By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Eva Mae Wilson might as well have been a ghost.
She didn't speak to strangers. She never opened her front door to company. She guarded her personal life as if it were a precious treasure someone might want to steal.
For most of her life, she cultivated anonymity like the flowers she tended in her front yard, blending in like background music or an unnamed extra in a crowded movie scene.
While she allowed a handful of people to get to know her, she never invited any of them into the home she'd lived in for 30 years.
Both women lived alone in the quiet Coronado neighborhood just east of Seventh Street in central Phoenix. They shared the same palm-tree-lined sidewalk, looked out over the same elementary school playground that filled with children every day.
Sprawling Phoenix is a city with a reputation for unneighborliness, where people have a hard time getting to know -- or simply don't want to know -- the folks who live closest to them.
But Donna Nichols and Eva Mae Wilson managed to overcome the invisible boundaries of personal space.
Nichols, 60, was divorced and Eva Mae had never married. They had a mutual love for gardening, and talked often, sitting on Nichols' front porch. Eva Mae wrote her neighbor poetry, and left thank-you notes. Nichols kept an eye on the frail older woman, who required daily medication to stay healthy, always checking to see if a light was on in the house next door.
When she needed to talk to Eva Mae, Nichols would have to call out from the woman's porch and wait until Eva Mae shuffled outside.
And yet, in early January, Eva Mae opened her door -- and her life -- to a pair of strange men.
One of the men said he owned a landscaping business in Scottsdale. He told Nichols he drove past Eva Mae's house by chance. He said he wanted to help the old woman fix up her property, or at least find her a better place to live.
A month later, in early February, Donna Nichols watched the man lead her neighbor away. In her arms, Eva Mae Wilson carried one of her four pet cats, wrapped in a ratty cloth.
"It's okay," Eva Mae told her neighbor, as she was taken to a waiting car.
Nichols asked the man to make sure to bring an address back so the two women could keep in touch. He promised that he would.
But he never returned.
In the three months since she was last seen, Eva Mae's mail has piled up at the post office, still awaiting a forwarding address. Her house has been sold to a California investor. Three of her pet cats have been discovered dead inside the home.
Nichols and the few other people who had a place in Eva Mae's small world -- among them a work friend, the mail carrier, her gardener, a real estate agent, the people who took over her house -- have been trying to solve the mystery:
What happened to Eva Mae?
And who was the mysterious man?
"It doesn't make any sense," Nichols says. "How could somebody just drop off the face of the Earth?"
It turns out she didn't.
For years, neighbors got used to seeing little of Eva Mae.
She had no family. Both her parents had died. No one came to visit. The only people who did show up at her house were a ragtag group of landscapers that Eva Mae paid to help tend to her yard.
Most days, she wouldn't even step outside until the sun set because the dry, hot air made breathing difficult, especially for someone like Eva Mae, who suffers from severe asthma.
When she was outside, Eva Mae kept to herself. She would sit on her porch and direct the landscapers. Occasionally, she would talk to Sam Robinson, her neighbor to the west of 30 years.
If Eva Mae did leave her house, it was by taxi. At least once a month, she would walk over to Nichols' house, use the phone and call a cab.
Then she would tip the driver an extra $5 to take her to the Fry's supermarket near 30th Street and Thomas, and wait outside while she shopped, cashed her monthly social security check and filled her prescriptions. Another $5 tip got the driver to carry her bags to her porch.
Even though she survived on meager funds, Eva Mae never let that deter her from tipping well, friends say. She reasoned that cab drivers, like everyone else, had to make a living and needed the extra money.
Sometimes, her neighbors would worry when they realized they hadn't seen Eva Mae for several days. Once last year, someone called Phoenix police to come check on her.
Robinson remembers that particular occasion, because he was asked by police to convince the old woman to come to the door. She refused to answer the officer's repeated knocks.
He walked over, called out to his neighbor and asked if she was all right. The door cracked open an inch or two. Eva Mae said she was fine, and immediately closed the door.
