DETROIT — Sometimes, Pia Farrenkopf’s family wouldn’t hear from her for years at a time.

No letters. No visits. No phone calls. No hint of how the Pontiac, Mich. woman was, where she was — or how she was living her life.

And then one day, one relative or another would go to the mailbox, and there would be a postcard from Pia. From Amsterdam or Austria. Ireland or Las Vegas. One Christmas Eve, she made a surprise call from the Italian Alps.

“Sometimes she would go, literally, for years without us hearing from her,” said her sister, Jean LeBlanc, who lives near Boston, where Pia and her nine sisters and brothers grew up. “And then all of a sudden, she’d show up, so nobody ever thought anything about it.”

Some of her siblings tried to get in touch with her when they hadn’t heard from her in a long time, but she often didn’t answer her phone. Paula Logan, another sister, figured that Pia was out of the country — or just didn’t want to be bothered.

So when she dropped completely from sight six years ago, her family never even realized she was missing — until 2014, when repairmen were hired to do some work on her foreclosed home.

One year ago, two of those workers walked into her garage and made a discovery so chilling that they ran from the house and called 911.

What they found put to rest any questions about where Farrenkopf had been all those years. But why she was there and what happened to her remain a mystery.


Farrenkopf’s neighborhood in Pontiac was solidly middle class, a newer subdivision of tidy houses and young trees. It was a far cry from Southie, what was then a rough, working-class neighborhood of Boston, where she lived with her large Catholic family when she was younger.

Today, Southie is undergoing a transformation and its property values have skyrocketed, but the neighborhood still is home to blocks of row houses, broken up into apartments and duplexes, where generations of immigrants, many of them Irish, raised large families.

In interviews with the Free Press, three of her sisters and others who knew Farrenkopf were circumspect and revealed few details of the family’s early years. From what little they said and the questions they declined to answer, it seemed clear that the family with 10 children had known some hard times. Their father, Joseph Farrenkopf, died in 1981 while Pia was still in high school. One of their two brothers died years later.

Pia graduated in 1983 from Cardinal Cushing Central High School in South Boston. Today, the school is long gone, and a high-end apartment complex sits on the site.

Sister Mary Mulligan, who was principal of the all-girls Catholic school, still remembers Farrenkopf, more than 30 years later.

“Although she was very smart,” — in Mulligan’s thick Boston accent, the word comes out “smaht” — “I felt that she was more of a loner.”

Mulligan flipped through the 1983 yearbook and found just two pictures of Farrenkopf: one with the National Honor Society, where Farrenkopf served as treasurer, and her school picture.

“I wish I could remember her better,” said Mulligan, 84. “But maybe that’s the essence of her personality. That she didn’t get very close to people.”

Besides getting good grades, Farrenkopf painted and drew, and won an art award while attending high school. The Boston Globe reported the award in its Jan. 17, 1980, edition.

She also received a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts Boston and began attending classes there in the fall semester of 1983.

“Pia was always reading,” her mother, Marie Farrenkopf, was quoted as saying in a university newspaper article about the scholarship. “When there were no other books around, she’d read an encyclopedia.”

She attended UMass Boston on and off and also took classes at nearby Bunker Hill Community College in 1985, but didn’t graduate from either, school records showed. By the 1990s, she was working for a technology company in Little Rock, Ark., programming banking software for loan applications.

She never married or had children, but was an aunt to dozens of nieces and nephews. Friends remember that she loved crossword puzzles and often had 24-hour news on the TV at her home. She was a fan of “Star Trek” and “Lost.”

Joan Gill Strack, who worked with her in Little Rock, said Pia traveled extensively to Scotland, England and around the U.S. for her job. She was well-paid and saved much of her money, Strack said.

“We worked in the international division, so everybody in that department traveled a lot,” Strack recalled. “It wasn’t unusual for people to be gone for a month and then come back for a week or two and then be gone for another month or two.”

