ROCKAWAY PARK — Leslie Mahoney got the call some time in November 2011 from her friend, Karen Mary Connors, who everybody called "KC."
Connors had been sick with cancer and was headed to the hospital, but it wasn't serious, she told Mahoney. They chatted briefly, talking about the upcoming holidays until Connors said she had to go.
"Her last words to me were, 'here's my ride,'" Mahoney, 67, who lives in Belle Harbor, said. Mahoney never heard from Connors again, and assumed she had moved down to her house in Miami Beach — where Connors had always joked she'd go if she was sick because at least it was warm.
But Connors — an eccentric, funny woman who would often split time between Rockaway and Florida — died Nov 18, 2011 inside Peninsula Hospital Center, which closed soon after her death, according to city records.
Although Connors had considerable assets, she didn't have any heirs, and she was buried on the city's Potter's Field on Hart Island, plot #354.
But prosecutors said her death remained a mystery to her neighbors for years — in large part due to the scheming of Donata Rea, 53, who the Queens District Attorney's office says siphoned approximately $1.3 million from Connors' estate by pretending Connors was still very much alive.
Not everyone believed her, including Tina Lopez, who — in the narrow degrees of separation that tie together nearly everyone who lives in Rockaway — signed an agreement with Rea to rent an apartment at 178 Beach 120th St. in December 2013 that, unbeknownst to her, actually belonged to Connors.
Lopez had been living in that apartment with her two daughters for about a month when Connors' old friend, Mahoney, came by for a visit. Lopez had known Connors years before from their work in real estate — but she hadn't known where she lived.
Mahoney said the minute "I went to that house and saw Tina was there, I knew something was wrong."
But when they asked Rea, who also goes by Donna, where to find Connors, Rea told them she was taking care of her at a nursing home in Florida, they said.
"Everyone spoke to Donna. Donna said, 'she’s in a nursing home in Florida,'" Lopez said.
But when they asked which one, so they could contact her or go down to visit, they said Rea refused to tell them, insisting she was fine.
The friends grew so concerned that they began calling around to every nursing home they could find in Florida.
Lopez went as far as to hire a private investigator to look for Connors.
"We were fixated on Florida," Lopez said. "We were trying to find her, we were really trying."
The pair had no proof that Rea's cover story was wrong, but they said their instinct was clear.
"She’s lying," they thought. But they never imagined just how far Rea had gone to cover her tracks, according to prosecutors. And they never thought to look for their wealthy friend in the potter's field at Hart Island.
"The simplest explanation, I never thought of," Lopez said.
Lopez was so upset that Rea was hiding Connors' whereabouts from them and was not the lawful owner of the home that she began withholding rent money in a bid to demand Rea give up the truth.
Rea eventually hauled Lopez to court and had her successfully evicted, records show — despite the fact that the power of attorney that Rea fabricated to take over control of the property bore a signature claiming to be Connors' a year after her death.
David Behar, of Tristate Property Management, who Rea hired to take care of Connors' house in February 2015, said Rea also claimed to him that Connors was alive in Florida. He said she also showed him the notarized power of attorney document that the district attorney later found to be a fake.
Behar said when Lopez and another tenant complained to him that Rea wasn't the real owner, he assumed they were just disgruntled tenants, he said.
"I had no idea until I got the phone call from the DA and called Donna and said 'what the hell is going on?'" he said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this."
Lopez said she reported the allegations multiple times throughout the years, but her pleas to officials fell on deaf ears until the Department of Investigation began to probe Rea's application for more than $60,000 in Build It Back funds to restore Connors' homes.
Rea relied on the same forged power of attorney document to apply for the federally-funded post-Hurricane Sandy construction work at Connors' home at 178 Beach 120th St., prosecutors said.
Friends say they don't understand why the public administrator didn't immediately take control of Connors' estate, as they are supposed to do after a person dies without heirs.
Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner's Office, wrote in an email that they have a "longstanding practice of notifying the Public Administrator" when those without next-of-kin die.
"We have no reason to believe that notification did not happen in this case," she said.
But the administrator did not seem to know about Connors until last fall, when the DA began investigating Rea's alleged scheme. The public administrator now has control of her accounts, which prosecutors say were drained of hundreds of thousands of dollars by Rea.
City records show Rea, whose lawyer said was "very good friends" with Connors and took care of her before she died, transferred both 178 and 174 Beach 120th St. to a living trust she created in Connors' name in 2015.
She sold Connors' properties in Miami Beach, transferred access to Connors' bank account over to herself, and took jewelry and furniture from Connors' home, prosecutors said. She then sold Connors' Rockaway house for $800,000 last fall, prosecutors said.
Rea pleaded not guilty last week to the charges, which includes grand larceny and operating a forged instrument and she could get up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
Still, her lawyer Joe Mure maintains she had no idea Connors was deceased — and could not explain how Connors' signature appeared on the power of attorney after her death.
"Donna was unaware she passed away," Mure told DNAinfo New York. "If Donna would have known she passed away, she would have helped her."
The arrest closed one part of the chapter for Connors, who friends said worked as a real estate investor and also subsisted on renting out 174 Beach 120th Street for rental income while living in 178 Beach 120th St.
Her father, Martin M. Connors, was a fireman and then a lawyer. He died when Connors was a teenager, according to newspaper articles at the time. Her mother, Edna Mary, died in the late 1970s, leaving KC Connors with the two houses on Beach 120th Street.
Connors graduated from St. Leo College in Florida in 1972, where she studied theater and philosophy, according to a post at the time in the local newspaper, The Wave.
She was an actress, appearing occasionally on the soap operas "One Life to Live" and "All My Children," along with films including "Network," according to an article posted in The Wave five years later.
Connors had filmed a parody of the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, titled "Amarasco," that was set to air on PBS, the article said.
As she grew older, she continued to pursue her life on her own terms, friends said.
"She did a little bit of everything, whenever she wanted," Mahoney said.
Connors was a season ticket holder to the New York Yankees, giving away tickets to the biggest games to friends and neighbors.
Although she was wealthy, she preferred used cars, and Mahoney recalled the two of them piling into the back of a "junky" old station wagon to buy knock-off designer bags nearly 15 years ago.
Connors would search for fake Louis Vuitton bags down dark alleys in Chinatown, smooth-talking her way to a discount and filling the back of her car with nearly all the ones she could buy, Mahoney said.
"And then everybody in Rockaway had designer bags," Mahoney said. "She was good people."
But she was also concerned that people were interested in her for her money, which often made her wary of "fair-weather friends," friends said.
Lois Rosenblatt, the borough's public administrator, told DNAinfo that Connors' body will be exhumed and buried at St. Charles Cemetery, near her parents who are in a national cemetery on Long Island.
It brought peace of mind to Mahoney, who said she cried reading about where her friend was buried.
"She did not deserve that," she said.