Such behavior might have seemed odd coming from anyone else.
But Eva Mae had spent a lifetime building a wall around herself that most people eventually grew tired of trying to scale.
Her friends took her at face value, and accepted what few details she chose to share.
One of those details concerned her poor health, which friends say forced Eva Mae's parents, Harry and Martha, to move their only child from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Arizona in the 1940s.
Her health was a constant issue, and Eva Mae required daily medication.
"You'd hear her heaving and coughing, trying to catch her breath," Robinson says, remembering days working outside when the sound of her sickness carried over the fence separating their homes.
Harry Wilson died when Eva Mae was barely in her teens, she told a few people. But she and her mother stayed in Phoenix, eventually moving to the Coronado neighborhood and buying a two-bedroom stucco house on Palm Lane in 1972.
At the time, Eva Mae was a secretary for Honeywell, which had bought the computer division of General Electric in the late 1960s. She was a diligent employee, according to co-workers, but she rarely spoke and never attended company events.
"She was a very private person," says Bill Dunham, the company's former director of training, who supervised Eva Mae for about a year. "[There] weren't too many people who got too close to her."
To some, she seemed weird, but never rude.
"She could be friendly. Distant, and friendly," says Evelyn Miranda, who worked with Eva Mae in the 1970s. "I got the feeling she didn't really want to get too close to people. I don't think she really wanted people to go to her house."
Martha Wilson was blind, friends say, and needed constant attention.
Even though her daughter talked little about her past, co-workers say Martha helped shed some light on Eva Mae's odd personality.
Martha Wilson told some that people had targeted her daughter and picked on her, making mean jokes at her expense. The constant teasing helped erode any self-confidence the young woman might have had.
And perhaps that's why she retreated from people.
Among other things, she feared that someone might find out personal information, such as her health problems.
Dunham discovered this fact after hearing that Eva Mae had refused to fill out company insurance forms needed to provide payment for her health benefits. Instead of giving out personal information that would have allowed her to save money by using the plan, he says, she chose to pay out of pocket for frequent doctor visits.
Eva Mae never shook that fear. Employees at the Fry's at 30th Street and Thomas say that Eva Mae refused to take advantage of a senior citizen discount voucher because the form required her address and social security number.
By the 1980s, Eva Mae's health worsened to the point that she could no longer work. She left her job and assumed full-time care for her ailing mother, co-workers and friends say.
In September 1985, according to social security death records, Martha Wilson died at the age of 81, leaving Eva Mae all alone.
A few months later, Eva Mae took a bus tour across the Southwest.
It was one of the last times friends can remember her leaving the security of her house and neighborhood.
Over the next 16 years, Eva Mae slowly withdrew from society.
She kept to herself, caring for a menagerie of pets and tending to her yard. She occasionally went shopping or out to dinner.
She didn't own a television, but read constantly, subscribing to numerous magazines and newspapers. She continued writing poetry, and drew small sketches on letters she mailed to friends.
In her poems, Eva Mae pined for a different life, a life outside the small world she inhabited.
"I live in my mind. The more awkward; the more wearisome; & the more discouraged I could become, the more I reach out with my mind," she wrote in June 2001. "I live in my mind. With determined prayer ~ & ~ with concentration. I strive to keep wholesome ~ optimistic ~ imaginative ~ expressive thoughts and daydreams."
By mid-February, neighbors in the Coronado community had not seen her in weeks. Her house was empty, her newspapers were piling up outside and her yard, once carefully groomed, had been uprooted and turned to dirt.
Garthanne deOcampo, a preschool teacher at Emerson Elementary School, noticed Eva Mae's absence when she took her students outside to play.
DeOcampo had often seen her across the street, wandering the sidewalk in bedroom slippers, seemingly lost.
"She was getting more and more disoriented," deOcampo says. "She seemed to be lost all the time."
DeOcampo would walk around the fence that encloses the school playground, stop Eva Mae and help her shuffle back home. That Eva Mae would accept her help was something of a minor victory. It had taken nearly 10 years of seeing each other from across the street, Eva Mae in her yard and deOcampo on the playground, before the old woman would speak.
