Michael 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.