A woman of mystery
● By J. Chambless
There is a one dollar bill on Eileen Law’s desk.
Each morning, when the private investigator arrives at her Kennett Square office, she sees the dollar bill and she thinks about Toni Lee Sharpless, the nurse and mother who disappeared without a trace on Aug. 23, 2009.
That’s not to suggest that Eileen needs a reminder to think about Sharpless, of course. This case, like so many others before it, has become much more than a work assignment for the private investigator whose illustrious, 35-year career has included so many missing persons cases, investigations of kidnapped children, and searches for biological families.
Ask her about what she likes most about her work, and Eileen doesn’t hesitate—it is being able to help others when they need it. She likes being able to set things right, no matter how much of a challenge that is.
“People who prey on the innocent,” she pauses. “I will not stand for that. “I believe in justice. I always go after justice.”
Eileen is motivated to try to find Sharpless because there is a daughter who has now grown up missing her mother. Sharpless’ mother is missing her daughter and wants and deserves answers. For Eileen, the business of private investigating has always been about helping someone else. If she can play a role in solving the mystery of the Toni Sharpless disappearance, just as she has solved so many others, she will return that dollar on her desk to the Sharpless family. Solving this mystery, indeed her entire career, has been built not on money, but on trying to give people peace of mind.
Mystery writer Sue Grafton could have written an entire A to Z mystery series based on the cases that Eileen has worked as the president of CIA, Inc. of Kennett Square. The “CIA” stands for Confidential Investigation Agency, and for the most part much of Eileen’s work has been accomplished very quietly. She is respected by her peers, and anyone who meets her leaves amazed by her stories and her dazzling personality. How she became such an accomplished woman of mystery is quite a story.
When Eileen was growing up outside West Chester, she was one of 10 children in a very strict Catholic family.
“I’m very thankful for the upbringing that I had,” she said, explaining that she had a lot of discipline in her life.
During her childhood, Eileen was friends with “Theresa,” a girl from school who was herself a woman of mystery. “Theresa” didn’t know who her biological parents were, and through the friendship Law realized what a huge difference that could make in a person’s life. It was something she would always keep in my mind later on in life when her private investigation work involved helping someone find a biological parent. Gaining an understanding about the importance of being able to help someone in that situation also may have nudged Eileen in the direction of her career choice.
On the day after her high school graduation, Eileen’s father took her to the Chester County Courthouse to test for a job. She was hired as the secretary in the office of the District Attorney that same day.
On her lunch breaks at the job, she would sometimes pick up law books and read them.
“I just fell in love with the law,” she explained. “My father wanted me to be an attorney in the worst way.”
While working in the office of the Chester County District Attorney, Eileen was reminded of a notorious crime that had occurred not far from where she had grown up in Chester County. Eileen said that she was haunted by the case because of its proximity to her own home, and the fact that the victim was just a few years older than she was.
Mary Constance “Connie” Evans left her home on Phoenixville Pike in West Goshen on Saturday, Oct. 24. It was her 15th birthday. She was on her way to meet her boyfriend, who was going to accompany her into West Chester so that she could do a little shopping for a birthday present. Connie never made it to see her boyfriend that day. She disappeared, and a little later in the afternoon her boyfriend showed up at the Evans' home asking about her.
Connie’s mother contacted the West Goshen Police Department right away. Local law enforcement assembled a search team, and the authorities and two hundred volunteers were soon combing the area for clues about the missing girl.
Eileen recalled that during the days and weeks after the girl’s disappearance, everyone in the area was on edge. Eileen’s own mother wouldn’t let her ride her bike for a two-mile trek into town because of the fear that had gripped the normally peaceful community.
More than a month after her disappearance, Connie Evans’ body was found not far from the Devon Horse Show grounds. She had been raped and strangled.
Eileen never forgot the horrible nature of the crime, which remained unsolved for years.
She explained, “Connie lived a couple of miles away from where I grew up. Though I never met Connie, her school picture was in the newspaper, and she had the smile of a sweet girl. It haunted me.”
While she was working in the Office of the Chester County District Attorney, Eileen got to know some of the detectives and police officers who worked on the initial investigation of the disappearance. When Eileen became a paralegal, she was able to review some of the police reports that had been issued regarding Connie’s disappearance. She started compiling a folder of information about the Connie Evans case. Eileen vowed to herself that she would find Connie’s killer. And she started taking steps to put herself in a position to do just that.
