A neighbour rots on the 7th floor: In 1990 a man died in his flat. His body was found last week

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The Independent Online
JOHN SHEPPARD was a quiet man who enjoyed reading. When council workmen broke down the reinforced door of his flat last Wednesday, they found a tidy, if somewhat tatty, home full of books. Christmas decorations were scattered in each room - a small fir tree, some cards and crackers. The calendar in the kitchen was open at December - 1989.

Nearby on the floor lay Mr Sheppard. All that remained of the 68-year-old man was a partly clothed skeleton. From receipts found among his clothes police believe he died in the summer of 1990.

Some of his neighbours on the housing estate in Harlesden, north London, were surprised; those who had noticed assumed he had moved out. Brent Council was also surprised. It was aiming to evict him because he owed more than pounds 4,500 in back rent. His doctor, who was based at a health centre about 300 yards away, would certainly have been surprised. When he last saw him, in January 1990, he seemed well despite a history of heart disease and diabetes.

Stonebridge Park estate is not the worst by London standards, despite its reputation as one of the capital's most crime-ridden and deprived. From the balcony outside his seventh-floor flat, Mr Sheppard could look out on two churches, a community centre and a health clinic. At the back is a nursery school and shops.

The flats, built in the 1960s, are grey and anonymous. Four thousand people live there. There are some graffiti, and paint peels from the walls and ceilings of the elevated walkways, the 'streets in the sky'. But the lifts work and most people appear friendly.

Mr Sheppard lived at flat 133, Fitzsimmons Court. He moved there more than 10 years ago. Most residents considered him a loner. He was friendly with a family, but they moved.

David Sceeny, 41, lived next door to Mr Sheppard in a similar one-bedroom flat for seven years. He did not notice Mr Sheppard's absence or any strange odours. 'These things happen. In all the time I've been here I've only known four people. Most people just ignore each other,' he said.

Marilyn Graham, 27, lives with her son, Lance, aged five, at flat 132. She said: 'He was a pleasant man. He used to say hello to everyone - he didn't say much else, but he was not a recluse. One day he stopped appearing and no one seemed to visit him any more. I assumed he had moved.

'For a while there was a bad smell, but it wasn't obvious where it was coming from. Several people reported it. I knew it was from a body because someone else died in the flats several years ago.'

Other neighbours said they thought the strange smells were caused by the drains. Phillip Espeute, 60, who has been on the estate for 21 years, lives seven doors from Mr Sheppard. He said: 'It might sound strange, but I'm not sure whether I ever spoke to this man. He seemed to live a selfish life, never mixing, so there was no chance to talk to him.'

Meanwhile, Brent council has launched an investigation with the police, and electricity and water companies into why the body was not discovered earlier. In October 1992 the council began eviction proceedings against Mr Sheppard, after direct-debit payments from his pension were halted two months earlier. They only entered the flat after complaints that water was leaking into rooms below.

London Electricity tried unsuccessfully to break into the flat because the meter had not been read for more than three years. Its spokeswoman asked: 'Is it the job of an electricity company to be responsible for the health of elderly people?'

The police have yet to trace any next-of-kin. They found no photographs of Mr Sheppard or his family at the flat.