Woman Recalls 'Total Shock' of Finding Missing Husband's Body in a Closet While Getting Holiday Decorations
Jennifer Maedge wrestled with how to mark the occasion as Christmas approached last December. It had been eight months since her husband, Richard Maedge, vanished in April after texting his wife that he didn't feel well and was heading home early from work.
"I know it may sound odd," Jennifer tells PEOPLE. "I was just trying to figure out the best way to celebrate the holidays without knowing the whereabouts of my husband. I had been contemplating that for weeks before I decided to put up some Christmas decorations, to put me more in the Christmas spirit and to honor my husband, in a way. The holidays last year were hard to celebrate while Rich's disappearance was unsolved."
It was searching for ornaments for her Christmas tree that the mystery was solved.
In what Jennifer describes as a sort of closet-within-a-closet beneath stairs in the couple's two-story home in Troy., Ill., she waved a flashlight beam on Dec. 11 and spotted what authorities later identified as Richard's mummified remains.
"It was pretty shocking," she says.
Richard, 53, a grandfather of three with three adult children from a prior marriage, had died by suicide, Jennifer says.
There were no signs of foul play, concluded Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn.
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Courtesy of Jennifer Maedge Jennifer and Richard Maedge
"He had mental health issues in the past and he would get help for it," says Jennifer, 49, Richard's wife of 20 years. "And he told me that he knew the breaking point, and he would get help. So, this would be the most farfetched of anything, that he would actually go through with this."
She adds, "He never verbalized anything [like] he would take his life to me."
Police officers who answered Jennifer's missing-person's call on April 27, a day after her last text, eventually searched the house where her husband's car was parked outside. Jennifer says she delayed a day before making the report because she was trying to contact Richard's adult son, who lived in the area, to see whether he'd heard from his father.
Officers who arrived detected a "sewer-like odor" indoors but could not locate the source of the smell, Chief Deputy Coroner Kelly Rogers told KTVI. The scent was still noticeable during a second visit.
Police called the Maedges' house as a "hoarder home," Rogers said.
"'Hoarder' is a strong word," Jennifer says, "but he was more — I would consider, more of a pack rat."
Richard once ran a handyman business and, at the time of his death, was a maintenance worker for an agency that operates homes for people with disabilities, says Jennifer, who admits: "He didn't want to get rid of anything."
Courtesy of Jennifer Maedge Richard and Jennifer Maedge
While her husband was missing, Jennifer scoured his journals and notebooks for any clues that might explain his abrupt disappearance. During that time, she says, the odor in her home persisted. She called in a plumber, who detected an "ammonia" smell, but again could not define a source, she says. A cap placed on a basement sewer pipe seemed to help.
"The smell did not take up the whole entire house, it was very, very confusing and everything, because there's not a basement or anything, it's more of a crawl space and a cellar," Jennifer says. "Plus, I have four dogs and a cat roaming around, so you get many different smells. And then also, my sinuses were bothering me at the time, too. So, you're trying to figure things out and you're getting confused at where it's [coming from]."
The storage area, where Richard's body was found, had originally been accessible by a hallway door, Jennifer says. But after the couple remodeled their home, the space could only be accessed via a door hidden in a larger outer closet.
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"The way that they put it in the coroner's report is that it was a concealed room, so more than likely that took up a majority of the smell in there," Jennifer says.
"Just to go in there, I had to remove a portion of my clothes out of the closet without climbing around all the stuff that was in there," she says. "And then, I had a flashlight, so basically opening the door and seeing him there was just total shock."
Some members of Richard's family questioned how police could have missed the discovery that Jennifer later made.
"Mistakes were made, and I want answers," Richard's sister, Marilyn Toliver, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'm not going away. I'm just now beginning to say stuff out loud. I should have been screaming from the beginning, but I was suckered in by the police department saying they were doing their job and looking for him."
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Officers made at least three searches of the home, including the use of cadaver dogs, and interviewed multiple family members while investigating Richard's disappearance, Troy Police Chief Brent Shownes said in a statement released after the autopsy, reports the Belleville News-Democrat.
Because the remains when found were in a mummified state, they might not have produced a strong persistent odor, the deputy coroner told KTVI, which may explain why it took so long to find the source of the smell.
Police searched "the grounds, the backyard, the main floor, the upstairs," Jennifer says. But she does not recall telling them about the interior closet. "I didn't ever really think of it, because I never thought that he was there," she says.
If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
"It never occurred to me that he would've taken his own life," she adds.
"I thought, well, maybe he might've taken a walk, because he was maybe stressed out," she says of his initial disappearance. "I mean, it's not something that he would normally do, but then again, you never know what people would do."
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Although Richard had been diagnosed for depression and been prescribed medications in the past, he was not taking any at the time, according to Jennifer.
"I was trying to keep an optimistic kind of outlook just in case he happened to be alive. I mean, I always knew that there was a positive and a negative of being alive and being dead throughout the whole entire thing. But if he happened to be alive and I thought he was dead, I would've felt really guilty."
There were "never problems with our relationship" that would have explained why he'd gone missing, she says. "I mean, we had issues just like every normal marriage, but we would always straighten things out."
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Jennifer remembers the man she met on a dating app more than 20 years ago for his talent, his quirkiness and his compassion.
A month or two before he disappeared, Jennifer says she received a text from her husband. "Hey, I just did my good deed for the day," she recalls Richard telling her after picking up a stranger on the roadside in the rain to give him a ride.
One of her husband's final outings was to watch his grandchildren play soccer, Jennifer says. A fan of St. Louis Blues hockey and St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Richard also sometimes gave team swag to residents of the group homes he helped to maintain. "He was a very caring person, very thoughtful," she says.
"I know he wouldn't want me to dwell in his loss or his passing or anything," she says, "so I just have to try to figure out how to move on."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.