Calif. cop helps save woman, then fixes her house

Officer Mike Roberson helped save Mary Ellen Cancilla, who had fallen in her home then proceeded to spend his own time and money fixing up her home

By Robert Salonga
Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif.  Officer Mike Roberson helped save Mary Ellen Cancilla's life. Then he helped rebuild it.

It was due in part to Roberson's persistence that officers this past summer found the 68-year-old Cancilla, weakened by radiation therapy, collapsed on her bedroom floor.

But as he looked around her cluttered, under-kept home, Roberson, a 17-year San Jose Police Department member, Air Force veteran, and long-active community volunteer, felt the need to do more.

He observed a home that had fallen far behind in upkeep, filled with decades of no-longer-used belongings and other accumulated items dating back to when Cancilla's family moved into the home in the 1950s. He saw a cracked toilet, mold, and other detritus that struck a nerve with him.

Roberson knew Cancilla had narrowly escaped with her life when he and the officers found her on that fateful July day. He could not imagine a scenario where after all she had gone through in recovering, she would go back to a home in that condition.

Roberson, who runs a construction business on the side, decided again to go above and beyond. (It's a personal theme that sometimes touches on the literal: He's currently training to obtain his pilot's license.)

And in doing so, he saved her again.

'I kept calling her, and there was no answer'
It was the evening of July 1, at the start of the Independence Day weekend, when Gelsomina Grimes thought something was wrong. She had made a grocery run for Cancilla, her neighbor across the street in their West San Jose neighborhood, and rang the doorbell to no avail.

"I kept calling her, and there was no answer," Grimes said. "I saw her car in the driveway. I knocked on every door and window in the house, and didn't get any response. I went and got my neighbor Paula, and we tried again. Still nothing. So we decided to call the police."

Officers went to Cancilla's home to perform a welfare check, and walked around the home. They were told that she lives alone, after her father, a man known for sharing vegetables from his garden with the entire neighborhood, died about two years ago.

The curtains were closed. After several attempts to make contact with whoever was inside, it would have been perfectly reasonable for officers to presume that she just wasn't at home and be on their way. But Roberson, who stopped by the scene because he happened to be patrolling in the area, decided to lend a hand -- or more importantly, an ear.

"I heard this faint woman's voice, moaning in pain," Roberson said.

Roberson removed a window screen at the front of the home, and with another officer, climbed inside. They found Cancilla lying on the bedroom floor. She had been there the entire day.

"I lost my balance and fell, and I couldn't get up," Cancilla said. "I remember it was 2 a.m. because the sprinklers turned on."

It was 6:19 p.m., more than 16 hours later, when Grimes called for help.

"I remember she told me she wasn't feeling good," Grimes said. "I didn't want to give up. A guardian angel told me to be persistent."

Cancilla spent the better part of the next month in the hospital, and then at a nearby rehabilitation center.

Grimes remembers Roberson's attitude the day Cancilla was taken to the hospital: "He says, 'I'm coming back. I really want to do something.' "

'I can't help everybody, but ... it had to be done'
Roberson recalled looking at the home and telling himself, "Either you're going to help, or she has to move out."

So Roberson visited Cancilla in the hospital and made an offer.

"I asked her if it was OK if I could clean up her house a little bit," he said.

Cancilla handed him the keys, and Roberson got to work. He enlisted his 15-year-old son Devin as well as a painter he works with, and hired his housekeepers to help with the cleanup.

Also joining the makeshift crew was fellow Officer Danny Enriquez, who brought along his two sons. Other than the housekeepers, everyone was working on their own time and dime.

Over the next two weeks, they cleared out the home, filling four dumpsters with no-longer-used clothing, knick-knacks, and other objects that had piled up since the family moved in as original owners in the 1950s. They treated a mold problem affecting the windows.

They fixed some of the plumbing, including replacing a cracked toilet with a handicapped-friendly one and installing grab bars in the bathroom and shower. Roberson reached into his own pocket to replace the stove, microwave, and the toilets.

All of this while Roberson worked the graveyard patrol shift for the police department and ran his side business.

"He's got energy to spare," Cancilla said. "I don't know where he gets it."

Amidst all that, Roberson surprised Cancilla at the rehab center with a guitar player to entertain her and the other patients and residents. And when Roberson learned that Cancilla was going to need a walker as she returned home, he went ahead and built a door ramp in the back yard.

"I was just ecstatic," Cancilla recalled about coming home. "I can keep (the house) up a lot easier. I'm so grateful."

Roberson initially didn't want to be interviewed for this story; he didn't think there was a story to be told. He said he agreed to participate after some nudging by the police department, realizing it had value in offering a positive portrayal of cops in the community. And even then, he was reserved in describing what he had done.

Police Chief Eddie Garcia said Roberson's story resonates both within and outside the police department.

"We are all so much more than the uniform we wear," Garcia said. "This exemplifies what we want in our personnel, and it's fantastic that people can see that."

Roberson said his motivation to help Cancilla came from a general sense of service he derived from his Christian faith, his time in the military, and a healthy dose of inspiration from his late mother, who worked at battered women's shelters.

"I come from a compassionate background," Roberson said. "I can't help everybody, but I was there and I saw all this, and it had to be done."

Cancilla believes that between her attentive neighbors and the officer who dedicated himself to transforming her life, fate was working for her on the July day when she was in her most desperate hours.

"I call him my little angel," she said. "I always still think how lucky I was."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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