By Matthew Hendley
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In February, when she didn't see Eva Mae, the preschool teacher assumed that perhaps the frail elderly woman had passed away. It wasn't far-fetched, given her age and her seclusion.
Many people thought the same thing, including the neighborhood mailman, who knocked on Donna Nichols' door one day several weeks after Eva Mae had left.
"Miss Nichols," the mailman asked, "what happened to Eva Mae? Did she die?"
He said the post office was collecting Eva Mae's mail, but that no forwarding address had been received. Nichols herself had sent her neighbor a birthday card that she realized now was sitting in a P.O. box.
"I said, 'They took her,'" Nichols says. "Those guys who were here trying to help her."
And then it hit her. She realized how little she knew about the men.
Nichols only knew that one of them, a thick-chested, handsome Hispanic man in his 40s or 50s, had said his name was Chris. He was polite, well-groomed and always nattily dressed in polished black shoes and slacks.
His companion was younger, in his late 20s, and, because they looked alike, Nichols assumed the young man to be Chris' son, although she never learned his name.
The men had arrived in early January, shortly after Eva Mae left a letter on Nichols' porch asking for money to buy food for herself and her pets.
Such requests weren't uncommon. Nichols was used to helping Eva Mae. She often left a covered dish of eggs and bacon at Eva Mae's door before leaving for work in the mornings.
Chris said he was a landscaper and that he had found Eva Mae by accident. He said he wanted to help out, and he gave Nichols $40 to buy food for Eva Mae.
"He was always flashing money," Nichols says.
She took the money, bought food and also picked out a cordless phone because she knew Eva Mae's phone was broken.
But she didn't give the men much more than passing thought because she was busy -- with a job at Home Depot and a sick friend at a nursing home.
The men began showing up every day. They walked in and out of Eva Mae's house, something none of her neighbors had ever done. They carried out trash, sat and talked to the old woman on her porch.
They didn't shy away from people. Chris talked to neighbor Sam Robinson on several occasions.
"He said, 'We're from her church. We came down to help her out,'" Robinson says. "I thought someone was doing her a good turn, helping her out. I didn't think there was any hanky-panky. Every time I talked to him, he mentioned 'our church.'"
But Eva Mae didn't attend church, friends say. She rarely left her house. And Nichols insists Chris told her he had simply stumbled upon Eva Mae's house.
Almost as soon as he arrived in the neighborhood, Chris fired the gardeners who had spent two years helping Eva Mae with yard work.
Thomas Washburn, who led the yard crew, was shocked when he was dismissed. He had grown to care about Eva Mae and loved talking to her.
"She wasn't able to walk around as much as other people, so we would help her do odd jobs," Washburn says. "She loved that house. That was her home."
Chris told Washburn he was from a church that helped elderly people fix up their properties. Eva Mae's house definitely qualified, according to Washburn and others who saw its terrible condition. The floors were rotted and the ceiling of the front room sported a large hole. Trash filled the rooms.
Eva Mae, Washburn says, told him and his crew to stay away. She said she needed her house to be repaired, and that the two men had told her that couldn't happen if Washburn's crew continued to work for her.
Washburn left, as asked. But several weeks later he returned, just to make sure Eva Mae was okay. What he found when he got to her house, he says, was the last thing he expected to see.
Posted in Eva Mae's front yard was a sign saying her home had been sold.
John Schillinger is a Scottsdale real estate broker who specializes in quick sales. He advertises all over the Valley that he will pay cash for houses, regardless of their condition.
On January 24, Schillinger got a call that was, as he describes it, a typical response to his ad, and the urgency didn't give him pause.
The caller said his name was Carlos and he wanted Schillinger to come look at a property on East Palm Lane in the historic Coronado district. Schillinger drove over that day.
He met Eva Mae and Carlos, who neighbors say was actually Chris, the natty Hispanic. According to Schillinger, Carlos said he was Eva Mae's son-in-law and that he needed money immediately to get his son out of jail. Carlos said his mother-in-law was very embarrassed about the condition of her home.
Schillinger says Eva Mae appeared coherent and friendly. She told him that her mother had died years before, and that she wanted to sell her house.