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City Neighborhoods
Homeless woman's killing as mysterious as her life

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wrapped up at night in a gray blanket, she sometimes slept atop a heating grate Downtown on Third Avenue between two trash bins, her belongings arrayed around her.

This 2002 photograph of Eva Haniak was provided by Shawn Lojak of Fawn. She was a frequent visitor at his home.

With an Eastern European accent and reddish-tinted hair, the older homeless woman known in the neighborhood as "Little Eva" or "Rose" kept to herself, ferociously so.

Even to homeless outreach workers who tried to help her during the decade she was on and off the streets, she was mostly a mystery, her past shrouded.

Yesterday, though, the end of her life became a disturbingly open book for city homicide detectives, who watched her slaying on videotape, captured by a surveillance camera on Third Avenue.

In the middle of the night, a tall black man kicked Little Eva repeatedly and dragged her by an arm from her nocturnal roost, according to a police account of the tape.

Chalk marks drawn on the street and sidewalk by detectives to mark evidence told the rest of the story: The man towed Eva from one side of Third Avenue to the other and back again, leaving a bloody trail.

At the end, the killer pulled her down a cobbled courtyard and left her body beneath a canvas canopy in front of 326 Third Avenue, a commercial building between Wood and Smithfield streets.

Police were first alerted at 2:35 a.m., when a caller told 911 that a woman was being assaulted near Fourth Avenue and Wood Street. Officer William Hohos of the Hill District station checked but found nothing.

Homeless advocate Mike Sallows, right, shows Frank Jackson a picture of a man police believe killed the woman known as "Little Eva" or "Rose" Downtown. Sallows was canvassing the city yesterday to see if anyone could identify the man. Jackson was waiting for a bus near the Carnegie museum in Oakland. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Hohos continued to patrol the area, though, and 20 minutes later, he stumbled upon Eva's body.

By mid-morning, blood spatters on the street, a chalk outline and remnants of bread loaves, crackers and a pepperoni pizza tossed into a trash bin were all that was left of Eva.

For much of the day, she didn't even have a full name. The Allegheny County coroner's office, which is relied upon for formal identification of homicide victims, learned her surname -- Haniak -- in the afternoon, but didn't release it for several hours until the next of kin could be notified. The coroner's office would say only that the victim was strangled and suffered injuries to her head and trunk.

Last night, Shawn Lojak of Fawn said Haniak was a 79-year-old Polish national who arrived in this country by boat after World War II and eventually came to reside in the personal care home he ran. She had stayed with him since 1984, first living in the personal care home, then moving into Lojak's mobile home when he bought a house nearby.

"The lady who was like a mother to me was murdered," Lojak said yesterday after returning from the coroner's office where he identified her badly beaten body. "She helped with my children."

Lojak, 40, said he met Haniak in 1984. She was strong and kind, catching insects and carrying them outside before he could kill them, and often walking the several miles to shop in Tarentum or Russellton. She had two children and an ex-husband, he said.

Haniak's unexplained wanderings became familiar to Lojak, who recognized that she wrestled with inner demons. She would disappear to Pittsburgh for a week at a time and then return to Fawn, only to leave again.

"You can't force somebody to stay," Lojak said.

She returned to him around Thanksgiving last year, staying for most of the winter.

"Then the morning of the 11th she was here for a little bit, and then she left," he said.

It was the last time Lojak saw her.

As detectives canvassed the neighborhood, showing some merchants a photograph of the culprit culled from the videotape, a stream of men and women from the Wood Street Commons across from the crime scene poured onto the street to watch.

The commons rents single-room apartments on a sliding scale pegged to income, and some of the tenants who knew what it was like to be down on their luck commiserated with one other about the situation.

"She didn't bother anybody," an upset Eustace Walters said. "They probably wanted to rob her. A person like that, what do they have?"

On Monday afternoon, all that Eva had was contained in two plastic bags of groceries she was carrying when Johnny Myers saw her around 2 in the area.

"She was going through her bags," said Myers, 44, who also lives at the commons.

At the end of last year, there were about 2,000 homeless people in Allegheny County, of which 1,400 were adults, according to the Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services. Up to 40 percent of the adults served by county services were women. And about one-fifth of all the county's homeless were seriously mentally ill.

Eva, said homeless outreach workers who knew her, fit that description.

"It did appear to me that she had some mental health issues. She was very vulnerable, and we were keeping a close eye on her this winter because it was cold," said Dr. Jim Withers, medical director and founder of Operation Safety Net, which provides medical care to the homeless.

"She wouldn't go to the cold shelter," Withers said. "She was very secretive. She would accept blankets once in a while and food." Mike Sallows of the Homeless Survival Project was one of the last people to see Eva alive around 10 p.m. Monday. After learning of her death, he set out on rounds with a picture of the culprit that was furnished by police, hoping to find someone on the street who could identify him.

He recalled trying to give Eva supplies Monday night where she sat on Third Avenue. He tried to find out how she was doing.

She didn't want any of it.

"I think she was trying to sleep," Sallows said. "She kind of waved us off."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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