Eileen enrolled in the Philadelphia Police Academy and after her graduation she was offered a job with the West Chester Police Department and with the Chester County Sheriff’s Department. She chose the position with the Sheriff’s Department, and her law enforcement career was underway. In 1985, she petitioned the Chester County Court of Common Pleas for a license to become a private investigator.
“Then,” she explained, “I was Detective Eileen.”
Detective Eileen has a big personality.
She’s the rare person who is equally comfortable singing, performing on the stage, or pounding on the door of a drug den in a dangerous neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey because that’s where a clue in the Toni Lee Sharpless case has taken her.
That big personality is one reason why she can shine in almost any situation. She has appeared in television commercials for Ultra Brite Toothpaste, 7-Eleven Convenience Stores, and several commercials for the Heartland Corp. She worked on the television show “Disappeared” on the Investigation Discovery Channel. She has also been contacted by three producers who, at various times, wanted to base a series on her life and career. She also had a small part in the 2015 movie, “A Rising Tide.”
Eileen started singing and acting in theaters in the tri-state area when she was just seven years old. She has 10 years of acting training at West Chester University, the Hedgerow Theatre, and Three Little Bakers Theatre, and she took 12 years of vocal training with West Chester University professor Alan Wagner. On the stage, she has portrayed everyone from Miss Harrigan in “Annie” to Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” to Mother Superior in “Nunsense.” She loves working with the Milburn Stone Theatre.
She is the founder and lead singer of a band called Class Act. She plays concert harp, guitar, saxophone and plays hand bells in three area church’s handbell choirs. She was a three-time finalist in the PA American Idol competition and has performed in the Kennett CommUnity Chorus. She is also the former music director of the Bethany Presbyterian Church.
While there are aspects of her professional life that she has enjoyed immensely, Detective Eileen insists that it’s music, not private investigation work, where you can really see her true personality come out.
“Music is what makes tick,” she explained. “I’m a musician. I just love music.”
While she enjoys every opportunity to sing and act, these pursuits have never stopped her from being a dedicated investigator. Private investigators aren’t always portrayed as being diligent and hard working in movies and television shows, but the reality is that a private investigator couldn’t sustain a career without putting in the work.
Eileen has continually worked at expanding her knowledge about how to do her job properly. She attended the Supreme Court of PA Minor Judiciary College, the Dickinson Law School’s Deputy Sheriff’s Academy, and has also taken part in conferences all around the world.
And, as it turns out, Eileen can utilize her talents as a singer and actor when she’s conducting investigations. Once, she pretended to be delivering a singing telegram to a man who was being investigated for leading a separate life with a woman who was not his wife. After delivering the singing telegram—Eileen was more than equal to the task after years of vocal training—she was able to do some detective work and confirm that the man was, in fact, planning to marry another woman in just a few days. She crashed the wedding, confiscated a program and took lots of pictures of the bride and groom.
Eileen also regularly incorporated her acting skills into her work—posing, for example, as a potential homebuyer in the neighborhood when she’s looking for a person.
Just as she utilizes her singing and acting skills in her work, Eileen also relies on the life lessons she has picked up on her journey to help her when she’s doing her detective work. The empathy that she feels for those she is trying to help is heightened by her own personal experiences. She still feels the love for her first husband, David Law—as well as the pain and the loss from when he died of cancer at the age of 32.
In the final months of his life, Eileen had extensive renovations made to their bedroom so that it wouldn’t feel like a room occupied by a person who was sick. She wanted him to be as comfortable as possible. One day, during those final months of David’s life, he had a problem with his port. A visiting nurse who was there that day asked Eileen to move for a minute. She sat down in a new chair that had recently been added to the room. It was soft and cream colored. The way the chair was positioned allowed her to see the setting sun.
“That was the first time that I sat in that chair,” she explained, “and everything looked different. David looked different. He didn’t look sick all of a sudden.”
She learned a valuable lesson in that moment.
“Sometimes,” she explained, “it’s important to just get up and move to a different chair to get a different perspective on things.”
Detective Eileen Law's laws for being a good detective are simple. It comes down to what she calls “the three P’s”: prayer, patience, and persistence.
Through the years, she has worked, and worked tirelessly on hundreds of cases, each one with its own set of unique challenges. The job is never easy.
