Mesfin wore a fanny pack around her waist to store the ink pens she liked to collect, tissues, ibuprofen, bandages and a little knife she used to cut the fruit that seemed to be the only thing she ate. Firm but kind, she addressed coworkers with the endearment “darling,” mentoring them on life issues as well as cleaning tasks. Diaz recalled: “She wanted me to not hold grudges and get along with everybody.”
But Mesfin suffered from heart problems apparently caused by a virus. Emergency room visits generated medical bills. The stress, on top of how hard she worked and the fitful sleep she likely got in her car, caught up with her.
The week before she went missing, Mesfin had told Diaz she wasn’t feeling well because of her blood pressure and an inability to relieve herself.
“When you saw her at work, she always looked so tired,” Diaz recalled. “At the last break, she would go to the cafeteria and immediately put her head down and knock out for 15 minutes. I’d sit at the table next to her and watch her. I’d have to wake her up.”
But Mesfin never complained, Diaz added: “She’d just get up and go back to work. She was never sitting down. Never. Unless it was to take her break.”
When her supervisor would ask if anyone wanted to do an extra shift, Mesfin, who had seniority, always did.
“She would work six days whenever that was offered,” said Heather Rodriguez, who worked occasionally with Mesfin over a two-year period up until 2015. “She never called in sick as far as I know.”
Rodriguez, 28, recalled spotting her old colleague at a Del Taco one summer day in 2016 and being alarmed by the unkempt appearance of the baggy sweatshirt and cargo pants Mesfin wore. But Rodriguez didn’t approach Mesfin, thinking she would not be remembered.
That missed opportunity makes Rodriguez cry with regret.
“I should have gone up to her and said something,” she said in a shaking voice. “Maybe I would have got some information from her.”
Debt and determination
Mindy Martin, another coworker who became a close friend, did coax the truth from Mesfin.
In the six years that Martin worked with Mesfin, Mesfin never invited any coworkers to visit where she lived. If asked about her home life, she would only mention a mysterious roommate.
But in early 2016, Mesfin asked Martin if she could have her mail sent to Martin’s home, saying she didn’t want her roommate to see her correspondence. That made Martin suspicious. So did the constant mail Mesfin got: envelopes with the words “Final Notice” and “Please Respond Immediately” stamped on them.
Under Martin’s questioning, Mesfin finally revealed she had lived out of her car for at least six years, kept her belongings in three rented storage units, and cleaned herself at a 24 Hour Fitness gym, whose location she did not disclose. Mesfin said she was determined to pay off her bills — credit card payments and payday loans — before seeking a place to stay.
Martin never dared ask how deep she was in debt.
“As hard as it was, I just had to leave it alone.”
Martin said Mesfin also wired hundreds of dollars every other week or so to people she said were relatives, but Isayas said he had no knowledge of that.
“She had money going everywhere except to herself,” Martin said.
Occasionally, Mesfin booked a motel room so she could sleep better. She turned down an offer to stay at Martin’s home because she was afraid of dogs, telling Martin she had been attacked once.
Martin suggested calling a homeless shelter, but Mesfin countered that there were no shelters where she could sleep during the day and leave for work at night. If Martin tried to give Mesfin money, she’d return it unspent.
“As hard as it was,” Martin said of her frustrating attempts to help her friend, “I just had to leave it alone.”Yeweinishet “Weini” Mesfin, a night janitor at Disneyland Resort, poses for a playful photo during one of her shifts. Mesfin was homeless and living out of her car, a secret she kept from family and coworkers. She died in her car in late 2016. (Photo courtesy of Mindy Martin)