A 32-year-old woman was found dead inside her S.U.V in a convenience store parking lot, where she was trying to get some extra sleep between shifts at her four part-time jobs.
But who was she? How was it that her life had ended here, in the corner of a convenience store parking lot, less than a mile south of Newark Liberty International Airport’s runways?
Her name was Maria Fernandes. She was 32 years old. And long before her face flashed across the evening news, she worked amid the throngs of passengers in the heart of Newark’s Pennsylvania Station, serving pumpkin lattes and toasted bagels, and dreaming of life somewhere else.
The last day of her life was no different. She got off work at 6 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 25, and climbed into her 2001 Kia Sportage, officials from the Elizabeth Police Department said. She was dreaming again, this time about taking a break to celebrate a milestone with friends. But first, she told her boyfriend, Mr. Carter, during a brief cellphone conversation, she was going to take a nap.
She pulled into the parking lot of a Wawa convenience store, reclined in the driver’s seat and closed her eyes. The store’s surveillance camera videotaped her arrival at 6:27 a.m.
Detectives would pore over those tapes after her body was found later that day. It was the last image that anyone would see of her alive.
In death, Ms. Fernandes has been held up as a symbol of the hardships facing our nation’s army of low-wage workers. Her friends say she earned little more than $8.25 an hour — New Jersey’s minimum wage — and passed her days and nights in a blur of iced coffees and toasted breakfast sandwiches, coffee rolls, and glazed jelly doughnuts.
You might remember her dark eyes and that smile when she handed your change across the counter. She worked afternoons in Newark, overnights in Linden and weekends in Harrison.
Ms. Fernandes, who was born in Massachusetts to Portuguese-born immigrants, did not have a college education. She wanted to become a beautician and hair stylist but didn’t have enough money for cosmetology school.
Her landlady, Amelia Resende, said Ms. Fernandes fell behind on her rent a couple of times this year, struggling to come up with $550 a month for the basement apartment in Newark that she rarely slept in. Mr. Carter said that she was hoping to move to Pennsylvania, where he lives.
Ms. Resende said that Ms. Fernandes slept in her running S.U.V. so often that she started keeping a container full of fuel in the back. Mr. Carter warned that this wasn’t safe, but Ms. Fernandes brushed aside his concerns. She couldn’t run the risk of waking up to an empty tank.
“She had to go to work,” Ms. Resende said.
The text landed in Mr. Carter’s phone around 6:45 on her last morning. It was from Ms. Fernandes, who had just wrapped up her overnight shift.
“You can call me,” she wrote.
He called and they talked. She had an afternoon shift ahead and she wanted to exercise before then, if possible. But first, she wanted to sleep.
Mr. Carter thinks now about their dreams of finding a place together in Hershey, Pa.; about her plans to celebrate Michael Jackson’s birthday with friends later that week; about all that was left unsaid and undone.
But on that morning, he just promised to call back later.
It was a Wawa employee, on his way to work, who noticed Ms. Fernandes about an hour after that conversation. She was lying motionless in her S.U.V., which was parked behind the store, police records show. He said he thought she was sleeping and went inside.
When he finished his shift around 3:30 p.m., the Wawa employee noticed that Ms. Fernandes was still there. This time, though, she was foaming at the mouth. His manager called 911.
Emergency responders found the gas can open and overturned in the cargo hold and the S.U.V. filled with fumes, in what police said appeared to have been an accident. As commuters streamed by her counter in Newark, Ms. Fernandes was pronounced dead at 5:56 p.m. She was still in her uniform.