Elderly L.A. woman vanishes, is found alone in Maine four years later

How did an elderly L.A. woman end up alone in a cabin in Maine? @BobsLAtimes tries to find out

Sarah Cheiker had lived in the small bungalow in the Fairfax district for decades, first with her mom and then by herself.

But one day in 2008 she vanished, and a bulldozer showed up to demolish her longtime home.

"I was shocked. We figured she was dead," said Jim Caccavo, who had been Cheiker's next-door neighbor for 35 years. When he couldn't find out what had become of the 89-year-old woman, he filed a missing person's report.

Four years later, two FBI agents rolled into the neighborhood and starting knocking on doors, asking questions and telling residents that Cheiker had been found alive — abandoned and alone in a weathered cabin near the coast of Maine.

Someone had moved Cheiker into the cabin and left her there. Alerted by neighbors, authorities in tiny Lincoln County said they found her living in squalor.

"It was a place I wouldn't have let my dog live in," said Lincoln County Sheriff's Det. Robert McFetridge.

The cabin's lone light bulb had burned out, leaving the woman in darkness. What food there was had spoiled. And though the summer weather in coastal Maine is typically mild, the day she was discovered, the temperature had climbed into the 100s, McFetridge said.

As authorities began looking into how an elderly woman from L.A. could end up alone in remote Maine, they said they became aware of a trio of people — 41-year-old twins and their 21-year-old godson — who allegedly befriended Cheiker when she still lived in her Edinburgh Avenue bungalow.

Neighbors said the brother and sister and their godson took Cheiker shopping and to doctor's appointments, and let her move in with them when the woman's bungalow was damaged in a fire.

The following year, according to public records, the Sarah Cheiker Living Trust sold the damaged house for $712,000 to a developer, who promptly tore the place down to make way for a new, larger home.

Authorities in Maine said their investigation showed that the trio then headed east on a cross-country jaunt with Cheiker, spending the proceeds from the sale as they went.

Caccavo said he recalled that after his neighbor disappeared, a storage bin was delivered to the damaged home and Cheiker's belongings were loaded up and hauled away. Caccavo said he was told the belongings were being temporarily put in storage to prevent them from being stolen should someone break into the house.

A few days later, a stranger showed up and told Caccavo's wife he had purchased the house.

It was nearly three years before deputies found Cheiker alone in the cabin near Edgecomb, a town of less than 1,500 on the coast north of Portland.

"A woman across the street called us," Det. McFetridge said. "The [cabin] owner had been told that people were looking for a place for a middle-aged artist who was looking for seclusion."

"I think they were hoping she'd expire and it would be called an unattended death," the detective said of the people who left Cheiker alone in the cabin.

The twins, Barbara Davis and Nicholas Davis, and their godson Jonathan Stevens were subsequently arrested on felony charges of endangering the welfare of a dependent person. The trio later pleaded no contest to the charges and were placed on probation, according to court records.

Lincoln County Assistant Dist. Atty. Andrew Wright, who prosecuted the case, said the three befriended Cheiker after randomly knocking on the front door of her Edinburgh Avenue home and eventually hop-scotched across the country with her in tow.

"They purchased numerous properties across the country with her money," the prosecutor said. "I've seen things that were egregious, but I'd never seen a person taken across the country, stripped of their assets and left to die."

One of the defense attorneys for the trio said his client, Nicholas Davis, treated Cheiker as though she was part of the family. Lawyer Derrick Banda said he tried to convince Nicholas Davis not to plead no contest.

"They had no evidence of elder abuse. They were checking on her and bringing her food every day. She was like part of the family," Banda said. "My client's position was she didn't like the noise from a lot of company visiting them that summer so they put her up in a seasonal rental cabin. Somebody called the local authorities: It was the nosy-neighbor syndrome."

Banda said there was no proof of any financial impropriety by his client and that he was never able to subpoena Cheiker because authorities would not divulge her whereabouts.

Wright said the Davises and Stevens eventually turned over $7,000 in uncashed money orders, which were given to Cheiker as restitution.

Authorities in Maine said they could not investigate the alleged swindle because it occurred in California. FBI officials would not comment about any investigation into the sale of Cheiker's bungalow and Los Angeles police never got involved, aside from receiving and filing Caccavo's missing person report.

Maine authorities have now placed Cheiker in a nursing home in Fryeburg, Maine. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful. The assisted living center's administrator, James Dutton, said he would need permission from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services before allowing her to speak with a reporter. A spokesman for that agency, John Martins, declined to grant permission, citing Maine's strict privacy rules for those under state guardianship.

Caccavo said he recently visited his old neighbor while on a trip to the East Coast to see his brother.

"Sarah told me she definitely did not sell her house," he said. "She was still angry and feisty."

A Century City lawyer and his family now live in the house that replaced the bungalow. He said he was unaware of the site's history — although mail addressed to Sarah Cheiker still occasionally shows up in the mailbox.

bob.pool@latimes.com
Twitter: @BobsLAtimes

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