Updated 10/17/13 – 11:07 a.m.
MERRILLVILLE, Ind. (CBS)– A family of four was found dead Wednesday evening in their new home in Merrillville, Ind., after apparently succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police officers were called to a home in the 800 block of West 70th Avenue around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to conduct a well-being check, after relatives called to say they hadn’t heard from the family since Saturday. Officers found the family dead inside the house.
Purnell’s mother went over to the home Wednesday, after a supervisor at Purnell’s job had called her because Purnell had not shown up to work.
The Lake County Coroner’s office identified the victims as 41-year-old Michael Nichols, 38-year-old Kennetha Purnell, their 13-year-old son Matthew Nichols, and 11-year-old daughter Morgan Nichols. Police said they believe all four died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Their red minivan was still parked in the driveway, packed with belongings, after they began moving in on Saturday.
Police said the family was using a gas generator in the attached garage to provide heat and to power several electronic devices. They say all exterior doors and windows were closed.
Neighbors said NIPSCO wasn’t able to turn on their gas and electric service until next week, which is why they resorted to using a generator for heat and power. A spokesman for the utility, however, says NIPSCO has no record of the new occupants seeking power to be turned on.
“The previous tenant asked for gas and electric to be turned off and taken out of their name on October 8th. After that point, NIPSCO has no record of a call being made to turn the gas and power back on at that location,” the spokesman said.
Purnell worked at Chicago State University as an assistant to the dean of education. Her husband was a carpenter.
Their daughter, Morgan, was a dancer, who liked to write music. Their son, Matthew, was quiet, and loved basketball. His family said he was a computer genius.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Chicago State University officials said Purnell “was more than just a model employee. Ms. Purnell was a colleague and very dear friend to many CSU students, faculty and staff.
“This tragic event has touched every part of our campus community and we join now in mourning Ms. Purnell, her two children Matthew and Morgan Nichols, and their father Michael Nichols.”
Purnell’s family lives in Chicago, and gathered at a relative’s home in the Roseland neighborhood Thursday morning, to comfort each other during this time of loss.
They said Purnell had a lively personality, and made people laugh, but strict with her children.
“We always called her the stern hand, because she was disciplined with her children, and raised them well, and had them in school, and was doing the best she could for them,” said Purnell’s mother, Rosemary.
“It’s already bad to lose the daughter, but to lose both grandchildren too, that’s a hell of a feeling. I just don’t know what to say. I’m confused. I’m just … you know, I’m just confused. I don’t know what to say. It’s just a hurting feeling to lose all four,” said Purnell’s father, Ken.
Neighbors who met the family over the weekend when they were moving in were stunned, and said they wished they could have done something to help.
“All of the neighbors felt like ‘Wasn’t there something we could have done to find out that they had all died?’ It was just very upsetting,” neighbor Janet Yaros said. “We, as the neighbors, had not seen any movement for several days, and the van stayed in the same place all the time. And we knew something wasn’t right, we just didn’t know who to contact.”
One woman called her new neighbors’ deaths a “wake-up call” for her, because her own home does not have a carbon monoxide detector. She said she was going to buy one Thursday morning.