It took 11 days and the help of dozens of strangers, but police have located the family of reclusive twin sisters who were found dead in their California home last month.
Patricia and Joan Miller lived for nearly 40 years in South Lake Tahoe but often shunned their neighbors. Their shared life ended in a mysterious double death. Police found one sister in a bedroom and the other in a hallway during a routine welfare check on Feb. 26. They were 73.
Police usually do not release the names of the dead without first informing their relatives, but the sisters' shrouded lives made that impossible, said detective Matt Harwood with the El Dorado County sheriff's office. With little information about the twins' personal lives to work from, investigators issued a public plea this week asking for help in notifying the sisters' next of kin.
The response was overwhelming. Emails and phone calls poured in and with the help of amateur genealogists who read media accounts of the sisters' deaths, investigators tracked down a first cousin and two second cousins late Wednesday.
The cousins hadn't heard from the sisters in years.
"They confirmed pretty much what everyone else told me," Harwood said. "They were pretty reclusive and no one really knows why."
Harwood said the cousins told him they had lost touch with the sisters through the years as other family members passed away.
"They were just sort of the twins that no one had heard from in a long time," he said.
The cousins don't share the Miller sisters' last name, which might be why police had such a hard time finding them. They were tracked down by at-home sleuths, who passed on the family members' contact information to police. In one case, someone called one of the cousins to confirm their blood line before giving the name to Harwood.
Harwood said the sisters deserved to have their family know about their death, and he was pleased to complete that mission with help from "people from across the country, just your Average Joe wanting to try their hand on genealogy,'' he said.
"There's no way we could have done it without you guys in the press and literally hundreds of people just calling to help put the pieces together," Harwood said.
One of the second cousins lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and the two other cousins live in Portland, Ore., where the twins grew up.
Harwood said he has yet to find a will but plans to give some of the twins' personal items, including their mother's furniture and family photo albums, to the cousins.
The discovery of next of kin provides some answers to the twins' mysterious end, but their puzzle is far from solved.
Medical investigators have not been able to determine how or when the women died, but their decomposed bodies suggest they had been dead for at least several weeks when they were found, Harwood said. Toxicology reports likely won't be available for at least two more months.
There was no blood or signs of struggle. The sisters' longtime home was not unkempt, a likely sign of mental or physical illness, and they didn't have a history of severe health problems, Harwood said.
"My perception is one died and the other couldn't handle it," he said this week. "It appears purely natural, but we are still trying to piece it all together."
Investigators hope to soon narrow down when the sisters died. It's unlikely their killer was carbon monoxide poisoning, a common danger in the winter, because a window had been left open and the house was well ventilated.
A neighbor spotted an ambulance at their house about a year ago and assumed the sisters had fallen ill. Someone asked police to check regularly on the house. When officers arrived Feb. 25 for a routine check, no one answered the door. The next day, police forced their way in and found the bodies.
The twins were the daughters of Fay Lang and Elmon Gordon Miller, who went by the name "Bud" and was born in 1895 in Bremen, Ky., Harwood said. Their father was a dairy salesman in Oakland, Calif., at one point, Harwood said.
The sisters were never married and didn't have children or pets. They seemed to prefer only each other's company. They purchased their four-bedroom home together in 1976 and may have been each other's only close friend.
Joan Miller was a senior accounting clerk in the payroll department at the Lake Tahoe Unified School District from 1979 to 1984. Patricia Miller, who drove a white convertible with red upholstery, worked in the El Dorado County's social services office during that same time.
When people called, the sisters came up with excuses to get off the phone. Without explanation, they stopped sending birthday cards to a childhood friend about a year ago. And on the rare occasion when they left their home, the two women didn't chat up the neighbors.
As news of the deaths spread, former South Lake Tahoe residents called police to report that they had lived near the sisters for decades, in some cases, and had hardly seen them. One sent in a postcard that claimed the sisters were the only remaining members of their family after their mother's death and their brother died at war.
Their secluded lives in their final years stand in contrast to a youth full of glamour and entertainment.
When the twins did talk to outsiders, they often spoke of the singing career they had shared in their younger years. The women briefly appeared on a 1950s television show called the "The Hoffman Hayride" and posed for a picture with Bing Crosby as children. The twins also entertained troops at military bases, a childhood friend told Harwood.
They appear young, beautiful and elegant in matching off-the-shoulder gowns in a picture released by police.
But the twins never seemed interested in dating or expanding their social spheres. They listed each other as their next of kin, Harwood said.