A neighbor said he noticed raccoons going in and out of the roof of the house across the street. So he called the mortgage company, which, the newspaper reported, coincidentally turned out to be his own mortgage company. How he knew which one to call was not addressed. The mortgage company, wishing to protect their investment, sent a contractor to see about the hole in the roof at 1614 Savanna Drive, in Pontiac, Michigan.
What the contractor noticed first was the mold. Black mold lined the walls floor to ceiling. No reporter has asked (or has answered) why the contractor went to the garage. Some news agencies quoted Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard as saying that this was not the first contractor in the house, or the first in the garage, or even the first to open the door of the cactus-green Jeep parked there, but those reports somewhat strain credulity.
For whatever reason, last Wednesday morning, this man went to the garage of the tidy beige house and discovered, in the backseat of the parked Jeep, the body of a woman long-deceased. The condition of the body has been called “mummified,” though that’s not precisely correct. Mummification generally only occurs in situations where there is extreme dry heat or extreme dry cold. But certainly, the body in the backseat could be considered “partially mummified.”
In her book Death, Decomposition and Detector Dogs, Susan Stejskal writes that “Partial mummification is more common than people think. When a body is exposed to wind or hot, dry conditions parts of the body can slowly dry out causing the skin to look like leather stretched over bone. This can be seen in parts of the body that are exposed or not covered or protected by clothing.” Bernardino Pacris, the pathologist working the case described the skin of the woman’s body as “dry and preserved” but noted that internal organs and muscle structures had decomposed. But “mummified” earns clicks on the internet, so “mummified” is what every news story went with.
The woman was clothed in jeans, a shirt, a heavy winter jacket. Presumably she was not barefoot, but no one has described shoes. The key to the Jeep was in the ignition, but the ignition was turned off. More to the point, probably, is that there was still fuel in the tank. (The key might have been turned to “off” by the person who initially found the car, but a running car certainly would have long ago exhausted its gas supply.) Thus, this appears to not be a case of suicide by asphyxiation.
CBS Detroit, which ought to get some kind of medal for the most factual errors in one story, claimed that the “police” had identified the victim as the homeowner, Pia Farrenkopf. (Let us just point out for starters that Pontiac, Michigan does not have a police department, and haven’t ever since the city was locked down under “Emergency Financial Management,” a whole story in itself.) Neighbors have named the homeowner, though they never got a glimpse at the unidentifiable body.
The Medical Examiner has stated that the body of the woman will have to be identified through dental records, and the last thing on Friday afternoon, they were trying to find record of the homeowner’s dentist. The homeowner’s sister has been located and presumably DNA might also be used for identification. (Not to mention that there are probably various sources of DNA still inside the house– hairbrush, toothbrush, etc. ) But until these tests are completed, truly no one knows who was in the backseat of Pia Farrenkopf’s Jeep.
On the whole the coverage of this death has been particularly egregious. Two terms come up repeatedly in nearly every story about it. One is the aforementioned “mummified” and the other is “foreclosure.” Both of these are “distancing” words– you know those words that make the victim different from you and me. Of course, the whole situation is “different”, most of us are blessed to have friends and family who wouldn’t allow six years to go by without looking for us. “Foreclosure” implies that the person was somehow reckless with their money. One woman commented that she was “sure Farrenkopf’s creditors didn’t regard her as a saint.”
Point of fact is that Miss Farrenkopf went on paying her debts by electronic bill-pay until March 2013, when her bank account paid out the last of $54,000. Had there been less money in the account, or had her mortgage not been on an automatic payment plan, it’s quite possible the body in the garage would have been discovered much sooner. As of Wednesday, March 5th, 2014, the lights were still on at Pia Farrenkopf’s house, but the heat was off.
Though she had told neighbors that she was from Germany and planning to “move back” there, Pia Farrenkopf was from Boston, Massachusetts one of ten children born to a Belgian mother and German father. She attended St. Peter’s School in South Boston. A photograph from her high school yearbook, shows a broadly smiling girl with long, dark shiny hair, a dimple and enormous glasses that take up more than half her face.
