Her Husband Was Murdered. Then a Community She Hardly Knew Saved Her Family.

When she had nowhere else to turn, the young widow's community rallied to help.

june 2015 evans familyMichael WilsonAt 5:53 p.m. on June 15, 2013, the security cameras at Cosmic Pizza in Hartwell, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, recorded the four minutes that changed the lives of the Evans family: A customer enters the small carryout restaurant and places an order at the counter. The owner, Rich Evans, moves back to talk with the small woman in the food-prep area. The customer crosses behind the counter and pulls a gun. The woman throws herself in front of three tiny figures. Rich Evans breaks for the door. The gunman shoots and follows. Out of sight of video surveillance, the end played out like this: Rich, shot three times, stumbled into an adjoining yard—and one family’s nightmare became a community’s challenge.

As the coroner’s office carried out its grim mission, an officer sat with Rich’s wife in a police cruiser and got her statement. As the woman wept and nursed her youngest, someone asked her whom to call. Family? Friends? Neighbors?

“We don’t have anybody,” she wailed. “No one.”

A Family, Shattered

Rich Evans’s widow—Ornuma “Ao” Evans—was born in Thailand. She hadn’t spoken to her own relatives in years and knew very little about her husband’s. She didn’t have the name of anyone—not a friend or a neighbor—who might help sort things out. She also didn’t have a phone, a driver’s license, or house keys.

And then there was this: She didn’t know her own address. Officers located the family’s house with the help of Google Street View.

The next morning, neighbors went to see Ao Evans. The shattered woman who opened the front door let them in and answered their questions. “We were looking for clues about who the Evanses were,” says Margot Madison.

There was a typed to-do list on the fridge and institutional-size containers of supplies waiting to be lugged to the restaurant. There were also the hand-drawn Father’s Day cards ready for a dad who, now, would never see them.

But it soon became apparent that the family functioned in a way that was … different. Even with keys, Ao—pronounced “O”—couldn’t have unlocked the front door and disarmed the security system, because Rich had never shown her how. He’d never really needed to: The family went everywhere together—including to Cosmic, where the kids played in a back room each day while their parents worked. Ao didn’t use a phone; Rich made all the calls. When Madison gave her an envelope of cash hastily collected that morning, Ao looked baffled: Handling money was alien; Rich did the shopping.

Police had broken a window to get Ao and her children into the house the night before, so one neighbor set about fixing it; another called the morgue to retrieve the keys that were with Rich’s body. Among those who showed up was Lisa McDonald. Like everyone else, she didn’t really know the family. But she knew how her community responded to tragedy. “I figured we’d do something like make meals for them for a while,” she says.

McDonald turned her attention to the kids—solemn eight-year-old Jimmy; Zoey, a five-year-old with a face as sweet as a pansy; and their sparrow of a baby sister, Ashton, 18 months. The children were well cared for and obviously bright. But when McDonald asked Jimmy what grade he was in, he didn’t know how to answer: He wasn’t enrolled in school. Then a friend pulled McDonald aside and filled her in on what was known about Ao’s situation.

“She had no one. I couldn’t imagine what that was like,” McDonald says. She went to Ao, threw her arm around the sobbing woman’s shoulders, and said, “We’ll help you.”

The Power of Neighbors

People pitched in, making funeral arrangements. Someone set up a Go Fund Me site for donations that ultimately collected more than $40,000.

One neighbor bought Ao a cell phone and taught her how to use it; another showed her how to grocery shop. Volunteers went through the house, looking for bills that needed to be paid, tracking down birth certificates for the children, and scouring drawers for anything that looked legally significant. Dawn Murray, a former community council president, took over the family’s finances, since Ao had never written a check and didn’t understand banking. McDonald, who worked in the cafeteria at a private school, talked with the principal about Zoey and Jimmy. He agreed to enroll the children and found a sponsor to pay their tuition for the coming year.

Wan Lindquist, owner of a Thai restaurant, took on the job of checking Ao’s immigration status. The news wasn’t good: Ao said that Rich had paid a lawyer in San Francisco to take care of getting her a green card, but the lawyer had absconded with the money. Attorney Matt Wagner took her case pro bono.

All this help meant that a woman who had lived a very private existence now found herself explaining her life—and her marriage. It turns out, her present predicament may have a bit to do with another death—this one years ago and miles away.

june 2015 evans familyMichael WilsonWho Were the Evanses?