“I say my prayers every night, asking for wisdom, discernment and guidance,” Eileen explained. “God is the one who guides me.”
Someone who spends their professional life searching for kidnapped children and missing persons certainly needs the guidance. She’s also had loaded guns held to her head a number of times and has had more than a couple of death threats.
Eileen has worked on dozens of cases where children have been kidnapped, and when a case like that comes up, all other work is temporarily set aside because of the urgency of the situation.
While Kennett Square has served as her base of operations, Eileen has traveled far and wide to work on cases. An unavoidable part of the job is tracking down leads that might not lead anywhere—that’s why patience and persistence is so important for private investigators.
On one case that Eileen worked on, she was retained by a woman who did not know her biological parents. She wanted Eileen to track down her mother, and all she had was a name, a date of birth, and a picture of her parents together on their wedding day.
Eileen’s initial attempts at locating the woman didn’t produce results. She kept hitting brick walls. But then her instincts kicked in and, in a flash of inspiration, knew that the person she was looking for was near the town of Pomona. She did a search of all the states that had cities named Pomona, but sensed this particular town was in California. As fate would have it, she was working on another case at the time and she had planned a trip to California to work on that case. She called local law enforcement in Pomona, California, and she also conducted a records search, utilizing what little information she had about the woman. This was before the computer age. Once she was in California and had taken care of the other business, Eileen reached the conclusion that there was one particular neighborhood where she thought the woman she was looking for might be living.
She has learned more than a few investigative tricks through the years, and in situations like this one they can be useful.
She explained, “In virtually every neighborhood, there is a house for sale. So what I will do is search the court records to see who has lived there the longest and then go knock on a door and tell the person that I’m looking at a house in the neighborhood and I want to know what they think about the school system and living there in general. People are usually very receptive to talking about that.”
Eileen had an old picture of the person she was looking for. After she engaged one woman in a conversation, she took out the picture and showed it to her. Eileen covered the face, which had certainly changed a lot through the years, except for the eyes and the nose, which were distinguishing features. Sure enough, the woman was able to direct Eileen to the house where the woman lived.
Connecting the woman with a daughter that she hadn’t seen in many years was the next step—and it’s always difficult.
In this particular case, Eileen knew that the best she could do was deliver a delicate message to the mother who initially denied that she had a daughter.
“I told her that I traveled 3,000 miles to find her and that her daughter had lived every day of life thinking that she had done something wrong. No matter what your reasons for abandoning her, you owe it to her to not carry that burden for the rest of her life,” she explained.
In another instance, a client asked Eileen to find his wife’s biological family, which she was able to do fairly quickly. It turned out that the client owned a publishing company, and after seeing the results that Eileen could produce, he convinced her to write a how-to book on how to find biological parents. The book is titled “Somewhere Out There.”
How does getting a different perspective factor into the detective work? In late December of 1998, several of Eileen’s friends in law enforcement stopped by her Kennett Square office. They noticed a file on her desk titled “Connie Evans.” The conversation turned to that unsolved murder investigation which had occurred more than 34 years earlier. It was time to take a different perspective on the cold case.
Eileen reviewed all the files and read the police reports that had been filed. At the time of the initial investigation, local law enforcement identified a prime a suspect—a West Chester man who had spent time in prison for raping a minor and was known by police to be violent toward his own wife.
Shortly after Connie Evans' disappearance, the police actually had the man in custody, but they couldn't charge him with the crime because of a lack of indisputable evidence.
“A good attorney was able to get him off,” Eileen explained.
After a good conversation with some of her law enforcement friends, Eileen began interviewing more people with connections to the case. She estimates that she probably talked to more than 200 people.
“What I did,” Eileen explained, “was connect the dots.”
She learned, for example, that the prime suspect had been released from Eastern State Penitentiary not long before the crime, and that the man’s wife had filed for divorce. Eileen went back and pulled the divorce documents from 34 years earlier.
“When I pulled the divorce papers,” she explained, “one thing that I found was that his address where he was actually served was less than 300 feet from where the body was found.”
That was a huge connection of dots.
Eileen uncovered another connection when she learned that the man’s previous address in West Chester was not far from where Connie Evans lived before her parents got divorced.
“It turns out that Connie knew the man,” Eileen explained. “He was the father of kids that she had played with.”