Later, she lived in Quincy, Massachusetts (at 26 Francis Ave.) and in Little Rock, Arkansas (at 31 Morrison Court.) It’s been speculated that Pia moved to Pontiac for her job, which was as a contractor for Chrysler Financial. Neighbors thought she moved to the neighborhood about 1999, which was around the same time that Chrysler merged with German automaker Daimler-Benz AG, forming Daimler-Chrysler. According (again, to neighbors– who only knew what she told them) Miss Farrenkopf traveled a great deal due to her job, spending much of her time in Germany.
Somewhere in there, though, she found time to open a franchised weight loss and fitness center, “A Slender Lady of Waterford” under the business name “PIA77” . PIA77 was incorporated in July 2003, and dissolved through automatic dissolution in July 2006. (Weirdly, the Chamber of Commerce listing for this same business notes the listing was last updated in 2012.) Pia Farrenkopf’s home address is the address on file. Most listings for PIA77 note the company’s annual income as $63,000 and the number of employees as one.
The first incarnation of “A Slender Lady of Waterford” did get off the ground for a little while. But in 2005, PIA77 was sued by the landlord for over a hundred thousand dollars for back rent and breaking the lease. There was a second address listed for “A Slender Lady of Waterford”– and though the address would put it smack in the middle of a strip mall, that precise address does not exist and the management of that mall had never heard of Pia Farrenkopf, A Slender Lady of Waterford, or PIA77.
It’s worthwhile to note that the “Slender Lady” chain has been plagued with complaints by franchisees, many of whom seem to have sunk their life savings into a company that failed to make good on their promises of corporate support and promotion. One man wrote in “Rip Off Report” that he and his wife had lost their life savings, took out a huge loan, and a second mortgage to support the franchise. He had stayed in touch with the 24 other franchisees who had been in their training session. “All 24 are long gone,” he wrote. “Most are bankrupt, many have lost homes and even marriages. Retirements have been lost.”
Despite the failed business attempt, Pia Farrenkopf was still active with Chrysler Financial, no doubt the source of the cited $63,000 annual income. (It’s interesting that she had $54,000 in her bank account on that sort of salary, but she might have been very frugal in her habits.) In 2007, Daimler-Benz sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management and by late 2008, the automotive industry crisis had driven Chrysler into bankruptcy negotiations. On April 30, 2009, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. By that time, no one had seen Pia Farrenkopf for at least six months.
As a contractor, Pia Farrenkopf would have been technically “self-employed,” and her contract with Chrysler Financial (now TD Auto Finance) ended in September 2008. So far there have been no details released as to whether that was the normal end of the contract, or if it was terminated early. In fact, no one has said anything at all.
Most news stories use this end-of-employment as the date she was last seen, noting also that the registration on the 2003 Jeep Liberty also expired in September 2008. Yet, she received a traffic ticket, for driving without insurance, in October 2008 and failed to appear at her scheduled court date for that offense, in January, 2009. Perhaps the officer didn’t notice that her plates were expired. Or maybe she said she just hadn’t put the new sticker on.
The Parkside Preserve neighborhood is one of neatly kept homes; some modest, some more elaborate. The houses are owner-occupied, and many of the residents have been there since their house was built. Pia Farrenkopf’s home was built in 1998, and was appraised at $50,000. Of course, now it’s not worth anything. An overgrowth of black mold is enough to post a notice of condemnation; the discovery of a long-dead body on the premises makes the chance of rehabilitation nil.
Neighbors do remember her. They all had reasons to think her long absence was not anything extraordinary. Mail was held at the post office, one of the neighbors routinely mowed her lawn. They knew she lived alone. Occasionally lights came on or went out. “We just thought she was away a lot,” one said. Some remembered that she said she had a son, but her sister Paula claims that Pia was childless. Who can be sure that she would even know? Pia had a dog, some said. A little white dog with curly hair. When this detail appeared in a news story, every single person who commented wanted to know what happened to the dog. Sheriff Bouchard responded that there was no dog found and no sign of a dog ever having been there.
