10.31.10

The Mummy Rode Shotgun

For 10 months, a real estate agent drove around Southern California with the body of a woman in her car. Christine Pelisek investigates a mystifying and macabre case.

For 10 months, the woman drove around with a corpse in her car. She never contacted police or tried to find the dead person’s relatives. Instead, as the body began to decompose, she spread baking soda on the floorboards to mask the smell.

It may sound like a late Halloween story but the case of the Southern California real-estate agent and the mummified body of a woman found in her car is real, if macabre.

“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years… and I’ve handled a lot of suspicious deaths. But this is definitely a first,” said Mike Cohen, a homicide detective with the police department in Costa Mesa, the affluent Orange County city where a young police cadet found the woman’s body two weeks ago.

The officer was called to remove a car parked illegally in a driveway in a bucolic neighborhood of low-slung houses and tree-lined streets. But as he approached the sedan—a 1997 Mercury Marquis—he was overwhelmed by a horrific stench. Peering inside, he saw the mummified remains of a woman sitting upright in the passenger seat of the car, half-covered with a pile of women’s shirts and jackets.

The cadet called for backup.

Police quickly traced the car to the sick father of a Corona del Mar real-estate agent in her late fifties, who they declined to identify. When investigators talked to her, she said at first she didn’t know how the dead woman had ended up in her car. But later, at the police station, she told detectives a strange tale.

The real-estate agent had met the other woman in a park in a neighboring town, and had taken pity on her, because she was homeless, she told police. She clothed the woman, gave her food, and allowed her to sleep in her car at night for safety. It was unclear, police said, how long the two women had known each other, but the real-estate agent claimed she didn’t know the homeless woman’s name.

“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years… and I’ve handled a lot of suspicious deaths. But this is definitely a first.”

One morning, the real-estate agent went out to her car and found the homeless woman dead in the passenger seat. But instead of reporting her discovery to authorities, she carried on using the car—unbothered, she told police, by the smell.

“Basically, her reasoning was she was afraid to report it to the police, and she wasn’t sure what would happen if she did,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “She thought maybe she would be arrested. She thought we would think it was foul play.”

So far, the Orange County Coroner hasn’t made a determination on the cause of death, although early reports suggest no signs of foul play, according to watch commander Dan Aikin, who said that his office is still awaiting toxicology results, which could take up to eight weeks.

In the interim, Cohen said they are also looking to see if her failure to report the death is a crime.

Cohen refused to disclose where the woman was living now, or how she was earning a living. He said investigators are trying to track down her elderly father, who could possibly provide them with more details. “We are trying to figure out where she has been,” he said. "We believe she may be homeless herself. We don’t know for sure.”

The real-estate agent was “articulate” in the interview with police and “didn’t seem crazy at all,” he said, but added: “We don’t think she is telling us everything.”

Detectives have identified the dead woman as Signe Margit, a 59-year-old former teacher from Laguna Hills, reported missing by her family after she stopped contacting them in December 2009. By the time she ended up on a slab at the coroner’s office, she weighed less than 30 pounds.

Not much is known of Margit’s life. According to police, she had two master’s degrees. In 2000, while she was living in San Antonio, Texas, she started a nonprofit called the Lighted Way. According to one report, she taught at Audubon Middle School in the Los Angeles Unified School District before losing a contract dispute in Los Angeles County, and getting into deep debt.

What happened to Margit after she lost her job remains a mystery. Cohen said he isn’t even sure if Margit was homeless. Nor does he know how long the two women knew each other. In short, investigators are mystified by the story.

A resident on the street where the body was found, who didn’t want to be identified, told The Daily Beast that the former real-estate agent had showed up one day, on the doorstep of a friend, telling the friend that someone had stolen her purse and her identity, and that she needed a place to stay. From then on, she slept outside in the backyard, ate very little, and spent most of her time meditating in the garden, the neighbor said. “She was very spiritual.”

The grisly discovery of her mummified body has unsettled the neighborhood, the neighbor added.

“There are a lot of peculiar parts to the story,” he said. “It gives me the chills thinking about it.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.