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Arrest said to be near in case of woman whose remains were found in car

This story contains graphic descriptions.

Police say they are nearing an arrest in the gruesome case of a woman with ties to Fort Worth whose mummified remains were driven around for months in a car in California.

Costa Mesa officers discovered Signe Margit, 59, in the front passenger seat on the evening of Oct. 18. Her body had withered from roughly 120 pounds to 30.

Margit, who police were told earned two master's degrees, had once lived and worked in Fort Worth, helping people with disabilities, friends said. She was a former Texas Workforce Commission employee and had teaching credentials in California. Relatives said she was an accomplished oboe player who, other sources said, may have played for the local civic orchestra.

In the end, she was homeless and penniless.

In October, California officers found a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis partially blocking a driveway to a residence. Officers noticed a foul odor emanating from the vehicle.

One officer spotted what appeared to be a leg protruding from underneath clothing piled on the front seat.

An officer tried to stir the person. When there was no response, officers broke out a window and entered the car, said Lt. Bryan Glass of the Costa Mesa Police Department. Police found the body of a woman who had long been deceased.

The driver of the Marquis was a real estate agent who may have also been homeless. The woman told police that she let Margit sleep in the car after she found her in a park. She has not been arrested.

A California coroner could not determine the cause of death, Sgt. Ed Everett said. However, police say they know more to her story but aren't ready to share details. "I hope to make an arrest at some point in the near future," Everett said. "I'm just waiting for the nod from our district attorney's office."

A relative said the coroner did find evidence of methamphetamine. Before Margit disappeared, her younger sister had noticed that Margit had grown thin "and her teeth were falling out," said one of Margit's brothers, Mark Smeby of Decorah, Iowa.

Officers eventually learned that Margit's family had reported her missing in December 2009.

But relatives said Margit had a history of disappearing for months or even years at a time.

'Kind of private'

Margit was one of five children of a Lutheran pastor. She earned a degree in social work at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, her brother said.

Her brother said that Margit gave away everything she had more than once. She was "a little too kindhearted," Smeby said, recalling that she once angered her father by giving away a car he had given her.

Liz Torres, a management support specialist at the Department of Assistive Rehabilitative Services in Fort Worth, said she knew Margit since the early 1990s. Both worked at the Texas Workforce Commission before coming to DARS, formerly the Texas Rehabilitation Commission.

Torres remembered her friend as a free-spirited, generous person with a penchant for unusual jewelry. "She would do anything for anybody. She was just a very helpful lady," she said. "She never looked at the negative side of things."

Torres said she believes that one of Margit's master's degrees was related to her work as a rehabilitation counselor.

Margit appears to have moved often after leaving Texas. She held a pre-intern certificate and worked in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001-02, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing records show. And in 2003, while living in Los Angeles, she paid on a civil case over a lease.

By 2004, Margit had moved north to an apartment in Chehalis, Wash., though her time there was one of struggle. In October 2004, she filed for bankruptcy.

She listed $6,000 in assets, including $50 in jewelry and $100 in clothing, and $30,000 in debts. At the time she also owned a 1999 Toyota Corolla. Her bankruptcy attorney, who handles hundreds of cases a year, did not recall Margit.

Torres said Margit returned to Fort Worth around 2006. Her last contact with Margit was in 2006 or 2007, when Margit sent her an e-mail saying hello.

"She was kind of private in some things," Torres said. "She didn't really say a lot about herself."

Margit's mother expected her on Christmas Day in 2009, Smeby said. Margit had sounded chipper on the phone. "I'll see you for Christmas," she told the family.

Her mother called her every day after that. The phone had been paid for, and Margit's voice was on the answering machine, but she never called back.

A check that her mother had sent her for $500 got cashed.

But because of her history of disappearing, it was roughly three months before the family began looking for her in earnest.

Only recently, her car, a Honda Civic, turned up at a driving school, her brother said.

Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126

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