The two became close, and Strack visited Michigan shortly after Farrenkopf moved to the state in 1999 for her career. The pair vacationed together in Boston in 2000 and went to Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in 2001.

Pia didn’t have a lot of friends and that was just fine with her, Strack said. “She was just a very private person, and she didn’t want a whole slew of people around.”

She said Pia didn’t talk much about her childhood or family, but she kept in contact with some of her siblings, including a sister who lived with her in Arkansas. But even when she was in touch, it was on her terms.

Strack and Pia’s sisters said she didn’t always answer the phone or return calls and her family was unable to reach Pia after one of her sisters died in 2007.

“We kept trying to get her for some time,” Logan said. “And the phone just rang and rang and rang.”

Strack said Pia was “a good person,” “fun to be around” and “very, very good” at her job. But no one who knew her described her as warm and fuzzy. She was blunt and no-nonsense, Strack said.

She once hosted a party and a person she invited showed up a few hours late because she had somewhere else to be, but the woman didn’t let Farrenkopf know.

“Pia told her she was done with her,” Strack recalled. “She didn’t speak to her after that.”

Strack and Farrenkopf had a falling out and last spoke in 2001 — Strack wouldn’t talk about the details but chalked it up to spending too much time together. She says she regrets how the friendship ended, but knows she can’t change it now.

“A lot of my friends will say: ‘How can one person be such some a hermit?’ ” Strack said. “But if you knew Pia it made total sense because she was just like that. She was fine with a few people in her life.”

Pia lived a prosperous life in Michigan. She had a good job, saved her money, traveled extensively and spent more than $100,000 on her home.

By 2003, she was ready to take on a new challenge. She had struggled with her weight throughout her life and began making plans to open a fitness business called Slender Lady.

She asked her sister LeBlanc, then a manager at a Curves fitness center in Massachusetts, to go with her to Texas, and the two spent a week together learning about health and nutrition.

“At the time, she was overweight,” LeBlanc recalled, saying that may have been the motivation behind the business.

As the sisters got ready to part ways in Texas, both told the other, “I love you,” and Farrenkopf returned to her job in Michigan.

It is unclear what happened to the dream for Slender Lady, but court records indicate the venture did not end well. Farrenkopf did not respond to a lawsuit in 2005 charging that she had broken the lease. The company that sued was awarded more than $101,000 in a default judgment, although it’s unclear how much, if any, was ever collected.

That wasn’t the only company seeking money from her. Three lawsuits filed in 50th District Court in Pontiac from 2005 to 2007 accused her of not paying credit card bills.

With accumulating interest, the companies received judgments totaling more than $15,000. Court records from the two later suits, both filed in 2007, had a recurring theme: It was hard to reach Farrenkopf.

“Occupant has been refusing to answer door and evading service,” one court document said.

Another had a handwritten note: “Will not take mail out of box or answer the door.”

Farrenkopf’s homeowners association also began obtaining liens against her for unpaid dues, eventually totaling about $2,400.

Police showed up at her home in 2005 to check on her. Neighbors had reported they hadn’t seen her in a month and shutoff notices were on the porch.

Inside, her cat, Bungie, and white poodle, Baby — pets she adored — were found abandoned, a police report said. It’s unclear where Farrenkopf was, but there’s no record she ever tried to reclaim the animals. The dog was adopted nine days later and the cat went to a rescue the next month, said Joanie Toole, administrative supervisor for Oakland Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center.

In May 2008, Farrenkopf resigned from her job in Michigan with Fidelity National Information Services — previously known as ALLTEL Information Services — after 23 years with the company. Company officials called her “an exemplary employee” in a statement to the Free Press but didn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding her departure.

One of her sisters said she heard from coworkers that Farrenkopf got into an argument with a boss and resigned. Pia’s friend said she had no direct knowledge of what happened, but heard she tried to retract her resignation and was told no.

The month she resigned, her bank account had $87,199.80 in it, according to a report by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. No more deposits were made after that point.

