Rita Maze called her husband and daughter from the trunk of a car somewhere along a Montana highway.
The 47-year-old woman, a mother and beloved elementary school cook in Great Falls, had been kidnapped Tuesday morning from a rest stop near Wolf Creek along Interstate 15 on the way home from Helena. Her assailant – whom she described to her family as “a large man in a black hoodie” – had hit her on the head and put her into a trunk of her black Pontiac Grand Prix.
Her husband and daughter had police on the other line and relayed what Maze was telling them.
Hours later, police in Spokane found her body still in the trunk, her car parked in an industrial area near the Spokane airport. She used her cellphone during her abduction, providing investigators with what they hope are clues that might help to solve the mystery of her death.
First, she called her husband and daughter, talking to them on and off through spotty cell coverage in the mountainous drive through Montana and Idaho. Later she talked to a Helena police officer.
Her daughter, Rochelle Maze, said Maze had a gun in her car. “She knew he had her gun and she was terrified,” her daughter said Wednesday. “He kept her in the trunk for 12 hours.”
Rochelle Maze said her mother was hysterical on the phone and was hard to understand. She didn’t know if there was more than one kidnapper.
Said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, “She didn’t know her location, but she was able to talk to them over her cellphone, sporadically, as coverage faded in and out. Rita was able to tell us she thought she had stopped at a rest stop south of Craig (Montana). There’s only one that I know of down there, so we’re processing that as a crime scene.”
Dutton said investigators have identified a person of interest in the case, but a name and other information have not been released. FBI agents in Spokane are assisting with the investigation and the FBI likely will become the lead agency in the case, Special Agent Christian Parker said.
Maze had been visiting her mother in Helena, friends of the family said on a GoFundMe page. She was traveling home to Great Falls on Interstate 15 when she stopped at a rest area about 11 a.m., Dutton said.
Her husband reported her missing at about 8:20 p.m.
Dutton said a license-plate reader logged Maze’s car passing through Post Falls. The Helena Police Department alerted Spokane authorities about 10 p.m. that Maze might be in the area, and investigators pinged cellphone towers to trace her to the industrial area on Geiger Boulevard.
The parking lot where police found Maze inside the trunk of her car is about a mile after Geiger Boulevard turns from pavement to crushed rock. There, the road parallels the highway, separated by a low fence. Low evergreen bushes ring the lot on the north side of the road.
Deputies from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office found Maze there, dead in the trunk, about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. They searched the car for evidence and will be running forensic tests in hopes of finding clues, spokesman Deputy Mark Gregory said. Authorities notified Maze’s family of her death about 1 a.m.
The Spokane County Medical Examiner will release her cause of death.
The FBI’s Parker said authorities were waiting to release information about a suspect until conflicting bits of information could be resolved.
“Right now, we’ve got a couple of things that aren’t quite lining up with each other,” he said.
Maze worked for years as a cook at Morningside Elementary in Great Falls.
“She, one, had such a positive presence,” said Bill Salonen, a former principal at Morningside.
Salonen said he held high expectations for his school employees. They don’t just serve food or clean classrooms; they also have to connect with kids.
“And really, Rita was the epitome of that,” Salonen said. “I could really trust that she was really going to take care of kids and build that trust.”
Maze also had a son and two grandchildren.
Staff writer Rachel Alexander and the Great Falls Tribune contributed to this story.
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