In 2007, back when Pontiac still had a police department, someone asked for a welfare check on Pia Farrenkopf. The results of that request are murky. There’s no record of who asked for it, and only a notation that they found nothing amiss. Since the PD no longer exists, it’s remarkable that there’s that much.
If indeed the body in the car was once Pia Farrenkopf, it’s presumed that she’s been there since the winter of 2008-09. Certainly it was cold enough in an unheated garage to freeze her body. Then spring came, and a slow thaw. Then the dry heat of a closed car in a Michigan summer, followed by the crisp autumn, children rustling in the leaves as they walked home from school. Then again the winter freeze. And spring, with its tulips. And summer, hot and dry in the closed space of the garage. Outside children raced through sprinklers, the buzz of lawn mowers. Then Autumn. And again the freeze, year after year after year.
Three years later, Pia’s mother died of colon cancer, and her sister Paula Logan tried to reach her. She called her sister over and over and the phone just rang and rang inside the empty house at 1614 Savanna Drive. When one of their siblings died, Paula called, and again, only heard the phone ringing without answer.
Paula Logan told reporters that her family did not have much contact with each other, leading “rather separate lives,” and noted that her own mother had gone 30 years without talking to one of the other children. She remembers that years ago, Pia was going to marry an Englishman, until she realized that she would have to quit her job and walked away from the relationship. She said that her sister valued her privacy, which might be another way of saying “that’s why we didn’t know she was gone for six years.” More telling perhaps is that Paula Logan told more than one reporter that her sister would have been 42 at the time of her death. But Pia Farrenkopf was born in September of 1964. She would have been 50 this fall. Or 44 at the time of her presumed death.
But as there are precious few relatives or friends coming forth to say anything about Pia, the reporters will take what they can get. Paula Logan believes that her sister would not have killed herself, and thinks that someone murdered her in the garage. “I think there was foul play. I think someone might have been in that garage,” she said in an interview. It’s quite possible there was someone. Perhaps that person carried off the little white dog when they left. Or maybe the dog died years before. It could be that Pia gave the dog away if she was planning to leave the country.
Perhaps the woman in the backseat is not even Pia Farrenkopf. It’s hard not to hope for that, a little. To think of someone on a coconut island, putting their past behind them. (Though with so little interest in her disappearance, it seems that faking her own death might be redundant.) But then, that begs the question– if the body is not Pia’s, whose is it?
The state of decomposition will make determining the cause and manner of death quite challenging. Poisons, ligature, suffocation . . . the evidence of those events often wastes away with the body. Or perhaps, an embolism, an aneurysm, stroke, heart failure. Toxicology will be of limited use. Dr. Pacris, the deputy medical examiner, said that there was no obvious sign of trauma to the body. No animal predation. No bullet wounds. No fractures. For people used to reading between the lines of an m.e.’s report “no fractures” has particular significance. No fractures means the hyoid bone is intact, which makes strangulation unlikely.
The worst coverage of this story has been from CNN, whose announcers treated the unattended death of a human being as some kind of spooky Halloween story. Their lack of gravitas on this video clip should have earned them pink slips. We may all find reasons why we are not like the woman in the back of the Jeep, but that doesn’t make her death trivial.
Or does it? Several people were reminded of the Beatles’ lonely heroine Eleanor Rigby by this story. If a woman dies and no one notices, was she ever really alive? In the scores of comments to the myriad news accounts, no one piped up to say “I used to work with Pia Farrenkopf”, or “She was my best friend in high school,” or “I took Pilates with her.” Nothing. It was not just that the “family was strange”, as the stepfather said. What sort of person has no friends? Paula Logan is hoping that someone will come forward to say something about her sister. “She had to have had a life.”
There are only a handful of possibilities really. The body is Pia Farrenkopf and she died of some kind of cataclysmic medical emergency. Or she was murdered. Or she died from misadventure. Or she killed herself by means that we don’t yet understand.
And if the body is not that of Pia Farrenkopf, then that’s a different mystery altogether.