SPRING HILL – Two men cleaning out a vacant house mistook a dead body for a mannequin before they threw it out, investigators say.
Around noon Thursday, employees at the West Hernando Transfer Station, in Florida, called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to report human remains in one of the bins at the site.
When deputies arrived, so did Israel Lopez, 50, and Adam Hines, 30, both of Zephyrhills. Investigators questioned them about the body and both men had said they thought it was a Halloween mummy.
Separate from the scene at the transfer station, deputies responded to a vacant house on Treehaven Drive about a mile away.
"It was probably something you'd see on an episode of 'Hoarders'," Sheriff Al Nienhuis said of the house.
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Both Lopez and Hines told investigators they had been contracted by the homeowners to clean out the house that had been vacant for months.
The cleaning crew cut down what they thought to be a mannequin hanging from the ceiling in the garage, and they thought the smell inside was tied to numerous dead rats.
Investigators say the men took several trips to the dump, and the cleaning crew said on the trip with the body, they had it placed on top of several piles of garbage in the bed of the truck.
Even the homeowners thought it was a mannequin.
"All four of them convinced themselves it was some Halloween type prop. Obviously they felt it was very realistic," the sheriff said.
It was realistic because it was real. Investigators say Jeremy Witfoth, 33, may have been squatting in the house and hanged himself sometime within the last several weeks.
"It was obviously very unusual and hard to believe," Sheriff Nienhuis said.
The men described the body as a mummy.
At first, investigators were very suspicious of their story, but after finding a suicide note written on a wall inside the house, they believe it may check out.
"Barring anything unforeseen from the medical examiner, we're relatively sure that the story is exactly what they told us, because everyone we've talked to has said the exact same thing, and that's unusual to say the least," the sheriff said.
The investigation is far from over. Detectives plan to collect surveillance video from several businesses between the house and the landfill to further confirm the cleaning crew's story.
An autopsy is scheduled for Friday.
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