Faye McCollum talked to her 66-year-old sister Gerilla "Jo" Goetsch nearly every day by phone, so when the calls went unanswered starting in December, she said she didn’t know what to think.
By mid-January, with Goetsch’s car gone from the Dahlonega home she shared with her 43-year-old daughter, Shara Horne, and no one answering the door, authorities opened a missing person case.
Five days later, Lumpkin County Sheriff’s deputies found the bodies of Goetsch and her daughter in a back bedroom of the small rental house on Hickory Ridge Court after a landlord let them in. Goetsch and Horne had been dead a month or more.
The mystery surrounding the deaths remains, though authorities do not believe the deaths were the result of homicide, suicide or accident.
Surviving family members were left to ponder what caused the two women to die in the same room, perhaps within hours or minutes of each other.
"I’m just very unsure," McCollum said. She said officials believe her niece, Horne, who suffered from kidney failure and congestive heart failure, died
"My guess is when she discovered her daughter dead, she probably died of a heart attack," McCollum said.
Final autopsy results are pending, but officials believe the two women died from natural causes, Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Investigator Darren Martin said Friday.
"This was a rare, tragic event that took place," Martin said. "Rare being that two family members passed at the same time in the same home. And of course tragic to the entire family."
The women’s Ford Taurus was dropped off for repairs at a Dahlonega auto shop on Dec. 9, the last time either of them were seen.
Afterward, the mailbox grew stuffed with unopened mail. The women’s dog was taken in by a neighbor after it was found seemingly abandoned outside. A pet cat inside the home died from neglect.
McCollum, unable to reach her sister, drove from her Columbus home to Dahlonega on Jan. 14. She knocked at the door but didn’t go inside the locked house. She peered into the windows and saw nothing unusual. With no car in the driveway, she said she figured her sister and niece were gone.
But it was unlike them to leave without notifying family. Goetsch spent most of her time caring for her seriously ill daughter, McCollum said.
"Shara was my sister’s life," she said.
Goetsch and her daughter moved to Dahlonega from Gainesville, Fla., in June after Goetsch received a divorce settlement, her sister said. They were living in the small woodframe rental house with plans to buy a home in the North Georgia mountains.
"They just fell in love with Dahlonega," she said.
McCollum praised the work of the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office, coroner’s office and Georgia Bureau of Investigation in keeping her family informed on the case.
"I couldn’t ask for any more consideration or caring than those people have been," she said.
McCollum said she hopes that eventually the questions surrounding the deaths can be answered.
"I’m still in sort of a state of shock," she said. "I can’t believe it could happen, but it did. Someday I’ll understand this, but it won’t be today."