MULGA, Ala. (WIAT) — He suffered in silence. And on one cold Alabama night, the walls of his family home could no longer protect him.
That night, in the first hours of February 16, 2022, Jeffrey Eugene Montgolf, 54, died in silence, just as he’d lived.
Montgolf is one of at least three men who died from exposure to the cold in just the last year in Jefferson County, a drastic increase from previous years, when only four men had frozen to death over an entire decade, according to statistics from the coroner’s office.
The necessities, but nothing more
Nearly all his life, Jeffrey Eugene Montgolf had lived in his family home, a modest house located just outside Mulga, Alabama in rural Jefferson County, according to his sister.
It was there, Sandy Latham-Jaradat said, that she and her brother grew up together. Their mother, Carolyn Riggins, had cared for the elderly in local nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and their dad (Jeffrey’s stepfather), James Riggins, had been a painter.
Latham said that she and Jeffrey’s upbringing certainly wasn’t picture-perfect, but that they were always taken care of. Money was constantly a challenge, given their parents’ lack of higher education, she explained, but the family got by on what they had.
“We had what we needed,” she said. “We always had electricity. We always had food. We always had the necessities, but nothing more than that.”
Looking back on their childhood, Latham said she remembered Jeffrey being an introvert from an early age: “He always kept to himself,” she said.
A neighbor who grew up around the family said he remembered Jeffrey being quiet, too: quiet and smart.
“When we were kids, he was great,” the neighbor told CBS 42 as he worked in his yard, his southern accent cascading across the rural landscape. “He was smart — real book smart.”
The neighbor pointed across the street.
“We used to play in those woods over there across the street,” he said, the memory flashing across his face.
The two went to school together, he said, and eventually graduated from Minor High School.
A parting of ways
Both Jeffrey’s sister and his neighbor said that as they all grew older, they drifted apart.
For her part, Latham left home when she was 18 to attend college at the University of North Alabama. She’d later marry and transfer to Southern Miss, where she graduated before beginning her career as a special education teacher. The job would bring her to Kentucky, as well, and, years later, to Tennessee, where she still lives and teaches. Latham said she and Jeffrey had never been particularly close, but after she’d left for college, touching base with her brother had become the exception, not the rule.
“We didn’t really keep in touch a lot after that,” she explained. “We did on holidays, but as far as calling and just saying ‘How you doing?’ That didn’t happen.”
She said their mother Carolyn had a difficult time keeping up with Jeffrey, too. She would complain to her daughter when she hadn’t heard from him in a while. She felt that Jeffrey’s introversion — paired with the passage of time and the distance between them — had all contributed to the situation.
“He wouldn’t even call mother, and she’d be upset,” Latham said. “And I’d say ‘Well, I can’t make him call you.'”
‘He was a loner’
As the years passed, Jeffrey Montgolf’s life had its ups and downs.
In 1992, Jeffrey got married. He was 24 years old
“He was doing good then,” his sister said of the time. “She seemed to really keep him up.”
But by 2007, the couple had separated and no longer lived together. The marriage itself would last a few years longer, until 2011, when they mutually agreed to divorce, according to court records.
“Husband avers that there is a complete incompatibility of temperament such that the Husband and Wife can no longer live together,” Jeffrey’s divorce filing said. “Husband states that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and that further attempts at reconciliation are impractical or futile and not in the best interests of the parties.”
Latham said that after his separation, things began to go downhill for Jeffrey.
Latham said that initially, Jeffrey remained in the trailer where he’d lived with his ex-wife, but soon, she’d found out that he wasn’t paying his electricity bills despite having a job and an income. It was the first time he’d shown signs he’d simply given up on life, his sister said.
Later, he’d lived with other family members in Irondale, but soon that situation, too, was on the rocks, court records show. In 2013, those family members asked a local court to evict Jeffrey. They’d hoped to help Jeffrey to get on his feet after his marriage ended, the family members wrote in court filings, but he’d agreed to help out and wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. They would eventually come to a settlement and allow Jeffrey to stay for the time being, but it was another step in the wrong direction for the Mulga man.
Latham said that before long, Jeffrey’s biological father, who had little to do with him as a child, had a stroke and her brother helped take care of him.
And through all this time, with the exception of two traffic tickets, Jeffrey never found himself in trouble with the law.
Looking back, Latham said she believed Jeffrey may have suffered from depression all along.
“I think he had a lot of depression,” she said. “And it was all untreated.”
