Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006 | 7:49 a.m.
Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.
Forty-two-year-old Keith Sargent returned to his family home in Las Vegas the other day to collect his childhood possessions: Star Wars toys, marbles, a Rubik's cube, a transistor radio, boxes of National Geographic magazines ...
Keith knew the day would come to retrieve for posterity the stuff that framed his boyhood memories.
He had wondered what circumstances would bring him back to Isabelle Avenue and the house that his parents bought in 1963. Maybe his mother would have to be moved to a rest home. Or maybe she'd have passed away in her sleep.
You never think about murder, though. Moms can't be murdered. The brain can't process that.
Keith's 84-year-old mother, Dorothy Sargent, was attacked and killed last month inside her home, the home where Keith grew up.
She was last seen around Dec. 6. As mail and newspapers started to stack up, a worried neighbor on Dec. 9 called Keith at his suburban home outside Washington, D.C. Keith asked him to call police.
"I was prepared for the worst," Keith told me. "I assumed she had collapsed, or maybe had a stroke, but that at least she would have died peacefully."
When Keith checked back, he was told by the neighbor that 14 police officers were at the house. "I knew at that point that this wasn't a natural death. Something was going on," Keith said.
Initially, police told Keith only that his mother had died under "suspicious circumstances." When he pressed, he was told, "You'd be better off not knowing." By day's end, Keith learned what happened.
"I was numb," he said.
Homicide Sgt. Mike Thompson told me that Mrs. Sargent was violently attacked, but that discussing the details could jeopardize the investigation. Forensic evidence is still being processed.
There are no suspects; robbery is the suspected motive, he said. "We haven't received any tips," he said, and interviews with neighbors yielded nothing.
The city has offered a $2,000 reward for productive information; Keith Sargent, the only child, added another $8,000.
The neighborhood, near Eastern and Stewart avenues, is occupied mostly by retirees in 40-year-old, single-story stucco homes. Many have steel security bars on their doors and windows. Only one of Mrs. Sargent's windows was protected with bars. She wasn't the kind to feel anxious.
Behind Mrs. Sargent's house is a row of low-rent apartments. "Changes to the neighborhood like that didn't worry her in the slightest," Keith said.
Her home had been broken into twice over the years, but she just shrugged it off, Keith said.
"My father died in 1978. Mom prided herself on being independent. She scolded me. She told me I was looking after her too much," Keith said. Mom, he said, was stolid, and came across emotionally cold.
His voice had been strong and composed, but then it softened. "We finally convinced her to move back to Maryland," he said. "But she said it would take her two years to get the house ready to sell."
Even at 84 and walking with a dowager's hump, Mrs. Sargent was active. She drove her '83 Chevy Citation to the municipal pool and to the gym. She tended to her vegetable garden and distributed garlic to neighbors. She used the computer that Keith bought her to type and print letters to her son, but e-mail confounded her.
And just that fast, her life was over.
Keith took me into the house. By now he had been in town for nearly a week, and if he had been fighting any emotions, by now they seemed scabbed over. He led me around from room to room, rather matter-of-factly.
It looked like Mrs. Sargent hadn't changed her furnishings or decor in 40 years. Yellow walls, gold carpet, a well-used easy chair, a frilly sofa, dark kitchen cabinets, linoleum floors.
In the china hutch was a small box containing den mother pins from his Cub Scout days.
In his mother's bedroom, Keith had been sorting through things to save, things to give away. Laid across the bed was a housedress that his mother favored. She had sewn it from her own pattern.
"I use to hate that dress," he said, tenderly stroking it. "But I think I'm going to have to keep it."
Another bedroom was something of a den where Keith did his homework. He smiled at the sight of an old Remington manual typewriter. "Mom typed up my high school assignments on it," he said.
Then we walked into Keith's room. The door was plastered with small stickers and decals. Some were for motor oil companies. Some were political. Most were just silly, fun stickers, the kind that teachers might hand out for good work.
He already had begun putting things in boxes. Preschool finger paintings, high school homework, a poem he had forgotten he wrote.
A Star Wars bedspread still draped his twin bed. "Mom kept my room the same, after I left," he said.
Keith used newspapers to pack his Star Wars collection and the old transistor radio. A friend stood nearby.
"I was told to not be here at the home by myself, and that was good advice," Keith said. "In the morning, when I'm fresh, I do OK with this. Later in the day, though, I get tired, and this gets hard."
The next day, Keith unhinged his bedroom door and put it in the moving van. He was going to take it home. To him, each sticker and decal was a memory.
I called him a couple of days later, after he was home in Silver Spring, Md., to see how he was doing. Fine, he said.
"Being back there at the house was bittersweet," he said. "It hurt terribly, because of what happened. But I'm glad I got my stuff, and that I got that ugly housecoat."