Emmy-winning set designer, missing for months, found dead inside Queens home under pile of debris

Carla Roman, Morgan Chittum, Thomas Tracy and Larry McShane, New York Daily News
·4 min read

NEW YORK — A long-missing Queens woman never escaped her trash-strewn home, with the hoarder’s decomposing remains found buried beneath an avalanche of trash several months after her sudden disappearance.

The body of Emmy-winning set designer Evelyn Sakash was finally discovered by her sister Tuesday afternoon, and investigators believe she died in an avalanche of garbage and debris inside her College Point kitchen around the time she disappeared in late September, sources said.

The 66-year-old victim was discovered lying face-up under the debris by her sibling, who was visiting from out of state to empty the apartment with help from a professional cleaner, sources told the New York Daily News.

“This is just devastating,” said the tearful sister, Ellen Brown, 60. “She had a full life. She was so extraordinarily talented. She was a brilliant mind. ... I don’t want my sister to be remembered like that, like the way she was found.”

The city Medical Examiner will conduct an autopsy to determine how Sakash died. Investigators suspect she was either killed by falling debris — or trapped by it and then died slowly, sources said.

Sakash won a 2003 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction/Set Decoration/Scenic Design for her work on the children’s television series “Between the Lions.” She worked in movies, television and theater during her long career but fell into a downward spiral after her mother’s death last April, according to a neighbor.

“She became so much more withdrawn and looked sick,” the neighbor said. “I think that’s when she started to pick up more of the hoarding. ... I went into her house years ago and it was normal.”

The victim’s home on Wednesday included a sink filled with filthy dishes and rooms piled high with other debris and a stench wafting from the residence. Neighbors said Sakash kept dogs and cats in the home, with police emptying the home of her pets without locating the body during one of at least two visits to the residence over the last seven months.

Brown recounted a list of her sister’s productions, including stints doing Broadway set design, work for Disney and MTA, and time on hit TV series like “Billions” and “Orange Is the New Black.” But she is uncertain about the grim circumstances of her sister’s death.

“I don’t know,” she said. “This was clearly in effect for a long time. She sometimes kept people at bay. The headline says ‘Queens hoarder,’ but that’s not who she is.”

Laura DiDio, a family friend, said on Facebook that police with K-9 dogs searched Sakash’s home on two occasions over the last few months but somehow did not find her.

The death was reminiscent of the city’s most infamous hoarders, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer. The two were found decomposing in 1947 inside their outrageously cluttered Harlem home, packed with 120 tons of items collected over the decades. It took investigators two weeks to uncover the second brother’s body after the first was found.

Friends desperate to find Sakash raised more than $5,000 online to pay investigators to supplement the NYPD’s efforts, but there was no sign of her before the grisly discovery of her body.

“I would like her to be remembered as an amazing friend and a talented artist,” said Madeline Hartling, 51, of Jersey City, a scenic artist who worked with Sakash over many years and helped organize the fundraiser.

“She got along great with co-workers and was just so talented. ... The industry has lost an amazing designer and artist.

"I had no idea that she was living in her home like that,” she added. “It was part of her life but it was not all of it, so I hope she can be remembered more charitably. ... She should be remembered by the contributions made to the industry and with the kindness she approached everyone she knew."

Sakash’s sister also emphasized the victim’s loving nature.

“Every one of her friends would say she was the first person to step up if someone needed help,” Brown said.

“She was so generous with people. I want all of that to be the final testament and not that she was found in a bad condition. ... She leaves a legacy behind of generosity and beauty.”