Locals in this mountain resort town knew them as the Chicken Ladies. Friends invariably called them "the girls."
Maureen O'Boyle and Thelma Lee came to the Flathead Valley a quarter-century ago and literally carved a new life for themselves out of the lodgepole pine forest. On 100 acres on a lake they logged the timber, cleared the land, built themselves a house, barns and outbuildings and in the early 1980s started an organic chicken farm.It was a dream spun from disillusionment with big city life. Thelma was divorced and a registered nurse. She'd been nursing supervisor at St. John's Hospital in Los Angeles for 17 years. Maureen, a graduate of Carroll College in Helena, was a Los Angeles hospital aide and also worked for the telephone company.
After an idyllic camping trip in northwestern Montana, the women - the closest of friends although not romantically linked - decided to make the Flathead their home.
For years, their chicken business flourished, with more than a dozen employees processing up to 2,000 chickens a week.
But when Maureen and Thelma wanted to expand, and sought outside money, the dream began to sour. A misunderstanding with bankers - the women said they were lied to - cut off their financing and killed their business.
A battle over $600,000 in unpaid loans staggered on for 11 years. The women persisted doggedly without a lawyer. Too proud to accept charity, they scraped by on Thelma's $600-a-month Social Security payment. When their furnace broke down, they went through the tough winter of 1996-97 with neither heat nor hot water, burning wood in a fireplace and living mostly in their kitchen.
U.S. marshals padlocked their gates Dec. 20 in preparation for seizing the farm, but they hadn't realized the women were still there and removed the locks three days later. On Jan. 12, U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci wrote the women, expressing sympathy but saying they had to vacate.
Marshals came to take possession of the farm April 7. They found a note from the women on the front gate, leaving their possessions to a friend. Another note on the front door said they thought they had found all of their cats. The marshals asked the sheriff's office to search the farm.
Friends guess it was approximately March 23 when Thelma, 67, and Maureen, 51, drove their old pickup truck into the garage and gathered their 13 cats and three dogs inside. They shut the garage door and turned on the engine.
Their bodies lay undiscovered until a friend, concerned about the missing women, opened the garage April 14. The sheriff's deputies had ignored the building because old hornet nests on the doors seemed to indicate the garage was unused.
Friends say they had wondered what the women would do, where they would go when the life they'd built was taken away from them.
"The last time I talked to them, they told me, `We have a plan,' " said Brock Wilson, a deputy who knew the women as a friend and who often plowed snow from their road in the winter. "It never even entered my mind that they would commit suicide."
Some are convinced that local politics played a part in the women's downfall, that powerful interests coveted the 100 acres of prime real estate with 400 feet of frontage on Blanchard Lake.
"This was one of the biggest tragedies ever to hit this valley," said Dr. David Kauffman, a retired physician and longtime friend of the two women. "Instead of a going business with 17 employees, we have two dead bodies. And for what? Greed."
Others see it as less sinister but perhaps equally tragic: two women trying to be their own lawyers in a complicated and protracted federal court battle against the bank and the Small Business Administration, which ended up owning the property.
"I didn't think they had a snowball's chance in hell" representing themselves, said Wendell Dunn, a Whitefish lawyer who handled the case for the women until they decided they could not afford an attorney.
The women made an indelible mark on those who knew them best.
"I'm still expecting her to call," said Gordon Rohlinger, a longtime friend. He said Maureen called often, using him for a sounding board for her problems.
It was Rohlinger, accompanied by neighbor Joe Howell, who found the bodies in the garage.
"I still expect to see them come down the lane," said Joe's wife, Billie Howell. While the two women may have been somewhat eccentric, they were friendly and outgoing, Billie Howell said, always upbeat and happy.
And while she never expected the women to kill themselves, Billie Howell said in hindsight the deaths were consistent with their philosophy of independence.
"They lived their lives just the way they wanted to and it was their choice to end it this way," she said. "They didn't have to end it this way."