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Sisters' world let no one in

When police finally got in this week, they found one of the women long dead

Thursday, June 28, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

No one could understand why the two sisters secluded themselves in their Squirrel Hill home.For years, they didn't turn on their lights. They didn't answer their phone. They shut off their gas and huddled under electric blankets in winter. They didn't answer their mail, or knocks on the door, or court summonses when their garage was falling down.

As if this unplugging of their lives from the outside world wasn't enough, Helen Capcara and Margaret Kalinyak they also severed contact with their families, even the brother who tended their lawn, either bringing his own water or getting it from a neighbor because his sisters wouldn't let him in.

On Tuesday, Capcara, 82, was found dead in a second-floor bedroom of 3060 Beechwood Blvd., a spacious stone house perched atop a long flight of steps.

She had been dead for so long -- several months, by the reckoning of the Allegheny County coroner's office -- that her remains were mummified.

The coroner ruled it a death from natural causes, but the circumstances were anything but natural.

"It's like a mystery house," said next-door neighbor Alona Kogos, 22. "It could be a Hollywood movie."

Kalinyak, 76, with whom Capcara had lived for decades, was found on the second floor. She was disoriented.

"Get out," Kalinyak told police officers, "You do not belong here."

She was involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

Police were first alerted that there might be a problem early Tuesday afternoon when the women's brother, Joe Kalinyak of Brentwood, noticed stacks of mail and two unopened boxes of Honeybaked Ham on their porch. The boxes bore April postmarks.

Kalinyak called police, who forced open the door.

They found a house that was once nice and orderly now ravaged by water that had been flowing from a broken pipe since winter. The floors were buckling, the joists were soaked through. Five feet of water stood in the basement.

Ron Graziano, head of the city's Bureau of Building Inspection, intends to condemn the property today. Built in 1927, the house and land were valued at $135,300. It would cost a quarter-million dollars to repair the damage, Graziano said.

Capcara's body was found under a half-dozen blankets, one of them electric. She was fully dressed and wore a winter hat. The windows were tightly sealed with plastic.

Capcara and Kalinyak were rarely seen in the neighborhood, and when they came out, it was as if ghosts were about. Once, they knelt in their back yard, trimming the high weeds with scissors. Kogos said hello, but they didn't respond.

Sometimes they shopped at a nearby Giant Eagle. On those occasions, they made up their faces, dressed nicely and did their hair, Kogos recalled.

"They looked good for their age," she said.

James Diskin, a Pittsburgh police detective who was called to the scene Tuesday, said the sisters had lived in the house since about 1951. They originally shared the home with their mother, Capcara's husband and her three children.

Over time, though, family members either died or moved out.

"She lost a lot of family right in a row," said Mary Capcara, a sister-in-law. "What happened really only God knows."

Relatives said the Kalinyak family was once big and happy, a close-knit clan. There were at least eight children. But the relatives either couldn't remember or didn't want to say what led the sisters to withdraw from society, and no one could put a good estimate on how long they had been living as recluses.

By all accounts, Joe Kalinyak did what he could to care for his sisters. He weeded their lawn, planted flowers, sent them money, built a retaining wall and intervened in 1998 when the city could not reach the women about a dilapidated garage that was threatening to collapse onto the sidewalk in front of their house.

"We could never get anyone to answer the door, to accept the mail or come to court," Graziano said. "It was a dead end for us."

Graziano remembers going to the property in person.

"You'd think it was a haunted house. They never moved the drapes," he said.

Joe Kalinyak appeared in court on his sisters' behalf and gained the trust of building inspectors. He told them he would reimburse the city for the costs to demolish the garage and he made good on his word, paying back the city $1,210.

But Kalinyak had no more luck than Graziano in chipping away at the wall the sisters had erected around themselves.

"I said, 'We'll work with you as long as you can work with them,"' Graziano recalled saying to Joe Kalinyak.

"He said, 'I can't work with them.' "

Funeral arrangements for Helen Capcara are being handled by the Edward P. Kanai Funeral Home, 500 Greenfield Ave., Greenfield. Visitation will be tomorrow from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m., with evening services at 8:30 at the funeral home. A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Calvary Cemetery.

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