The death of Elsie Janet Miller has been the topic of conversation in Ozone Park for almost a month.
“She is an Ozone Park icon,” former area resident Diana Santos wrote in a letter to the Chronicle. And indeed, it seems the 76-year-old former city schoolteacher left a mark on her community.
Police found Miller on Jan. 23 dead in the bed of her widely-recognized colorful house on 84th Street and 107th Avenue after a mail carrier reported that her mail had been piling up for about a week.
Just four days later a group commemorating Miller appeared on Facebook. As of Wednesday afternoon, 2,453 members had joined the group, called “R.I.P. Ms. Miller A.K.A. the Crazy Lady of Ozone Park.”
In a description of the group, it’s administrators wrote, “This group is to pay respect to an icon of Ozone Park. If you grew up here, you know all about that crazy lady ... who painted her house the same color she painted her outfits and her dogs. Rest in peace Ms. Miller. You will not be forgotten.”
Miller was unusual — none who knew of her would disagree. “She may not have been ‘normal,’ but she was a part of the community,” Santos wrote.
Since she bought her house nearly 40 years ago, Miller decorated it with religious insignia and coats of red, gold and blue paint. And so, it became one of the most recognized houses in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think that there was a child growing up in Ozone Park that didn’t know about her,” Santos wrote. “Some said she painted her home to make sure that the spirit of her dead husband wouldn’t find her. Others speculate on a Bible verse.”
Neighbors often saw the mysterious old woman walking around, pushing a blue shopping cart and talking out loud to herself. Miller would occasionally preach about religious damnation and pass out biblical reading material to those walking past her blue dilapidated house, which sits across the street from Bayside Cemetery.
A big white cross is painted on the dark gray chimney that sits atop the house, located at 84-02 107th Ave. An eclectic mix of wall decor lines the mesh security grills on the windows. Statues, figurines, wreaths, brass bells, flower pots and other knickknacks are scattered across the otherwise bare yard at the front of the house.
Broken fences, painted blue and yellow, surround the property, sealing in a decrepit garage and other gizmos and gadgets strewn about the brush- and trash-covered backyard. According to one member of the Facebook group, the house is a “historical landmark.”
A neighbor of Miller’s, 28-year-old Torrey Ryan, accompanied police into the house the day her body was found. Having lived down the block from her for 20 years, Ryan knew the old lady’s habits well.
She was harmless, Ryan said, “just very spooked.” He learned just how spiritual Miller was when he entered her house and saw cloves of garlic hanging everywhere and gold crosses painted on the ceiling.
Inside bric-a-brac was piled high, a refrigerator filled with paper sat unplugged and mirrors with crosses drawn on them faced the wall, according to Ryan. A gallon of “holy water” sat on each of the staircase’s steps.
“The inside of the house was exactly her. It was so strange and bizarre,” Ryan said. Although he’s not one who is easily scared, Ryan admitted he got a “weird” feeling when he entered the house — “I felt like she was watching me,” he said.
“It was sad to see that she lived like that and that she didn’t want anyone’s help,” Ryan added. “Imagine it was your grandmother.”
That’s why he agreed to identify Miller’s badly decomposed body on Thursday. “I feel bad for the lady,” he said.
Cops determined Miller died of natural causes and sent her body to the Medical Examiner’s Office, where it has remained unclaimed by friends or relatives. If it were to remain so by the end of next week and no money was found in her estate, Miller would be buried anonymously in Potter’s field on Hart Island in the Bronx.
Ryan doesn’t want that for his old neighbor, who, despite being eccentric, was well liked and even appreciated in the community. “No one deserves to be buried in an unmarked grave,” he said.
According to several people who posted messages on the Facebook group’s discussion board, Miller’s estate does have money and she will receive a proper burial.