And just like that, a lot less uncertainty surrounded the biggest cold case in Chester County.
Eileen shared her findings with Connie Evans’ mother. Sharing difficult information is a part of the job for private investigators.
To this day, Eileen stays in contact with Connie Evans’ mother, who is now in her 90s and spends holidays and birthdays with her. She’s like a mother, best friend and sister all wrapped up in one. Eileen’s work to give her peace of mind understandably left a lasting impression, and the private investigator is proud of that. Mrs. Evans recently presented Eileen with a little wooden stool that Connie’s aunt made for her. It now has a prominent place in her living room and is now one of her prized possessions – but also serves as a reminder of how life can turn in a minute. It’s still painful to see the impact that the crime had on Mrs. Evans’ life.
Eileen explained, “Connie’s mom has these blue eyes that you just can't forget. They are so blue. But there is still pain in those eyes, and that's the thing that hurts me.”
When the Pennsylvania Association of Licensed Investigators was set to select its first Professional Investigator of the Year, there was no shortage of quality candidates—there are 3,000 private detectives and investigators in the state, and many of them have been effective detectives for decades. But, among all the potential candidates, Eileen stood out, receiving nominations from different parts of the state. She was selected as the first recipient of what is formally named the Jim Carino, PALI Private Investigator of the Year Award. The presentation took place at the annual convention in Hershey, Pa. in 2018.
Another highlight of her career is becoming a member of Intelenet, the world’s most elite private detective organization. It requires an invitation to join Intelenet. Eileen said that she was honored to be recognized by her peers, but ultimately what she has taken the most satisfaction from is being able to provide peace of mind or justice for people.
She is reaching a point in her career where she is starting to think about retirement. But there are still a few cases that she wants to see through to completion.
The Toni Lee Sharpless case is one. Another is the case of James Kelly, who was arrested for a murder in 1995.
Eileen has many friends in law enforcement, and has a great deal of respect for the police, prosecutors, and investigators. But she believes they made a mistake in arresting Kelly for the crime.
“James Kelly was a boy scout, an eagle scout. He was a good, good man,” she said, explaining why she has been working to prove his innocence and free him after so many years in prison.
“James is now family to me,” she said.
Kelly’s case is in front of the conviction review board. Eileen said that she would like to see Kelly released and she would like to have a resolution to the Sharpless case before she retires from her work. Cases like that serve as reminders of the fragility of life.
The painful experience of losing her beloved husband to cancer also reminded Eileen of one of her favorite sayings: “You can't change the winds, but you can adjust the sails.”
Eileen herself was able to do that in the years after she lost husband to cancer.
She naturally gravitated toward one of her favorite hobbies, which is boating. She is a Licensed Captain and was three-time Commodore of the Maryland Cruising Yacht Club. She shared a nautical wedding with Stephen Stewart, whom she met and very unexpectedly fell in love with during a time when she didn’t date, and didn’t want to marry anyone again. Stephen Stewart also has a law enforcement background, so he understands how driven she is to help those in need of justice.
Eileen is starting to look forward to the time when she will dedicate more time to hobbies and spending time with Stephen than she does on cases. Even as she transitions to a new phase, anyone who knows her will attest that she’s not going to slow down.
“From a Different Chair” is the title of a book that is almost finished with. She’s wanted to write it ever since she learned some life lessons while sharing the final months of David Law’s life and many cases she’s investigated. She admits that throughout her career, the work has kept her up many nights. Even when she’s not actively working a case, her mind doesn’t stop mulling over possibilities.
“I don’t sleep very well through the night at all,” she said.
Sometimes, when she wakes up at four o’clock in the morning, she wonders if maybe she shouldn’t have become a veterinarian instead of a private investigator. But those are nothing more than passing thoughts in the dead of the night.
“I sometimes do think of that,” she said. After a pause, she added quickly, “But would I change it? No. I’ve been able to give peace of mind to thousands of people, and I feel good about that.”
Eileen would like to be able to sleep more at night, but first James Kelly must be freed and Toni Lee Sharpless must be found. Who knows what other case is right around the corner for Eileen to lend her talents to?
When she does free up some time, she has plenty of activities planned.
“I intend to make more music,” she said. “I’m going to boat more. I may get into marine investigations.”
That’s Eileen Law. Always a woman of mystery.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.