Whatever Happened to Eva Mae?

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.

One of those people was her neighbor, Donna Nichols, who gained Eva Mae's trust by asking few questions and running errands for the 74-year-old recluse.

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.