That depression, Latham said, was likely worsened when she felt that she needed to move their mother, Carolyn, out of Jeffrey’s care to ensure she was receiving the treatment she deserved.
“I just had to take over,” she explained. “She wasn’t being taken care of in the right way.”
A few years prior, Jeffrey had moved back into the family home in Mulga with his mom. And when his sister moved his mother out of the home, she told him he could stay as long as he’d keep up the house and pay the bills on time. Looking back, Latham isn’t sure that’s something her brother was truly capable of doing. Carolyn Riggins died in November 2020.
By January 2022, Sandy Latham had become seriously concerned about her brother’s well-being. She called local police to conduct a welfare check. They did so and confirmed to Latham that Jeffrey was living in the family home without utilities. Latham said she felt helpless.
“I still beat myself up for not driving down there and making him come up to Tennessee with me,” she said. “But I don’t know if he would’ve even listened.”
Midnight in Mulga
It was the mail lady who sounded the alarm.
“She asked me if I’d seen Jeffrey,” his neighbor said. “No, I ain’t,” he recalled telling her.
In the past, the neighbor said, Jeffrey had come over almost daily to charge his cell phone — a phone his sister said she’d paid for regularly so he’d have some semblance of connection to the world. He’d charge the phone, then sit quietly on his home’s front porch swing, watching the day go by. But in the week leading up to February 16, Jeffrey’s neighbor couldn’t recall having seen him at all.
That night, as the temperature reached its low, the neighbor said he went next door to see if he could find Jeffrey.
“I knocked on the door and knocked on the door, and the door eased open,” he said. “Jeff! Jeff!” The neighbor mimicked himself calling for his friend. His voice rolled across the street, into the woods where he and Jeff had played as children.
As he walked through the home in the dark, a small flashlight in hand, the neighbor said he didn’t see Jeffrey at first. It was only when he went to leave that he found Jeffrey dead, his body laying on the living room floor of the home where he’d grown up.
Jeffrey wore a navy-blue windbreaker, the coroner’s report would later note, over a brown and white plaid shirt and a short-sleeve blue T-shirt. He wore brown sweatpants, their fabric frayed from time and toil, and a pair of black sneakers.
That night, not long after midnight in Mulga, a physician declared Jeffrey dead.
Jefferson County’s chief coroner would later conclude that Jeffrey died of hypothermia, an “accident” for statistical purposes, according to his report. Jeffrey had suffered from diabetes mellitus, the report mentioned, although medical examiners concluded that the disease hadn’t contributed to his death. Jeffrey, who weighed only 122 pounds at the time of his death, was, however, also exhibiting signs of starvation. No alcohol or drugs were found in Jeffrey’s system.
When the cold comes
After Jeffrey’s death, his sister traveled back to Mulga, back to her childhood home where her brother had lived and died in silence.
While there, she found a notebook.
“He wrote in it every day,” she said.
In it, Jeffrey had meticulously tracked what times he could go next door to charge his phone. He’d written down when the neighbors were typically busy or when they weren’t home because of work.
He’d also tracked something else closely — the weather.
“He’d write down what the temperature was, whether it was raining or sun shining,” his sister explained. “It was all there in the notebook.”
Jeffrey’s neighbor was shocked that he’d frozen to death just next door.
“Why wouldn’t he come over and knock on the door?” He asked.
Latham said she often feels that her brother’s death is her fault. It’s something she still goes to counseling for, she said.
“I just felt like I let him stay out there,” she said. “You know, I felt like it was my fault that he died the way he did.”
She said, though, that when she did try to find help for her brother, there were few resources available, particularly for individuals in unincorporated Jefferson County.
“When you’re out in the rural parts like that, you just don’t have things like good social services,” she said.
Asked what she thinks led to Jeffrey’s depression, decline, and eventual death, Latham struggled to find a clear answer.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It could have just been all the things that he’d been through in his life. He’d never had a real relationship with his real daddy. And I think he was just a loner, too. He didn’t know how to express his emotions himself.”
In the end, Latham hopes that Jeffrey is remembered for the good man she knew him to be.
“He was a kind soul,” she said. “And he had problems, but he had a good heart.”
As the one-year anniversary of her brother’s death approaches, she said she’s been thinking about Jeffrey every day. Often, it’s the cold that brings him to mind.
“Every time I get cold I think about him,” she said, the pain apparent in her voice. “I should’ve taken control — done something. But honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”
This story is the first in a series of pieces profiling the three men who froze to death in Jefferson County over the last year. Stay with CBS 42 as the series unfolds.