Whatever Happened to Eva Mae?

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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.

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John W. Allman