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Body found after 2 1/2 months

by Canda Harbaugh
| December 29, 2010 8:00 PM

LIBBY, Mont. - A broken water pipe is what finally led to the discovery of a Libby man's body in his home on 10th Street last week about 2 1/2 months after he died.

Phillip Bigelow, 57, died of natural causes, according to Lincoln County Coroner Steve Schnackenberg. The time that had elapsed since the body's discovery, and the fact that the freezing temperature of the house slowed deterioration, made it impossible to accurately pinpoint the day Bigelow died, Schnackenberg said. The best guess, he added, was some time after Oct. 5 when Bigelow last collected his mail.

His mail began stacking up and he hadn't paid his electric bill since mid-September but they weren't initially red flags, Libby Chief of Police Jim Smith said, because snowbirds routinely leave Libby during the winter months without making proper arrangements. To complicate matters, Bigelow was known to not pay his water bill for four or five months at a time, Smith added.

The first sign that something could be amiss came Nov. 8 when a concerned neighbor reported to police that Bigelow hadn't been seen coming in or out of his house for a few weeks, Smith said.

Though police knocked on his door and looked in his windows, nothing appeared out of the ordinary, so they weren't authorized to enter the home. Police stopped by again on Nov. 26 and again on Dec. 12.

"We cannot enter a house unless we have probable cause to believe something is wrong," Smith said. "... If nobody answers and we don't see evidence that anything is amiss, we're done."

Smith pointed out that the department frequently receives requests for welfare checks. Many times the subject left for the winter or is staying in the hospital.

"This is a snowbird community, so if somebody takes off and heads to Arizona in November, then in December/January their neighbors say, 'We don't think they left anywhere,'" Smith said. "We go and break in and then next spring when they come home we're buying them a new door or window."

Officer Terry Watson began making calls on Dec. 13 to the utility companies, post office and banks to see if there was any sign of Bigelow. The man had once owned a house in Bellingham, Wash., and was known to travel there for work on occasion, so Watson made contacts there. He also tried to locate family.

"Everything I did Monday led me back to his house - that he should be in there," Watson said. "We were discussing with the judge how to file a welfare-type search warrant but then we found the broken pipe."

Watson asked the city to check the man's water meter and it read 50,000 gallons more than usual. The discrepancy indicated a broken water main. The only way to shut off the water was by accessing the inside of the home.

"We had an emergency," Smith said. "That gave the police department the authority to go into the house."

Police then located Bigelow's body. In the basement, they found eight to 10 inches of standing water, Watson said.

There was no evidence of foul play inside the house, he added.

In Smith's experience, it is fairly common for a body to not be discovered after several weeks.

"It happens every so often. People don't have a lot of contact with the outside world," Smith said. "They pass away. It might be several weeks or even months before someone realizes they are missing. That's what happened in this case."

Bigelow had become somewhat of a recluse, Watson said, after speaking to a neighbor who had known the man for several years.

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