ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The scantily clad woman on South Lindbergh rested two suitcases and a heavy brown coat on a bus stop bench. Hands free in the heat of the day last week, she fanned herself and explained that the heavy coat was for sleeping out at night.
She picked up garbage around the bus stop shelter. When a car honked, she smiled and waved.
The woman is a south St. Louis County fixture, so much so that many call her South County Cindy. Or SoCo Cindy. Or Affton Cindy. Or merely that lady pulling too much luggage. Or worse things.
There aren’t any other women with bleached blond hair, pink bikini top and pink fingernails bending over in the street to pick up what other people throw out. Sometimes she disappears for months, hitching rides to places such as New Jersey, California and Florida. But she always comes back to south St. Louis County.
It’s where she’s from.
And though for years she has walked into businesses to wash herself and repack her bags, her profile has changed recently, courtesy of social media.
Cindy is no different than scores of other people who fall outside the limited grasp of the mental health system. There are no easy solutions for what to do with people like her. But in her case, she’s become so visible.
Strings of photographs have shown up on Facebook and Twitter with the latest Cindy sightings. Taken by a paparazzi of spotters with cellphone cameras, the photos indicate an urge to publicize the plight of a woman set apart.
There Cindy is, walking at 4 p.m. near Tesson Ferry and Gravois roads, according to one photo and caption. On another day, she’s “on the move” in Fenton. Or on West Woodbine in Kirkwood.
Running lists of commentary, reminiscent of a schoolyard rumor mill, mount with each post. Some fawn over Cindy, a woman they’ve grown up with and want to keep safe. But the tenor of the comments often becomes comedic, even cruel.
“I think I’ll be Cindy for Halloween,” somebody wrote on one Facebook page, only later to ask followers if anybody had seen Cindy after a storm.
Some residents aren’t amused.
Melanie Martin, 22, said “any reasonable person, homeless or not,” wouldn’t want random people taking their photograph everywhere they went.
“The homeless cannot afford the luxury to live behind private walls, but that does not mean they do not deserve their own privacy,” she told the Post-Dispatch.
Still, the effort builds steam. One Facebook page has garnered more than 14,000 “likes.” Another was recently taken down by its creator after she grew concerned about the mocking tone of the comments. The publicity has caught the attention of radio, television and online reporters compelled by the story of mysterious Cindy — the lady everybody has seen but nobody knows.
The websites have also caught the attention of Cindy’s family, who, contrary to multiple online suspicions, are not wealthy.
They know Cindy as Cynthia Marie Mueller. She is 54. She has a father. She has siblings. She has a son, though she doesn’t have custody. She has a goddaughter.
And she has been diagnosed with mental illness — schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, her father says — and doesn’t believe she needs help.
“That was the trouble. She wouldn’t take her medication,” Clarence Mueller, 87, a widower and former factory worker, said of his daughter.
“At least I know she’s still okay,” he said of the social media attention.
‘SHE WAS A GOOD KID’
Cynthia Mueller dropped out of Affton High School in the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t until her early 20s that family members started noticing major changes in her behavior. They had to call the police several times. They had her committed to a state mental hospital four times, but she never stayed more than two weeks.
Argumentative isn’t strong enough to describe the reach of her behavior, said her father. She has resorted to screaming and violence, such as smashing a window.
“She was a good kid, but you can only put up with so much,” Clarence said. “She doesn’t want anybody telling her what to do. She blows her top. She takes off walking and talking.”
Since her mother died of a heart attack in 1997, Cindy isn’t allowed inside her family’s home. Her father collects her mail and talks to her from the front porch.
Records show Cindy pleaded guilty in 2003 to third-degree assault on a police officer in St. Louis County. She’s been arrested for soliciting rides in Ohio, criminal trespass in Arizona, loitering in South Carolina and walking on the wrong side of the highway in Iowa. They are all common charges for homeless people suffering from mental illness.
Her family said public defenders had argued on her behalf that she’s not bothering anybody — often, she is just looking for work.
A few months ago, right before Mass started at Seven Holy Founders Catholic Church in the Affton area, Cindy announced her presence and asked if anybody needed something cleaned. She has a vast circuit of stops and often travels with her own trash bags, and even aerosol spray, to clean bathrooms she comes across.
She sleeps on benches, under bridges and in post office foyers. When she scrounges enough money, she gets a cheap hotel.
Many people have tried to help her.
“She’s just another example of the failure of our mental health system,” said Daniel Duffy, police chief in Lakeshire, a small municipality near Tesson Ferry and Reavis roads.
Duffy said he once called “every mental health advocate” he could get hold of and was told there was nothing they could do because Cindy wasn’t homicidal or suicidal. So now he looks out for her. He has followed cars that pick her up, only to see men push her out a few blocks later.
He’s never authorized an arrest of her, he said, because “it doesn’t do any good.”
Darwyn Walker, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it was difficult to treat people who don’t want help. Even if they did, it can be hard. There are few beds, and effective treatment can be costly. Jails, prisons and halfway houses become the main mental health safety net.
Walker said there were thousands of homeless people like Cindy. She’s just more noticeable in south St. Louis County than she would be in the city.
“This is not a new world for her,” he said. “Somehow, she went all this time without successful care and treatment, to the point that nobody knows what to do with her.”
While on South Lindbergh last week, Cindy said in an interview that she didn’t have a case worker. She said her doctor told her she was fine. She said she didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs.
Meanwhile, she tried to dodge George Riley, 29, who pulled up and got out of his car. He’d grown up in the area and left for a stint in the military. Now he was back. He told her he’d been following her on Facebook.
“Do you mind if I get my picture taken with you?” he asked.
Cindy declined the photo op and scuttled down to the bus stop.
She said that she had noticed people taking her picture but that she didn’t use computers. Shown copies of a recent Facebook page titled “South County Cindy,” she reacted the same way many people do when they see photos of themselves.
“Ooh, that looks terrible,” Cindy said. “That really hurts my feelings. I like to look my best when my picture is taken.”
“Tell them I’ll be fine. They don’t need to be tracking me.”
She cut off the interview, and soon Maureen Davis, 71, walking under the shade of an umbrella, approached the bus stop. Davis was familiar with the tan woman with two suitcases and a jacket. Davis said she had offered the homeless woman gift cards in the past, but only once, when it was cold outside, did the woman accept $5.
On this day last week, Davis was on the receiving end, offered a cold drink. Davis declined. She had a bus arriving soon. The women parted.