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.
The house was a wreck, according to Schillinger. The foundation needed repair. Trash and debris filled the interior. A foul odor emanated from the dark, dank rooms. The ceiling was deteriorating.
Carlos did most of the talking that day. He said Eva Mae lived with him. He stressed that he needed bail money and that he planned to find Eva Mae a new place to live. A second man was at the house, but didn't speak, Schillinger says.
Schillinger offered $30,000, and Carlos countered with $32,000, which Schillinger agreed to pay. Eva Mae, he says, signed the contract that day.
"Eva Mae, in her own handwriting, wrote 'Thank you' below her signature," Schillinger says. "She appeared to be happy and relieved."
On January 28, Carlos took Eva Mae to get a copy of her mother's death certificate, which was needed by the title company. A day later, she and Carlos arrived at Fidelity National Title to close the deal.
Carlos was agitated and demanded that they receive a check immediately. The title company reluctantly agreed.
In a matter of moments, Eva Mae signed away her home of 30 years.
Fidelity National Title officials were reluctant to talk to New Times about the sale of Eva Mae's house. A spokesman for the company says nothing appeared suspicious at the closing.
Eva Mae, according to the spokesman, was "lucid" and did not appear "to be under duress."
Schillinger says he spoke to Carlos once more, on January 29, on Carlos' cell phone. The man said he had found Eva Mae a new place to live.
Everything seemed okay.
Eva Mae Wilson may have spent much of her life retreating from society, but she couldn't keep people from liking her.
And worrying about her.
Even strangers who heard about her life alone, caring for a sick mother, found a place for her in their hearts.
Almost as soon as neighbors and acquaintances realized Eva Mae was gone and her home sold, the search for her whereabouts began. Leading the hunt was Donna Nichols, but she wasn't alone.
One of Eva Mae's former co-workers, June Martin, was worried because it had been months since she last heard from her friend.
Eva Mae often wrote her, sharing the poems she liked to write, but she always seemed embarrassed when Martin complimented her. She clipped pages from newspapers and mailed them to Martin. One of Eva Mae's favorite things to do was to play matchmaker with the personal ads. She would link ads together with arrows and scribble comments.
Martin had left Phoenix after retiring from Honeywell in the late 1980s, but her friendship with Eva Mae didn't fully blossom until Martin decided to return to school and complete her college degree.
"She always wanted to go to college, and she would help me with her limited funds," Martin says. "The last time I heard from her was August, and I had sent her some of the money I owed her."
The check, for $50, still hadn't been cashed by late February.
Martin, who lives in Oregon, says long stretches would sometimes pass without a letter. But this time, money was involved, and it wasn't like Eva Mae to ignore money.
Martin called Nichols out of concern, which turned to dread once she heard Eva Mae's house had been sold and that her friend had left with two mysterious men without saying goodbye.
"I would have thought Eva would have seen this as a new opportunity, and would have been so excited. But to just walk to the car clutching her cat?" Martin says. "There is definitely something wrong here."
She worried the old woman might be dead, and she, too, began making calls. She talked to Schillinger, who was growing more concerned as well.
He hadn't given much thought to Eva Mae since buying her house. The deal had worked out well. Within days of putting the home on the market, a California property investor had snapped it up for $59,900.
But then Schillinger heard from Nichols and Martin that Eva Mae had no family, that she had never married and had no children. He couldn't help but wonder about the man named Carlos who had assured him he was the old woman's son-in-law and who so urgently had needed money.
He immediately called Carlos' cell phone. The number had been disconnected. Then he called the title company and suggested officials there call the police.
"Every little thing that happened, it just became more apparent something wasn't right," Nichols says.
With each passing day, the fear intensified that Eva Mae might be stranded somewhere alone or worse -- that she was being held against her will.
Even the property investor, Belinda Exon, and her contractor, Don Daye, joined the search for Eva Mae. Though they had never met Eva Mae, both Exon and Daye became consumed by the search for her whereabouts, spurred by the thought that an older woman, alone in the world, might have been taken advantage of.
