MADISON, Wis. >> The quote next to Mary Coleman’s 1957 Reedsburg High School yearbook photo reads "speech is silver, silence is golden."
Indeed, Coleman lived in quiet solitude, spending decades helping her needy sister and troubled nephew in a modest two-story Madison home. When not working, she tended to them, foregoing all else to see to their needs.
Then, as quietly as she lived, the 70-year-old woman disappeared.
It would take months to discover Coleman was at her family’s house all along: In August 2009, investigators found her mummified remains in the home’s garage.
Investigators said Coleman fell and her sister and nephew, Veronica and Steven King, left her dying on the floor for two days while they watched television and ate fast food. Over the next three months, Veronica King withdrew thousands of dollars from a shared bank account to which Coleman’s pension and social security payments flowed.
Prosecutors, however, didn’t file charges. The case languished for more than two years and a judge eventually approved tens of thousands of dollars more in life insurance payments to the Kings, whom Coleman had named as her beneficiaries.
Not until last month, after review by a new prosecutor, were the Kings charged with any wrongdoing. They’re due in court Monday on counts of first-degree reckless homicide, financial fraud, subjecting an at-risk person to abuse and hiding a corpse.
"Finally," said Bev Wimmer, who worked with Coleman at a Madison telephone company. "What’s going on with the police department?"
Coleman’s yearbook shows a smiling, round-faced, dark-haired member of the library club. Next to her is Veronica, a year younger and thinner-faced Future Homemakers of America participant. Her quote: "A quiet girl in all respects."
After graduation, Coleman became a switchboard operator at the telephone company. Colleagues described her as meek but said she would give them anniversary or birthday cards with a dollar or two enclosed.
"She should have been a nun. She was plain as white paper," said former co-worker Carol Christensen, 69. "If she came to work one day and you told her all right, there’s no going to the bathroom today, she wouldn’t go."
Coleman’s sister’s husband died in 1968, leaving Veronica King with a then-2-year-old son. Court documents say Steven King suffered from schizophrenia and other issues.
The sisters bought a house in Madison in 1970 and lived together for 28 years, until Coleman retired and got an apartment. She worked part-time at a restaurant and nursing home, but kept close tabs on her family.
In a 2000 letter to another former co-worker, Coleman said she had lunch with Steven every day. She also mentioned cancer treatments had left her bald and that she hoped to get a blonde wig so she’d look like Marilyn Monroe. Her nephew never realized she had lost her hair, she wrote.
Coleman’s health began failing again in early 2009, and a social worker arranged a doctor’s appointment. Coleman wouldn’t go, saying she had to let a refrigerator repairman into the Kings’ home, according to court documents.
"Her whole life centered around them," said Karen Fox-Nelson, 69, another telephone company colleague. "She never really did anything with anybody. She always had to get home and take care of Steven."
In July 2009, social workers moved Veronica King out of the house amid allegations her son had abused her, according to court documents. Veronica King’s court-appointed guardian soon told police she hadn’t seen Coleman in weeks.
The guardian said when she asked Steven King about his aunt, he said a social worker told him to kill her, but he didn’t do it. Police went to the Kings’ house and found it stuffed with so much garbage, walking paths had been cleared.
An officer thought he smelled a dead person. Steven King allowed a cadaver dog inside.
Investigators found Coleman’s remains wrapped in a tarp. An autopsy revealed no lethal injuries, though decomposition limited the examination.
Steven King told police he and his mother realized Coleman was sick in early 2009, according to a criminal complaint. On May 7, he heard her fall in their house.
Coleman couldn’t get up and was crying, but Steven King said he told her to shut up because a neighbor might hear. He said his mother decided it was too late to call a doctor and said police would only ask questions about why they didn’t help, the complaint said.
Steven King told detectives he watched "Star Trek" and David Letterman, went shopping and ate at McDonald’s with his mother. Coleman died May 9, he said.
"She was just on that floor and she just laid there until she wore out," the complaint quoted Veronica King as telling investigators.
The Kings decided there was nothing they could do for Coleman and went out for pizza. Veronica King later moved Coleman’s body into the garage while he watched "Entertainment Tonight," her son said.
"We had to keep it a secret," he told investigators.
Detectives found that Veronica King withdrew $6,437 from the sisters’ shared bank account that summer. But then-District Attorney Brian Blanchard refused to file charges, and Coleman was buried in an October 2009 service by a priest who never knew her.
Veronica King, 71, and her son, 45, slipped back into obscurity. This June, a judge approved paying them nearly $66,000 in life insurance benefits, noting they faced no criminal charges.
But the case was being reviewed. Prosecutor Ismael Ozanne, who last year replaced Blanchard as Dane County’s top prosecutor, decided to charge the Kings last month.
Ozanne won’t say what prompted the move. Blanchard, who was elected to a state appeals court, and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray declined to comment.
Steven King now lives in a group home. His attorney, Terry Frederick, said he questions his client’s competence and doesn’t know why prosecutors took two years to bring charges.
"That’s going to be one of my first questions for the DA," Frederick said.
Veronica King’s attorney, Stephen Hurley, did not return several messages.