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‘They Weren’t Wholesome People’: Missing Elderly OC Mom Found Dead After Taking In The Wrong Tenants
When a 62-year-old OC homeowner and mother named Carolyn Avdeef went missing, detectives suspected foul play.
Carolyn Avdeef, a 62-year-old divorced mother of two, had a reputation for generosity. When she needed help to pay the mortgage on her home in Lake Forest, California, she took in renters to make ends meet. It was a decision borne of necessity that would have dire consequences.
On June 22, 2005, Avdeef’s employer reported her missing. A deputy did a welfare check at her residence, according Brian Sutton, a retired investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. There were no obvious signs of a struggle.
Her roommate, Joyce Miller, said she’d last seen Avdeef on June 18, Sutton told “The Real Murders of Orange County,” streaming now on Oxygen.com.
On June 27, Avdeef’s son Eric went to his mother’s house, which was in disarray and filled with unopened boxes, suggesting a recent spending spree. He told detectives it was out of character for his mother to take off without leaving her itinerary.
Investigators canvassed Avdeef’s neighborhood, paying close attention to the dynamics of the area. Lake Forest is a world of gated communities and strict neighborhood associations.
Detectives learned that some of the tenants Avdeef took in were considered loud, out-of-control irritants by her neighbors. “They weren’t wholesome people,” a neighbor told producers. “They weren’t family people.”
Her need to pay her bills via tenants made Avdeef “an outsider,” said former Los Angeles Times journalist Geoff Boucher. “In her neighborhood, she was the unmade bed of the street.”
Detectives also learned that Avdeef’s cash-strapped situation changed after her mother’s death.
Avdeef used some of the inheritance to spruce up her home and to buy a new car, a practical blue Honda. Like Avdeef, the vehicle was missing.
Investigators focused on Joyce Miller, who’d been renting from Avdeef for about a year and had no information about her whereabouts. As officials dug deeper they found that three checks made payable to her endorsed by Avdeef were worth more than $5,000.
When pushed by officials, Miller “became defensive,” said Sutton. They also learned that Miller’s daughter and her boyfriend — Debbie Miller, 39, and Nick Vovos, 22 — had been living in Avdeef’s house shortly before she vanished.
Detectives discovered a flurry of activity on Avdeef’s debit card. Charges were racked up around southern California, including at several grocery stores. Investigators got images of the individuals using the card through store security cameras.
Joyce Miller identified the couple using them as her daughter and her boyfriend. Miller told investigators that the two had left the same time that Avdeef had gone missing. She said her daughter had no cell phone. Detectives questioned whether Miller knew more than she was telling.
A background check on Debbie Miller and Vovos revealed previous run-ins with the law. She was on probation for welfare fraud, said Dan Salcedo, a retired investigator for the OC Sheriff’s Department. Vovos was a parolee at large, who spent time behind bars for burglary and possession of stolen property. They’d met when he was in custody in San Bernardino. Shortly after that, they moved into Avdeef’s home.
“This woman wasn't just missing, but there was a person that was extremely dangerous with a criminal record that was involved,” said Salvadore Hernandez, former reporter for the Orange County Register.
To track down Debbie Miller and Nick Vovos, investigators turned to the media to cast a spotlight on the couple. The strategy paid off. On June 30, detectives interviewed a man who reached out to tell them the couple had stayed with him for a period of days after Avdeef went missing.
The tipster told investigators that the couple was driving a blue Honda and that he’d seen two shovels in the trunk. He told them that Vovos was doing meth and had a shotgun and that he said he wasn’t going to be captured alive.
Investigators released an APB on the couple, noting that they were armed and extremely dangerous. Although police had no cell phone to track, they were able to monitor activity on Avdeef’s stolen debit card. They tracked recent purchases made 70 miles north of Lake Forest in Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Detectives learned that Debbie had friends in that area who told authorities that the couple had come by and asked where they could bury a dog. Investigators proceeded to search the area for a burial site for Avdeef.
On July 2, Wyoming Highway Patrol officers in Laramie made a routine traffic stop. After they pulled over a blue Honda they found the license didn't match the vehicle identification number. At this point, Vovos gunned the engine and drove off, eluding police after a high speed chase.
On July 3, a phone tipster reported that the couple was at a Colorado gas station. After another car chase in which Colorado deputies “spiked the Vovoses’ tires and forced them off the highway,” reported the Denver Post, the suspects were cornered and a shootout ensued. Debbie Miller was shot and killed in the gun battle. Vovos threw down his weapon. He was charged with attempted murder of a police officer.
Sutton and Salcedo flew to Colorado to question Vovos about Avdeef’s disappearance. He denied any involvement. Despite the fact that he had possession of Avdeef’s debit card and vehicle, investigators didn’t have evidence directly connecting him to her disappearance and presumed death.
On July 31, 2005, a hiker walking her dog in Crestline stumbled upon Avdeef’s body in a shallow grave not far from where investigators had searched earlier.
In October 2006, Vovos was convicted of attempted murder of the police officer in Colorado. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison. Two years later, he was extradited to California on charges connected to Avdeef’s stolen property. Investigators then caught a break they never expected. Vovos wanted to come clean.
He told them that on June 15, Avdeef got a call from her portfolio manager alerting her to suspicious checks written on her account. She confronted Debbie and Nick, who were living on her property at the time.
Verbal accusations led to a physical assault. Vovos confessed that he strangled the 62-year-old. He and his girlfriend devised a plan to escape and bury the body.
On January 15, 2009, Nick Vovos pleaded guilty to the murder of Carolyn Avdeef. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in a California state prison.
To learn more about the case, watch told “The Real Murders of Orange County,” streaming now on Oxygen.com.