Initially, they had been thrilled to find the property for such a great price. Although it was in poor condition, they knew an older historic home, once restored, could sell for more than twice the amount paid.
But once Daye started the renovation, it became clear something wasn't right. Inside the dilapidated house, he found three dead cats that had apparently perished from neglect and a lack of food and water.
Nichols, Daye and Exon became more determined, and found themselves in the unlikely role of detectives.
Exon scoured the Internet every night between business trips from California to Arizona. She could find no mention of Eva Mae or her family on numerous genealogical Web sites.
"I felt every day that goes by, she's less likely to be alive," Exon says. "I think, it could be me. I don't have any children."
The more they searched, the more it became apparent no one had heard from Eva Mae. Even the people she needed to see regularly -- her doctor, Fredrick Frame, and the pharmacy technicians at Fry's who filled her prescriptions -- said they hadn't seen the woman in months.
Frame told New Times that he couldn't discuss his patient, but he says he did talk to the police because Eva Mae required daily medication to stay alive.
Even so, Phoenix police were unable to provide much help to the worried neighbors. Eva Mae was not really a "missing person" -- she'd obviously signed the paperwork to sell her property, and there was little, if anything, to suggest she'd met with theft or violence. There was no reason even to write a report.
On their own, Eva Mae's neighbors had no luck tracking down the mysterious Chris or Carlos.
They talked to postal inspectors about Eva Mae's mail. Nichols told them that Eva Mae received monthly social security checks, and the small amount was all the money she had to live on.
They wheedled this bit of information from postal officials: The mail that was building up contained nothing from the federal social security agency.
Eva Mae had placed a hold on her mail January 29, the same day she sold her house. The mail was scheduled to resume March 1, but no forwarding address had been received.
Nichols grew frustrated that weeks were passing without word. She began to think the police had forgotten, or didn't care, about Eva Mae.
But the old woman's possible plight struck a chord with Phoenix police Detective Gary Schonfelder. He made a few calls, tracking the only viable lead: Where had Eva Mae's social security checks gone?
The checks eventually led Schonfelder to a bank account.
And, last week, to Eva Mae.
Eva Mae Wilson is -- to the delight of her friends and former neighbors -- alive, and, as near as Detective Schonfelder can tell, apparently healthy.
She is living in what police will only say is an apartment on Thomas Road. They say they don't want to violate her privacy or her confidentiality by giving Nichols or anyone else her new address.
Last week, on May 7, Nichols got the call from Schonfelder before she left for work.
"I'm just so shocked, I can't believe it," she says. "I just hope the mailman comes before I get ready to go to work so I can tell him not to get rid of her mail."
Nichols immediately contacted June Martin to tell her the good news.
"I'm just so excited that she's still alive," Martin says. "That was my greatest fear."
But the story hasn't quite reached a happy end. Eva Mae is no longer missing, but the money she should have received from the sale of her house and other funds may well be.
And her current living conditions, according to police, aren't much better than the dilapidated house she left behind.
"The apartment that she lives in is not nice. It's not good," says Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Randy Force. "She still is very confused how she came to be where she's currently at."
Eva Mae is unable to tell police much about the sale of her house.
"It's not clear in her mind what all happened around the time her house was sold and where the money is," Force says.
Now, the case that wasn't even an official missing persons file has evolved into a full-fledged police investigation. Detectives from the department's Document Crimes division want to review the sale of Eva Mae's house and trace, if they can, where the money went.
"Her mental state is going to be a key component of whether she was taken advantage of or whether she agreed to certain things," Force says.
Investigators won't say much -- how she came to be in the apartment where she's living, or even how long she's been there -- until they have a better idea exactly what happened to Eva Mae.
Still, Force says, "It's not a pretty picture."
"There is some cause for concern there that she has been taken advantage of, and her living conditions, her living standards at this point, are not high.
"That's really going to be disturbing news to her friends."<P