Ao was named after her older sister, a three-year-old who had died in a flood in her home province in southern Thailand. When Ao was born soon after, her parents not only used the sister’s name but “gave” Ao the same birthdate: They enrolled the little girl, then three, in school when the dead child would have been six. Belittled for talking like a baby, humiliated when she soiled her pants, she ping-ponged between aggression and withdrawal. By 14, she was finished with school.

The one bright spot in her days was Thai kickboxing, a kind of combat that trains a fighter to become a ferocious windmill of feet, knees, elbows, and fists. With boxing, she says, “I didn’t need to talk.”

It was at a kickboxing match that she met Rich Evans, a visitor to Thailand. He was intrigued by how this small woman ended up in such a brutal sport. They became friends. He seemed to understand the deep pain behind her silences, and he wanted to take care of her. Rich took her to the United States on a fiancée visa in 2006, and in 2009, they opened Cosmic Pizza.

In this working-class neighborhood of busy families, the red-, white-, and green-striped building that turned out pizza with great crust was a lifesaver for fast meals. And Rich—almost a cartoon in his white jacket and chef’s toque—seemed like the kind of gregarious guy you’d expect behind the counter. “He really played it up,” recalls one customer. “He was delighted to serve you his pizza.”

Yet Rich remains a mystery. His sister, Doris Lanphear, describes a childhood that would have made Dickens weep. Abandoned by their mother as toddlers and raised by a corrosive grandmother and an alcoholic father, Lanphear recalls, the two of them were parceled out to a string of indifferent relatives on weekends. She says that her brother scrapped his way through school (“He got kicked out a lot”), vocational training, and a stint in juvenile detention.

In his own way, Rich Evans was trying to be an outstanding husband and father. When the Evanses weren’t working, they did things together. Summer evenings, after Cosmic was closed for the day, they went to amusement parks; other times, they’d turn on music and have goofy dance parties in the living room. Rich loved to dress the kids up and take them all out to eat. If their clannishness was ever a problem, he didn’t seem to notice. His children didn’t have friends; his wife didn’t know a neighbor to ask for a cup of sugar. But they had each other.

Ao knows that some people are critical of the things Rich did—how do you not give your wife a house key? But she wants them to understand that he was a good man and a good father and that even if their family life was not like other people’s, it was a happy one.

The Evans Family, Living In This World

Last November, a friend set Ao up with a Facebook page, and now it’s possible to follow the trajectory of the Evanses’ lives online—to learn that Dan Heidel fixed Zoey’s bike and that Ashton discovered Darlene Heidel’s cookie jar; to see pictures from the zoo, the pool, the skating rink, the driving lessons; and to view selfies taken with the friends who made these outings possible.

And also on Facebook, Ao is always thanking someone for something—a visit, a DVD for the kids to watch, a kindness. Often when she posts her gratitude, the thanks come from “the Evans family living in this world.”

It’s a curious expression, one that Ao explains this way: She was crazed and desperate the morning after Rich’s murder—genuinely suicidal, and worse. But then, out of nowhere, her porch was full of people—strangers—offering to help.

If that hadn’t happened, she wonders, what would have become of them? But they are alive and living in this world. “I like to say that,” she says.

June 14, 2014, on the sunny, balmy day that would have been Rich Evans’s 51st birthday, his family gathers with 20 friends at his grave for a celebration. There’s a tent and birthday balloons, a decorated cake, and blankets on the ground for picnicking. Jim Emig, a gregarious restaurant owner who sat in the courthouse with Ao at the trial for Rich’s alleged murderer (the case is still pending), wraps a beefy arm around Ao and kicks off the ceremony.

Everyone has a chance to say something about the man so few of them knew. The messages all come down to this: Rich Evans’s bequest to his neighbors was his family. And everyone here feels honored to get that gift.

Then the picnic baskets come out, and the cake is cut, kids play in the grass, and neighbors catch up. Ao hands out curry she made. She’s been expanding her repertoire beyond pizza, mastering Thai and Indian cuisines. Maybe, Margot Madison says, Ao could do some catering.

As people eat and talk, a line of cars moves past. Seeing the festivities, the drivers must think it’s some unconventional death observation. Or maybe they recognize it for what it is: friends and family living in this world.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest