One afternoon more than a decade ago, two strangers walked up Sarah Cheiker’s driveway and knocked on her door.

Cheiker, then in her late 70s, lived alone in a bungalow in downtown Los Angeles just steps from the city’s iconic farmers market and a CBS television studio that has been home to shows ranging from “All in the Family” to “The Price Is Right.”

The couple introduced themselves as Barbara and Nicholas Davis and said they knew Cheiker’s mother from years back. They asked if she was interested in selling her house. She wasn’t, but the Davises kept wandering back. Slowly but systematically, they took over Cheiker’s life. They wrested away control of her finances. They isolated her from the world. And they did it under the guise of friendship.

Today, Cheiker lives at the Fryeburg Health and Residential Center, more than 3,000 miles from home, in a room roughly the size of a master bedroom that she shares with another resident who “makes too much noise.”

This year, after a complicated and drawn-out legal battle, a Maine judge awarded Cheiker a $2 million judgment: $1 million that the Davises allegedly bilked from her, mostly in life insurance payments and real estate proceeds, and another $1 million in punitive damages, “for the horror to which she was subjected.”

But Cheiker, now 90, will likely never see any of it.

Nicholas and Barbara Davis are nowhere to be found. In fact, the Davises, who were investigated by the FBI as members of a larger group of nomadic grifters, may not even be living under those names anymore.

Barbara Davis, Jonathan Stevens and Nicholas Davis

Barbara Davis, Jonathan Stevens and Nicholas Davis (Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office)

“They went by many names,” Cheiker said.

Her memory is spotty in some places, but interviews with Cheiker, her attorneys and others, along with a review of hundreds of pages of court documents, spotlight an extreme example of elder financial abuse, a problem that experts say is only likely to grow as people live longer and amass larger fortunes.

John Lambert, a Portland attorney who specializes in such cases and who has represented Cheiker, said most cases he sees involve family members taking advantage of a parent or other elderly relative who can no longer manage finances.

Sometimes, though, it’s strangers.

Cheiker said she understands now that the Davises took advantage of her, but for a long time, they were kind. She said she also felt a kinship with Nicholas Davis when he confided that they shared something in common: He heard voices in his head, too.

• • • • •

Sarah Cheiker was born Dec. 11, 1925, in New York.

Her parents had met years earlier in Chicago as Russian emigres but settled in Brooklyn, home to many Jewish immigrants at the time, to raise Sarah and her older brother, Abraham.

Pia (Zelony) Cheiker came from a family of rabbis. Everybody called her Fannie. She worked in a shop sewing hats before she was a homemaker. Jacob Cheiker, who went by Jack, painted houses for a living.

Sarah went to public schools in New York and then studied biology and geology at Brooklyn College. She moved west to San Francisco in her early 20s to take a job at a research laboratory at Mount Zion Hospital, assisting surgeons who were perfecting procedures on rats.

She later worked at other medical labs and veterinary hospitals in California before moving to Los Angeles in 1972 to live with her mother, who was widowed 13 years earlier when her husband died at the age of 70.

Cheiker never married or had children.

For two decades, she and her mother lived in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles. They didn’t have a car, but Cheiker could walk or take public transportation almost anywhere she needed to go. The neighborhood was always bustling. The popular farmers market and the open air shopping mall known as The Grove were just steps away. She often saw celebrities on the street. Her favorite was Peter Falk, TV’s Lt. Columbo.

When Fannie Cheiker died in 1992 at 101, Cheiker had no family left, but she said the solitude never bothered her.

For years, she has been comforted by voices in her head. One voice more than any other: a man named Monay. He would talk to her of the future but would occasionally comment on the present.

“I don’t know when it started,” she said. “I’ve just sort of lived with it.”

Cheiker said she doesn’t remember exactly when Barbara and Nicholas Davis disrupted her quiet life, only that she developed a bond with them quickly.

Cheiker said it’s possible she met the Davises while her mother was alive but she couldn’t recall those details.

She did remember, though, that Nicholas Davis told her something that captivated her: He said he could hear Monay.

• • • • •

It wasn’t long before the Davises started coming to Cheiker’s house every day.

“I didn’t trust them at all and I tried to warn Sarah,” said Jim Caccavo, a longtime neighbor who still lives in the same neighborhood. “Everything they told her was bull, but she believed them.”

Several years earlier, between 1999 and 2001, Cheiker had taken out three different life insurance policies totaling about $200,000. They were annuity investments, which meant her contributions were converted to regular payments that would supplement her Social Security benefits.

In December 2005, Cheiker named Nicholas Davis as the primary beneficiary on all three contracts, listing him as a “long-time family friend.”

The following April, Cheiker met again with her attorney to make additional changes about how her finances should be handled, including transferring ownership of her house into the Sarah Cheiker Living Trust, which was controlled by Davis.

At that point, the attorney grew concerned and contacted Cheiker’s physician. The doctor told that Cheiker “talks to supernatural beings” and “hears voices,” but concluded that her patient had the mental capacity to make financial decisions.

By the end of 2006, every legal document in Cheiker’s name – her will, a power of attorney, an advance health care directive – included Nicholas Davis’ name.

“I trusted them,” she said. “And for a while, they never gave me a reason not to.”

That changed in November 2007.

A fire broke out in the attic of her house, causing heavy damage to the roof. Cheiker was home at the time, as were the Davises. Investigators could not determine the cause, but Caccavo suspects it was started intentionally.

The house was uninhabitable, so Cheiker went to live with the Davises in their own house on Highland Avenue, several blocks away.

Barbara Davis operated a business there, Power Psychic, where she did tarot and palm readings. Two other people also lived there: Jonathan Stevens, identified as a godson to Barbara and Nicholas but who bore a striking resemblance to both, and Amanda Stevens, a goddaughter.

Cheiker’s house was insured and she received a claim of $140,000 after the fire. By that time, Nicholas Davis was controlling her finances.

News of the fire had reached one of Cheiker’s distant relatives in New York, Dawn Good Elk, the stepdaughter of Sarah’s brother, Abraham.

Good Elk wanted to know if Cheiker was OK. She had tried to reach her without success, so she filed a missing person report with Los Angeles police. They spoke with several people, including Caccavo. Police eventually found Cheiker with the Davises. She had been sleeping on their couch.

In a police report, an officer wrote that Cheiker “became somewhat indignant” when questioned about money and told them “she could spend her finances however she desired.”

Sarah Cheiker lived in this neighborhood on Edinburgh Avenue in Los Angeles until 2008. Cheiker disappeared in 2008 and was found three years later in Fryeburg, Maine, where she currently lives. Her home was bulldozed in 2008 and replaced by a bigger house.

Sarah Cheiker lived in this neighborhood on Edinburgh Avenue in Los Angeles until 2008. Cheiker disappeared in 2008 and was found three years later in Fryeburg, Maine, where she currently lives. Her home was bulldozed in 2008 and replaced by a bigger house. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via MCT)

She never moved back into her own house. It was sold in 2008 for $712,000 and then torn down, a new house built in its place.

• • • • •

Not long after the fire, the Davises packed up and left California. Before they did, Nicholas Davis cashed out the three life insurance policies in Cheiker’s name, worth about $200,000.

Using her money, they embarked on a cross-country journey. Cheiker went too, as did Jonathan and Amanda Stevens.

They stopped often, sometimes for weeks at a time, to meet with acquaintances of the Davises – other nomads, Cheiker said. Nicholas Davis told her that Monay assured him everything was OK but also advised her not to talk to anyone. So she didn’t.

The Davises had always taken care of her, but things began to change. They would often leave her in motel rooms for days at a time, stopping in only to bring her food.

They began to manipulate her, too, she said, creating fictional people and trying to convince her they were real.

Then, their treatment got worse.

Barbara Davis once tried to push Cheiker, in her wheelchair, down a flight of stairs. Nicholas Davis once covered her face with bubble wrap to try to suffocate her, she said.

By 2010, roughly two years after leaving Los Angeles, Cheiker and the Davises arrived on the other side of the country – in Maine.

The first sign that the Davises had settled here showed up in September 2010. Barbara Davis applied for a business permit to operate a “psychic palm and tarot reading” business on Main Street in Wiscasset.

Near the end of 2010, the Davises used Cheiker’s money to purchase property in the western Maine town of Rumford – five properties, all owned by Peter and Becky Robichaud. Collectively, the properties totaled $590,000 – almost as much as the profit on Cheiker’s house in California.

It’s not clear if any money actually changed hands between the Stevenses – acting on behalf of the Davises – and the Robichauds, but the real estate transactions were reversed about six months later.

Repeated attempts to reach the Robichauds over several weeks were unsuccessful.

Shortly after the Davises undid those real estate transactions, people started asking questions about an old woman who was staying in a tiny cabin halfway up the coast of Maine.

It was Jonathan Stevens who dropped Cheiker off at the Pine Crest Motor Lodge on Route 27 in Edgecomb, a pass-through town on the way to Boothbay Harbor, in June 2011.

He paid for the room in cash for several weeks and told the motel manager, Jerry Pike, that the occupant was a middle-aged artist who didn’t like to be bothered. Pike gave Stevens the key to Cabin 7, one of the smallest.

In 2012, Cheiker was found alone in this Edgecomb cabin. The Davises and their godson were charged with endangering the welfare of a dependent, got probation, and, police say, haven't been seen since.

In 2012, Cheiker was found alone in this Edgecomb cabin. The Davises and their godson were charged with endangering the welfare of a dependent, got probation, and, police say, haven’t been seen since. (Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Several days later, Pike grew concerned about the woman in Cabin 7. No one had visited her in several days and the blinds were drawn. He knocked on the door and no one answered. Eventually, he called police.

Brian Collamore, a deputy at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, responded. He, too, tried knocking on the door. After a few minutes of silence, Collamore asked Pike for the room key. Just as he was about to use it, the door opened.

Standing before them was a frail, elderly woman holding herself up with a walker. She was wearing a lime green T-shirt, socks and nothing else.

• • • • •

Collamore began to question Cheiker. She told the deputy about the Davises and said they would be back for her. She was wary of his questions but finally relented.

The couple had been keeping her “under wraps” for the last four years, she said.

The cabin was a mess, according to the police report. What little food she had was old, some of it moldy. There was no air conditioning in the cabin and Cheiker hadn’t opened any windows. The temperature inside was in the 90s.

Paramedics were called. Cheiker’s pulse rate was 48 beats per minute, well below the normal adult rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. She was taken to the closest hospital, in Damariscotta.

Lincoln County deputies set out to find Nicholas and Barbara Davis in Wiscasset, in the apartment above Barbara’s tarot card shop.

They interviewed Nicholas Davis first.

“We are told that she has a significant financial background, but yet she is at this little tiny hotel with nothing. It raises a few red flags,” the detective, Kenneth Hatch, said, according to an interview transcript.

Nicholas Davis told the detectives the story about how he knew Cheiker’s mother and about investing her money in real estate. He said they came to Maine because it was quiet.

The detective was unconvinced.

“I can’t wrap my head around the idea of her staying there,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my dog in there.”

Barbara Davis was interviewed next.

Hatch asked her how she came to Maine and who was with her. She mentioned her godchildren, Jonathan and Amanda. “And your husband,” Hatch said. “No, I don’t have a husband,” she said. “He is your boyfriend?” “He is my brother,” Barbara Davis said.

She never mentioned Cheiker until Hatch brought her up.

“We are her family,” the woman said.

Jonathan Stevens was at the apartment, too, so Hatch questioned him, asking what he did for work.

“I will buy and sell stuff,” he said. “If I see a lawnmower, I buy it then sell it and make a little profit on it.”

Stevens then asked Hatch, “How did you find out where we live?”

• • • • •

Barbara and Nicholas Davis were each charged with one felony count of intentionally endangering the welfare of a dependent person.

Stevens was charged with misdemeanor endangerment of a dependent person.

Before the case went to trial, though, they each entered pleas of nolo contendere – essentially pleading guilty without admitting guilt.

A judge sentenced the Davises to three years in prison, all suspended, and two years of probation. Stevens got 364 days, all suspended, and one year of probation.

None of them served any time in jail. Cheiker got $5,000 in restitution.

Prior to the guilty plea, there were discussions of greater restitution, according to court documents.

The Davises had offered to pay back $100,000 in exchange for reduced charges – misdemeanors instead of felonies, according to court documents

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wright, rejected the offer.

Wright no longer works for the Lincoln County DA’s office but his then-boss, District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau, said he would have advised Wright to dismiss that offer.

“To me, it would be repulsive for the defendants to buy their way out of it with her money,” Rushlau said.

He also said the state of Maine had no jurisdiction over any alleged theft because that occurred in another state. The endangerment charges were really all the state could bring.

Richard Elliott, an attorney who represented the Davises, said he believes the charges were overblown.

“With all the investigation they have done, there is nothing that showed financial advantage was taken,” he said.

The Davises and Stevenses were allowed to serve their probation out of state. So they left.

Sarah Cheiker now lives at the Fryeburg Health and Residential Center.

Sarah Cheiker now lives at the Fryeburg Health and Residential Center. (Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Cheiker never saw them again. Upon release from the hospital in Damariscotta, she became a ward of the state of Maine. She was placed in a nursing home in Fryeburg, where she has lived ever since.

• • • • •

Maine Legal Services for the Elderly learned about Cheiker after she was found in the Edgecomb cabin.

The nonprofit organization helped provide her with an attorney, Lambert, who appointed a conservator, or legal guardian, Linda Russell, an attorney in Oxford County near where Cheiker would be living.

Russell assumed control over what little money Cheiker had left – mostly her Social Security benefits – which went to the nursing home. She hired a personal care assistant, Terry Robinson, to visit Cheiker a couple of times a week, mostly to keep her company.

Lambert, meanwhile, filed a civil lawsuit. His goal was to recoup Cheiker’s money, or as much as he could.

Once the Davises and Stevenses were notified of the lawsuit, they filed for bankruptcy. In court documents in California, they listed virtually no assets.

That was curious for two reasons: Only months earlier, they had apparently offered to pay $100,000 in restitution. And a little more than a year before that, they canceled the real estate deals in Rumford, collectively worth about $590,000.

A bankruptcy judge in California wrote in March 2014 that they “failed to explain what happened to the $600,000 taken from the sale of Ms. Cheiker’s home, not to mention any other assets stolen from her. The suggestion that the money was all abandoned to the Robichauds is an unsatisfactory explanation and not supported by anything other than a conclusory statement.”

In short, the Davises were not allowed to go through with bankruptcy and the civil suit in Maine could proceed.

In September 2015, the civil trial was held in Oxford County Superior Court. Lambert and Russell represented Cheiker. The defendants didn’t show.

In January of this year, Justice Robert Clifford ruled in Cheiker’s favor – a $2 million judgment against the Davises.

Yet without any way to track down the pair, the judgment means little.

At some point after the criminal case ended, the FBI got involved. Court documents and discussions with Cheiker indicate that the federal agency was looking into whether the Davises may have been connected to a larger criminal enterprise led by fortune-tellers.

Cheiker met last year with an FBI agent at the Fryeburg nursing home, who asked her about the Davises, including what she knew about their background.

The agent also spoke with Caccavo, Cheiker’s former neighbor.

“I said, ‘Is she still alive?’ ” Caccavo recalled.

But that case appeared to stall. Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank in Portland worked with the FBI, even presenting the case to a grand jury, unsuccessfully.

Frank told Cheiker this year that the FBI didn’t have the resources to keep going after the Davises. The case would be closed.

Linda Russell, Cheiker’s guardian, could petition the FBI to release its files. But that would take time and money – two things Cheiker doesn’t have.

Monay, the voice in her head, still talks to her sometimes, but he doesn’t tell her how this all ends.

Asked if she would like to go home if she could, Cheiker replied, “What home?”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.