OAKLAND -- Denise Marie Hutson's smiling high school photo is how her family will always remember her.
The photo portrays happier times, before the 58-year-old Hutson was consumed by mental health problems and physical ailments -- none so bad that her family ever stopped loving and caring for her.
But something the family always dreaded happened Oct. 24 when Hutson was found dead behind bushes outside the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Oakland Outpatient Clinic, 2221 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The cause of death has been deferred pending toxicology results. But police say there were no signs of foul play and that the death was most likely from natural causes.
Despite the circumstances of her death and the problems in her life, Hutson's family wants it known that she was loved and will be missed.
"She was always cared for, loved and connected to her family and other loved ones," said her sister, Ramona Lisa Smith, 47, of Richmond.
Smith said Hutson, who the family called "Niecy," had a daughter, four grandchildren and a large supportive family, including her mother, herself and another sister and two brothers and many extended family and friends.
Hutson was born in Massachusetts before her family relocated to California. She was a 1973 graduate of Berkeley High School and served briefly in the U.S. Army.
The schizophrenia that would plague her the rest of her life was diagnosed while Hutson was in her early 20s, preventing her from any employment and eventually allowing her to collect disability benefits. She also suffered from pulmonary disorders and congestive heart failure, Smith said.
Her mother, Carmen Ortiz, 85, was her main caregiver and affairs manager for some 30 years, aided by staff at the Berkeley Mental Health Clinic, her devoted siblings and other relatives who remember her humor and open personality. Smith said their mother raised Hutson's daughter and made sure the grandchildren were taken care of.
Hutson had lived in the same Berkeley apartment complex as her mother and other relatives but about five years ago moved to a board-and-care home in North Oakland that provided a stable environment. That facility closed a year ago, and since then the family had been trying to find the "right place for her and all her different problems," Smith said. Hutson was living at a home in East Oakland but liked to spend time downtown, which she was familiar with and which could explain why she was in the area where she died, Smith said.
"We all pitched in to help her, and well before she died we were trying to get her into an elder care facility," Smith said.
"It was hard for her, those last four or five years. She would talk about her life and say how tired she was and ask, 'What am I living for?' We would say you have your family. We wanted her well. We would reach out to her, see her every week and take her to lunch on her birthday and bring her cards and gifts."
The Berkeley clinic did not respond to a request for comment. Smith said the family dreaded Hutson might die the way she did. "It was something we all worried about." The only solace, Smith said, is, "We are so glad to know there were no signs of trauma and that she was not murdered or abused.
"I love you Niecy," Smith said. "I hope your transition was peaceful. May your soul and spirit be forever well and free from suffering."
The family held a private memorial service and requests donations be made in Hutson's name to the Berkeley Mental Health Clinic, 2640 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley CA 94704.