It’s unclear how she spent her days after she stopped working.

She was pulled over in October 2008 and cited for driving with a suspended license, expired plates and no proof of insurance.

On Feb. 25, 2009, $1,500 was withdrawn from her account, the investigators’ report said.

It was the last deduction she made.

Deputies have not found anyone who saw her or had contact with her after that date. But her life was so carefully regimented that things that could have set off alarms didn’t — for years. Her mail didn’t stack up, the lawn was mowed, her driveway was cleared of snow and many of her bills were paid automatically.

Interviewed by a U.S. Postal Inspector in 2014, letter carrier Kimberly Montez said that Farrenkopf had approached her at some point in recent years — she didn’t say when — and told her to stop delivering her mail, saying she paid her bills online. Montez said Postal Service policy and federal law prohibited her from halting deliveries.

“Farrenkopf would let delivered mail remain in the mounted mailbox on the house until it was too full for any more,” a report on that interview said. Montez then collected the pile of mail, and took it back to the post office as unclaimed.

Neighbors didn’t see Farrenkopf much, saying she rarely had visitors, would leave her home for long periods of time and kept to herself.

“If you would wave or say ‘hi’ when she drove by or went by walking her dog, she wouldn’t really respond,” a neighbor wrote in a statement to investigators.

One neighbor told police in a statement that Farrenkopf had paid him to mow her lawn, maintain her yard and shovel her snow for two or three years.

“I realized sometime around 2007 that I had not heard from her,” he wrote in his statement. “Because I had a riding mower, I continued to mow her grass because the effect of not doing so reflected negatively on the appearance of our lawn as well as our street and neighborhood.

“I also continued to remove the snow as well because she appeared to have moved and it allowed me to park my truck in her driveway for the duration of time,” he wrote. “Never did I encounter or see any unusual activity at her home during this time.”

When that man moved in 2013, another neighbor, a woman, took over the yard work — also for free.

“I mowed the lawn … to keep the neighborhood looking neat and clean and for my safety,” that neighbor wrote in a statement to investigators. “If this house looked vacant, burglars would target it and then look at my house.”

Each month, payments for many of her bills were automatically withdrawn from her bank account, including her mortgage of $1,088.89.

Her last house payment was made March 1, 2013.

Sometime that month, her once-flush bank account ran out of cash, investigators said.

And the puzzle of what happened to Farrankopf began to unfold.

Five months earlier, neighbors had reported Farrankopf’s house had “a huge hole in the roof.” An inspector with Pontiac’s Department of Building and Safety went to the home and put a notice on the door for the owner, but the inspector didn’t have the authority to enter the house.

But when her mortgage payments stopped and the house was foreclosed on, workers were sent in to preserve the house.

In January, the mortgage holder sent two men to inspect the house and garage and take photographs. They went into the garage and one of them opened the door of a 2003 green Jeep Liberty, searched for the registration and then left. They reported nothing unusual.

Then Trademark Property Solutions was hired to make repairs, and two other men were dispatched to fix the hole in the roof that was allowing raccoons to nest there. They also were supposed to take photos of the house and garage.

On March 5, 2014, Matthew Anderson and Charles Goff walked into the two-car garage and saw the SUV parked there. Goff later told deputies he saw what he thought was a Halloween mask in the backseat and opened the back door.

“It smelled like death,” Goff said.

The pair ran from the house and called 911.

Oakland County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene and made a stunning discovery: Farrenkopf, dressed in a black jacket, blue shirt and jeans, was slumped in the back of the SUV, her knees behind the driver’s seat.

Her body had mummified and was frozen to the backseat. Spider webs coated the inside of the vehicle. More than $500 in cash was found in her pocket.

The key was partially in the ignition. The Jeep still had 2 1/2 gallons of gas in the tank. About 200 pieces of unopened mail were scattered inside the SUV postmarked from 2005 to 2007. Near her body was an almost empty bottle of wine — with no fingerprints on it. And empty cigarette packs littered the garage floor.

The house was a mess. The sump pump had stopped working, and black mold crawled up the walls. The rooms were strewn with clothing, mail and other debris. Trash, including dozens of empty 2-liter pop bottles, was scattered across the floor.

The conditions contrasted sharply with how Strack remembered Farrenkopf’s home years earlier.

“Her house was well-kept, very clean, very tidy,” Strack said. “She liked things picked up and ordered.”


It appears Farrenkopf, who lived alone, died alone in early 2009, said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. Deputies checked credit card activity, subpoenaed bank, phone and health records searching for clues and created a timeline of her last known activity to try to narrow down when she died.

“We extensively looked into a variety of things,” said Bouchard, calling the investigation “massively thorough.”

Bouchard said nothing found at the scene or during an autopsy made investigators think anyone had harmed Farrenkopf. There were no signs of forced entry, no wounds from a stabbing or gunshot, and no note left behind, he said.

Her medical records showed that Farrenkopf, who was 44 when she’s believed to have died, smoked a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes daily, drank alcohol and was worried about her liver and back, according to the investigator’s report obtained by the Free Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. Cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and kidney disease run in her family, the report said.

“There was no trauma to body, so it only leads to a couple conclusions,” Bouchard said during a recent interview. “Either it was a medical situation that led to her death or something self-induced.”

Dr. Bernardino Pacris, the Oakland County deputy medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, said he was unable to determine how she died. Her organs were so mummified, he said, they couldn’t be examined.

“The possibility of hypothermia or any drug or chemical intoxication cannot be ruled out,” he said.

Pacris said it’s unlikely that she died of carbon monoxide poisoning because the gas tank wasn’t empty.

As for the position of the car key, Bouchard said, the man who was looking for the registration says he may have touched it to check the mileage, but he just can’t remember for sure.

Unless new evidence or information is discovered, the case is no longer being actively investigated. But that doesn’t satisfy some of Farrenkopf’s relatives.

Some reject any suggestion that Pia might have committed suicide, saying it would have been out of character.

Logan told the Free Press she believes her sister was murdered, though she doesn’t have proof. She thinks her sister’s behavior indicates she was in fear of something or someone. Logan is considering asking a TV show that deals in unsolved mysteries to look into the case further.

“There’s got to be something there that somebody missed,” she said.

“I just hope people don’t give up,” she said.

Other relatives and friends say they don’t know what to think.

“I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea,” LeBlanc said, shortly after her sister was discovered.

“I just don’t understand why anybody would sit in the backseat of their own car. And just stay there. Why would you do that?”

After she was positively identified in July using DNA, Farrenkopf was cremated. Her ashes now sit on an organ at Logan’s house in Massachusetts — near the ashes of her sister and her mother. Her family had tried to call Pia in 2012 when their mother died, but couldn’t reach her. By that time, Pia herself had been dead for years.

A deputy sent Pia’s purse to Logan, as well as framed pictures Farrenkopf had showing the family growing up.

Her home in Pontiac was sold last October for $42,500.

But some of her property has yet to be claimed., a website that helps people search for unclaimed property, shows there are eight unclaimed items that belonged to Farrenkopf. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Treasury confirmed the Unclaimed Property Division holds “multiple” properties matching her name, but declined to say what the items are worth.

Some types of “property” that end up with the state include uncashed payroll checks, inactive stocks, dividends, checking and savings accounts.

“We will be reaching out to potential family members, in an effort to reach some resolution for the property,” Terry Stanton said in an email.

Logan said the family wasn’t aware of any unclaimed properties. Investigators said they didn’t find a will for Farrenkopf.

A year after the discovery of her body, relatives and friends remember Farrenkopf as an intelligent, driven, talented person who kept to herself. Most of all, they want people to know she was loved.

“She was a good person,” Strack said. “And it breaks my heart that her body sat there for so long with nobody knowing.”


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