Whatever Happened to Eva Mae?

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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?

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John W. Allman