williams heard of Brooker's worries, he immediately dispatched inspectors to the block. Within hours, workers were boarding up the windows that vagrants had unsealed, hauling away garbage and coming up with a new plan to deal with Gosnell's second house of horrors.
"The threat of fire, crime and drug use is a major concern, especially to neighboring properties," he told me. "Vacant-property management is our No. 1 priority in our plan to make our city safer," either by holding owners accountable for maintenance or getting blighted messes into the hands of responsible owners. Williams said that L&I will seek a court order to repair or demolish Gosnell's property.
Yesterday, as workers were cleaning up the site, they came across a pile of tiny bones. All work stopped as the Police Department's Crime Scene Unit and homicide detectives swarmed the scene. Given Gosnell's history - many aborted, late-term fetuses from his clinic have never been accounted for - police wondered whether the bones were human.
They were quickly determined to be animal remains. A sad and fitting find, given the animal who once called the place home.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly