The Evans Family is Living in This World

The death of Cosmic Pizza owner Rich Evans threw the lives of his wife and children into chaos. It also landed them in the arms of an extraordinary group of strangers.
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The Evans Family Is Living In This World, by Linda Vaccariello

Illustration by Victo Ngai

This is how your life can change in an instant: A stranger with a gun walks in your door.

Or this: You settle in a quiet neighborhood of modest homes where old people rock on porches and kids play in the yards, where the days roll by in predictable order and everyone minds their own business. And then a stranger with a gun walks in someone else’s door.

At 5:53 p.m. on June 15, 2013, the security cameras at Cosmic Pizza on Woodsdale Avenue in Hartwell recorded the four minutes that changed the lives of the Evans family: A customer enters the small carry-out 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 slides across the counter and breaks for the door. The gunman shoots and follows.

 

That’s where the camera footage ends, but 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.

It was Margot Madison, driving her kids home from the Wyoming Rec Center pool, who stopped when the small, dark woman ran into the street shouting “My husband’s cut! My husband’s cut!” At least that’s what Madison thought she said. In the confusion it sort of made sense: There was a restaurant, and the woman was wearing a chef’s jacket. Madison screeched into the Cosmic Pizza lot and had already dialed 911 when she saw the desperate woman dash to kneel by the man crumpled on the grass. My God, she thought. Shot, not cut.

Madison’s husband, Matt, had been driving behind her. He pulled up and went straight to where Rich lay, sitting next to the ashen man, holding his hand and assuring him that help was on the way. But it was too late. Rich turned his head to look at his wife, then he was gone.

The shriek of sirens flushed Woodsdale residents outside. “Where are the babies?” one breathless neighbor gasped. That’s when Madison looked up and saw a child in the doorway of Cosmic Pizza. She went inside and found a stunned boy and girl; they led her to a back room and to their little sister, a toddler so shy she wouldn’t meet Madison’s gaze.

Adrenaline, EMTs, the white sheet, the police tape…even two decades of Law & Order doesn’t prepare you for a murder on your own street. As the coroner’s office carried out its grim mission, an officer sat with Rich’s wife in the cruiser and got her statement. As she wept and nursed her youngest, someone asked her who to call. Family? Friends? Neighbors?

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

It seemed like understandable hysteria under the circumstances. Who wouldn’t feel that much alone? But as the cops and neighbors struggled to piece together scraps of information from the woman, the truth of it took shape.

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. There was no family to take her and her children home from the scene. She didn’t have the name of anyone—not a friend or a neighbor or even a business associate—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.

Looking back on that grim evening, Madison recalls how surreal it was. As the clutch of onlookers and officers located the family’s house with the help of Google Street View, she tried to wrap her head around the situation. “I remember thinking: What am I supposed to do with this experience?”

Prayer vigils: That’s what we do when there’s a senseless killing down the street. The next morning parishioners from Ascension & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Wyoming organized a community gathering outside Cosmic Pizza, and when the TV cameras had cleared away, they went to see Ao Evans.

The shattered woman who opened the front door was hardly less traumatized than the night before. But she let them in, let them look around, and answered their questions about herself and her children. They were there to help, but in order to do that they needed information. “We were looking for clues about their lives and who they were,” says Madison.

Madison is a self-employed graphic designer who is married to an entrepreneurial gelato maker; she quickly recognized the ordinary signs of a house occupied by a busy couple running a small business. There was a typed to-do list on the fridge and institutional-sized containers of supplies waiting to be lugged to the restaurant; a half-gutted kitchen, evidence of a stalled DIY remodeling project. There were also signs of normal family life, too—especially 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—a Thai nickname that’s pronounced “O”—couldn’t have unlocked the front door and disarmed the house’s complicated security system because, as she explained, 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. Her English was difficult for her neighbors to understand, but she understood them quite well. When Madison gave her an envelope of cash hastily collected that morning, Ao looked baffled: handling money was alien; Rich did the shopping. And she genuinely knew no one outside her own family. Or, as Ao would later put it, “We just stay five people.”

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, a Cincinnati lifer married to her high school sweetheart, who has lived in Hartwell for 14 years. Like everyone else, she didn’t really know the family. But she knew how her community responds to tragedy. “I figured we’d do something like make meals for them for awhile,” she says.

By the time Lisa arrived, the house and yard were buzzing with neighbors and detectives had returned to interview Ao. So McDonald turned her attention to the kids—solemn 8-year-old Jimmy; Zoey, a 5-year-old with a face as sweet as a pansy; and their sparrow of a baby sister, Ashton. 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; it was clear that he wasn’t enrolled in school. Then a friend pulled McDonald aside and filled her in on what was known about Ao’s situation.

“The reality hit me like nothing I’d ever experienced,” McDonald says. “She had no one. I couldn’t imagine what that was like.” McDonald went to Ao, threw her arm around the sobbing woman’s shoulders, and said, “We’ll help you.”

McDonald says she was terrified when she heard herself say it. Even without doing the calculus of what it would take—time, energy, patience, money, legal assistance—it was clear that helping the Evanses would be a long haul. But, she says, “I just knew I could not walk away from this beautiful family.”

People pitched in, making funeral and burial arrangements, finding pall bearers, and crafting an obituary for a man none of them actually knew. Dawn Murray, a former Hartwell community council president, handled the media, steering reporters away from the family, and when people from all over town contacted her wanting to help, she 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; another, how to take the bus to visit Rich’s grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale. Ao wanted to go there every day, and sometimes there was no one available to drive her.

They formed an ad hoc committee that sat down and drew up a list: What did they know about the family and what did they need to find out? What did they need to do for Ao now, and how would they help her become self-sufficient in the future? 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 might look legally significant. Murray took over the family finances, since Ao had never written a check and didn’t understand banking. McDonald, who worked in the cafeteria at St. James of the Valley School in Wyoming, had a talk with principal Jim Haag about Zoey and Jimmy. (Actually, it was more of a cry than a talk, she says; “The whole situation was so emotional.”) Haag agreed to enroll the children and quickly found a sponsor to pay for their tuition in the coming year.

“Every day someone would take a task,” Madison recalls. Rosemary Rahn, freshly retired from years in administration at University Hospital Medical Center, found a pediatrician for the children, took them for checkups, and navigated Social Security with Ao so that the Evans children could get death benefits. “I hadn’t done this before,” Rahn says. “I was learning with her.” Wan Lindquist, owner of Thai Express in Clifton, had shown up at Rich’s funeral and announced, “Does anybody need my help? I speak Thai.” She took on the job of checking on 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 Green Card, but the lawyer had absconded with the money. Attorney Matt Wagner at Frost Brown Todd took her case pro bono.

All along, Madison says, they have asked Ao what she wants; no one has forced anything on her. “She always let us come and help,” Madison says, “but she never acted like a victim.” All of this help has meant that a woman who lived a very private existence now finds herself explaining her life—and her marriage.

Ao Evans needs a job.
“I mow,” she says in her sharp, brisk voice. “I make pizza.” But she knows that these two established skills—lawn care (Rich did the laundry and cooked; she cut the grass) and pizza baking (Rich was front-of-house at Cosmic) are minimum wage gigs at best; hardly enough to cover a sitter for her kids. And she still can’t drive. So, a year after her husband’s murder, she’s facing the same problem as millions of other single mothers in the U.S.: child care and transportation.

In the garage there’s Rich’s hulking SUV—great when he was hauling restaurant supplies, but tough for a woman the size of a preteen to wrangle. She has her temps now; she got the study guide in the spring and learned it cold. Her new friends take her out to practice-drive in cemeteries, but automotive confidence still eludes her. With a sigh that’s half frustration and half amusement, she blames her age. “I not young people,” she says.

We’re talking in her house on a hot summer afternoon, sitting in the dining room. Inside the compact brick two-story, the walls are the rich color of ripe mango and hung with Thai puppets, masks, and art. There are family photos, too, including a lushly sweet portrait of the couple when they were still in Thailand—a boyishly handsome Rich and his beaming fiancée.

She was young then, and is young still—35, although she likes to tell people she’s 50. That was Rich’s age when he died. The neighborhood crew that was stunned by the things she could not do before are amazed at what she tackles now. When her toilet broke, she bought a replacement part, read the instructions, and fixed it herself. On hot nights, she hauls the kids’ heavy futons on her back downstairs to the cooler living room; in winter, she’s stingy with the heat because—even though she still isn’t handling the family banking—she’s following a tight budget in her head. Dan Heidel, a retired Procter & Gamble technical engineer, got involved with the family when his wife, Darlene, a retired teacher, started tutoring Jimmy last winter. When it was time to shut down Cosmic Pizza, he put together a work crew to remove the Evans’s property from the leased building. At the shutdown, “Ao ran circles around everyone,” he says. And after the crew left, she bicycled the remaining pieces home herself, balanced on her handlebars.

How such a capable—and now voluble—woman could have also been the silent figure working in a pizzeria in Hartwell seems to have a bit to do with another death—this one years ago and miles away.

Ao says that she was named after her older sister, a 3-year-old who died in a flood in Ayutthaya, 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 in school when the dead child would have been six. If teachers understood the mistake, they did nothing about it. Belittled for talking like a baby, humiliated when she soiled her pants, her behavior ping-ponged between aggression and withdrawal. Academically, she never really caught up; she learned English, but—withdrawn, sullen, and friendless—she seldom spoke in that language or any other. 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.” So when she turned her back on school, she honed her skill in that sport, becoming a seasoned fighter at exhibition matches in the region.

That’s how she met Rich Evans. He’d show up at fights every six months or so—a good-looking American with a different Asian “girlfriend” on his arm each time—and hang out with the boxers afterward. Her trainer told her when Rich started making inquiries about her. He wanted to know who she was, and how such a small woman ended up in such a brutal sport.

She was young, but not naïve. She figured she knew why this American—16 years her senior—visited Southeast Asia so often: “For fun,” she tells me in a tone that’s both euphemistic and frank. She usually kept her distance around men. She’d been engaged to a young Thai man when a terrible accident with a scooter left her scarred and feeling so ugly that she broke off the union. But she became friends with Rich. He seemed to understand the deep pain behind her silences, and he wanted to take care of her.

Eventually they became intimate. Jimmy was born nine years ago in Thailand. Then Rich brought her to the U.S. on a fiancée visa; they married and settled in San Francisco, where Ao says he was running a video arcade. But in 2006, his father died, leaving behind a house in Hartwell. Rich inherited it, and ended up moving his family—Ao, Jimmy, and Zoey, born in California—back in 2009. Shortly after, they opened Cosmic Pizza.

It was a near claustrophobic spot with a few tables and a wide-screen TV to occupy customers, most of whom ordered to-go. In this working-class neighborhood of busy families, the red, white, and green striped building that turned out pizza with great crust was a life-saver 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.”

“I didn’t know Rich Evans that well,” says Jim Emig, “but I probably knew him better than anyone else.”

Emig is “Jim Dandy”—a massive man with a mustache that would make Mark Twain envious, a restaurant that smells so good you can virtually dine on the odor, and on this afternoon, a broad smear of sauce on his shirt. We have just taken a seat at Jim Dandy’s, his barbecue joint in Sharonville, and barely started to talk about the Evanses when he has to pull himself together. “It’s awesome,” he says. There’s a catch in his throat, and a couple staff members hover nearby, perhaps to provide backup in case the boss gets weepy. “What we’re watching is awesome,” he repeats. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Emig came to know Rich because the pizza man stopped there to eat lunch occasionally and the two would talk shop. Maybe because he was talking owner-to-owner, Rich was uncharacteristically open about his family. He told Emig about them—Jimmy’s inquisitiveness, Zoey’s ebullience, the sweetness of the baby that he called “Little Bug.” He explained how careful he was with everything they put in their mouths: No fast food; nothing processed. He’d arrive at Jim Dandy’s with cuts of meat—organic, grass-fed, free-range—to have Emig smoke them. And after a while, he brought his family in to dine. They’d sit in the far corner of the rustic, pine-paneled dining room, and Rich would order for everyone. Two things were clear to Emig immediately. “The kids were adorable,” he says, and  Rich “was very protective of them.”

Once Emig earned Rich’s trust, he’d show little Jimmy how the smoker worked and tease giggles out of Zoey. After a while, Emig and his wife would go to Cosmic for their bi-weekly pizza night, too. But even with the back-and-forth fraternizing, Rich’s wife remained an enigma—folded into a booth at Jim Dandy’s, or silently saucing pizza on the job. “I don’t think I ever said a word to Ao,” Emig says.

That changed, like so much else, after Rich was murdered. Emig heard about it almost immediately via a friend who had a police scanner. “I was delirious,” he says. “It was horrible.” He threw himself into planning a fund-raiser, and joined the team that, acting on instinct, would be responsible for bringing Ao out of the shadows. It was Emig, along with Lisa McDonald, who took Ao to court when John Deloney, the suspect in Rich’s murder, first faced a judge. Prosecuting attorney Mark Piepmeier is a Jim Dandy customer, and the sight of the hulking pit master next to the diminutive Asian woman briefly disoriented him at the hearing.

“I thought, ‘What’s the barbecue guy doing here?’ ” Piepmeier tells me when we talk about the case. Piepmeier knew that the family situation was unusual, and says that he and the Victim’s Assistance staff were prepared to help Ao comprehend what was happening. (“Which,” he points out, “is hard enough to understand if you do speak English.”) He was amazed at the way that Emig and McDonald stepped up to steer Ao through the legal process (which continues; Deloney is on his second set of defense attorneys), and he nominated them for the FOP’s Citizen’s Award in May because of their efforts.

But he has also been impressed by the way the surrounding community has responded. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says. And apparently he has fallen under the spell of the Evans kids, too. In the spring, there was a celebration at Emig’s restaurant after Jimmy Evans’s First Communion. Piepmeier went. Not the sort of thing he usually does working a case, he admits.

“So many people’s lives have changed because of [the murder],” Emig says. “Everyone has had to examine their attitudes and their feelings about getting involved. We want to call it a tragedy, and it is. But it’s more of a blessing than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Last December, with the holidays drawing on, Doris Lanphear did what many of us do when we start thinking about days gone by: She Googled the name of someone she had lost touch with—her brother, Rich Evans. That’s how she learned he was dead.

“Thank God the neighbors were there to help [Ao],” says Lanphear from her Pennsylvania home when we talk by phone. “Had I known, I don’t know what I would have been able to do.”

If Ao was a mystery when her neighbors first met her, Rich Evans has remained one—even to his sister. She and Rich grew up in Covington, where Lanphear describes a childhood that would make Dickens weep. Abandoned by their mother as toddlers and raised by a corrosive grandmother and an alcoholic father, Lanphear recalls being 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. She left home as a teenager; after that, what she knew of his life were bits of information gleaned from her father. But she didn’t trust her brother, and apparently, the feeling was mutual. When their father died, she tracked Rich down via a post office box and they talked by phone in the course of settling the estate. When she asked him about his family, he rebuffed her. “He had no intention of me meeting them.”

She’s a teacher now, and has experienced her own setbacks. “This is just another sad saga in my life,” she says of Rich’s death. Lanphear is in no position to help Ao, but she has begun to build a relationship with her sister-in-law: the two have become Facebook friends and have occasional phone conversations. But discussing Rich isn’t easy. “The person she knew is different than the person I knew,” Lanphear says.

Whether he was paranoid or simply protective, Rich Evans was trying—in his own way—to be an outstanding husband and father. Ao says that Jimmy was home-schooled—using a computer program Rich purchased—to protect him from bad experiences with teachers and other children. No buckets of fried chicken or bags of burgers for these kids: Rich cooked everything from scratch. No television at home, either. When the Evanses weren’t working they did things together. Summer evenings, after Cosmic was closed for the day, they went to Kings Island; 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. There were weekends at Great Wolf Lodge, bike rides, roller skating. If their clannishness was ever a problem—for example, when Ao had Ashton, the whole family stayed at St. Elizabeth Hospital until she and the baby were discharged—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.

Which, it turns out, was not enough. The protective husband who squired his withdrawn, foreign-born wife anywhere she needed to go failed to teach her to memorize her own address—a child’s first safety lesson. And though he had alarms and surveillance cameras bristling through their home like high-tech barbed wire, he hadn’t secured their future with life insurance.

Ao knows that some people are critical of that. She wants me 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. When she got involved with him in Thailand a decade ago—when she had his child and agreed to leave her family behind and move to America—there was only one thing she feared. Because of their age difference, she was terrified that he would die and leave her alone. “We always talk about it,” she says, and he always reassured her. “He exercise, he eat healthy, he say he die when he old.”

It was the stranger with the gun who changed that, of course. But it’s clear that she understands that the way they lived when Rich was alive is also partly responsible for the challenges she faces now. When we talk about that she says, “He feel bad.”

I don’t know if she means, He would feel bad if he knew what we’re going through. Or if she means that he feels bad now—in the afterlife.

Either way, I think she’s right.

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 selfies taken with the friends who make those outings possible. Like every other mother, she posts the images that document the family’s major life events: birthdays, holidays, and in February, the children’s baptisms at St. James of the Valley. There are times when she uses the “feeling sad” emoticon, because she’s still working through her grief. And there are times when a posting tells the story of some goofy turn their lives have taken, like their three-hour slog to find the Lockland post office—their “victory tour” according to Jimmy on the iPhone video.

And always on Facebook she is 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.”

I thought it was a curious expression; maybe something from Ao’s Buddhist roots. When I ask her what it means, she tells me how crazed and desperate she was 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 believes, she might have killed herself and her children. But they are not dead, she says. They are living in this world. “I like to say that,” she tells me.

June 14, 2014. Around noon on the sunny, balmy day that would have been Rich Evans’s 51st birthday, his family gathers with 20 or so friends at his grave for a celebration. There’s a tent and birthday balloons, vases of roses, a decorated cake, and blankets spread on the ground for picnicking. Jim Emig has pulled himself away from the summer madhouse of catering graduation parties and softball tournaments. “I left the pit full of meat and just came,” he says. Taking a place by the flush granite marker and wrapping a beefy arm around Ao to draw her close, he kicks off the ceremony because, he says, “I’m the default guy for this kind of stuff.

“What happened to Rich was a tragedy,” he says. “But from it we’ve gotten four beautiful lives that have enriched all of us. They’ve blessed us. We have a duty to love them.”

After Emig offers a prayer, everyone has a chance to say something about the man so few of them actually knew. The messages are all eloquent, and all different, but they 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 is uncharacteristically quiet; this must be what she was like before the nightmare of a year ago untied her tongue. But she circulates among the guests, passing out individual containers of curry she made the night before. Her husband ruled the kitchen when he was alive, but she’s been working hard to expand her repertoire beyond pizza, mastering Thai cuisine and Indian dishes. The curry is rich and complex; she seems to have good culinary instincts. Maybe, Margot Madison tells me, Ao could do some catering in the neighborhood.

As people eat and talk, a line of cars moves past—a funeral procession returning from another section of the cemetery. I wonder what they make of this gathering, with its picnickers and children and birthday balloons. Perhaps they think it’s some sort of non-conventional death observation. Or maybe they recognize it for what it is: friends and family living in this world.

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