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Portrait emerges of woman whose mummified body was found in car

Though she had two master's degrees, she had filed for bankruptcy and was homeless when she was befriended by a real estate agent who let her sleep in a car. But after she died in the front seat, it was not reported to authorities.

October 28, 2010|By Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times

The two women met last year at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley and were unlikely acquaintances. One was a Costa Mesa real estate agent, the other a homeless woman who frequented the park.

The real estate agent allowed the woman to sleep in her father's old sedan.

But sometime in the last 10 months, the homeless woman died in the car. And for reasons that Costa Mesa police are still trying to determine, the real estate agent decided not to report the woman's death to authorities. Detectives said she drove the car with the mummifying corpse covered with clothing in the passenger's seat. She used baking powder to reduce the smell.

Police discovered the body of Signe Margit, 59, last week when officers responded to a report of a car parked illegally on a Costa Mesa street. When they approached the vehicle, they were overpowered by a strong odor. When they looked inside, they spotted a leg underneath clothing in the front passenger seat.

Authorities are still trying to determine whether the real estate agent broke the law by not reporting the body. She has not been arrested, and officials declined to release her name.

But a portrait of Margit is slowing emerging.

Family members told detectives that Margit held two master's degrees. In 2001, she was issued a pre-intern teaching certificate for cross-cultural, language and academic development emphasis in California, according to records.

The certificate allowed her in-class teaching experience with children who had emotional problems and mild to moderate learning disabilities. During some of this time, she worked with special education students at Audubon Middle School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Over the next decade, records show her living in a dozen cities throughout California, Texas and Washington. During this period, she filed for bankruptcy and appeared to have recurring money troubles. At one point, she reported in court records that she owned a 1999 Toyota Corolla, some clothing, $50 worth of jewelry and not much else.

She returned to Los Angeles County a few years ago. Costa Mesa police Sgt. Ed Everett said she was working in a job he declined to identify in Los Angeles County for three years until she was let go in August 2009.

Some time after that, she met the real estate agent in Mile Square Regional Park.

Margit's family told police the last time they heard from her was in December, when they reported her missing. That's the last time anyone reported seeing her alive, police said.

Margit's death did not appear to be the result of foul play, and detectives are trying to figure out why the real estate agent, in her 50s, chose to drive around with a foul-smelling corpse.

Costa Mesa police Det. Mike Cohen said it appears she had befriended the transient woman for altruistic reasons. He added that the real estate agent was "very calm and very articulate" when talking about Margit's death.

Police said the real estate agent herself had fallen on hard times and was living at the home of a friend for a few days. It was outside that friend's home where police discovered the corpse Oct. 18.

After breaking into the car, police found a body "seated in a reclined position in the front passenger seat with clothing items covering them," according to the police report on the case. "It was evident they had been deceased for some time. The body was found to be in a mummified state."

The Orange County coroner was unable to immediately determine a cause of death; toxicology results are pending.

Detectives continue to look into Margit's background but said they were grateful for the help from the public, which has provided key details.

"In this particular case, the public was a big help because initially we didn't know, other than a potential first name, we didn't have any information to reference her," Everett said. "Luckily for us, her first name was unusual … we got several tips from different individuals calling about Signe."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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