Missing Maria

updated 03/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was a straight-arrow Catholic from the Philippines—a hardworking woman who did everything by the book. An engineer's daughter who came to the U.S. in 1992, Maria Cruz, 35, worked as a financial analyst in Manhattan, where her life revolved around her church, her extended family and her job at Barclays Bank. "She wasn't ever in trouble," says her uncle Jose Navarro, "and didn't know people who were."

In short, Cruz was not the kind of person to know much about a man like Dean Faiello—a former electrologist who posed as a cosmetic surgeon. When she scheduled a laser-surgery appointment with him for April 13, 2003, she apparently had no idea that he had been charged with three felony counts of practicing medicine without a license (he later pleaded guilty to one) or that she would be in grave danger in his care.

On Feb. 23, Cruz's family gathered to say goodbye to her at the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii in New York City. Her remains—discovered on Feb. 18 in a suitcase encased in concrete at Faiello's former home in Newark, N.J.—were cremated and later buried in Manila. The probable cause of death, according to police: complications from a botched medical procedure. "She came here young and healthy," her mother, Irenea, says. "We take her home as ash."

Faiello, meanwhile, fled the country last summer to escape prison after his guilty plea. He entered Costa Rica on Sept. 19 with a three-month visa. There he enjoyed his self-imposed exile at various luxe hotels and apartments (both on the coast and in the capital, San José). After Cruz's body was recovered, detectives traced Faiello, using credit card records, to Costa Rica and eventually to the Villas Playa Samara in Guanacaste, where he was renting a $500-a-night villa. He was arrested, beer in hand, on Feb. 26 at the resort's swimming pool.

"He was very calm, but appeared worried," says hotel manager Max Navarro. Because coroners have yet to determine Cruz's cause of death, Faiello was not charged with her murder; instead he was picked up by Costa Rican authorities for overstaying his visa. He is expected to be returned to the U.S. within two weeks. Faiello has retained the hotel's lawyer, Moises Vincenzi, who explained his client's time in Costa Rica this way: "He had been working hard and needed a vacation," says Vincenzi.

"The fact that he is behind bars makes it a little easier," says Cruz's sister Teresita Lara, a dentist in Manila. But Faiello's arrest has so far shed no light on how Cruz's quest for treatment could have gone so wrong. Or how Faiello managed to pass himself off as a surgeon for six years. "It's been hard to understand that this could have been stopped, and why it wasn't," says Lara.

Last spring, Lara knew that her sister was suffering from an embarrassing condition later identified as black hairy tongue syndrome, a benign growth that can be a side effect of certain medications. "She said she found this doctor on the Internet, and she had been to see him several times," Lara says. "She had such faith in him."

The man who was treating her with laser "scraping" apparently was Faiello, 44, a Madison, N.J., native with a well-established criminal history and no credentials as a doctor. Faiello had opened a laser-surgery clinic called SkinOvations in 1996. He was sentenced in 1999 to three years' probation for forging prescriptions on pads he had stolen from a dermatologist. After he offered to perform a laser procedure on undercover investigators, he was charged with practicing medicine without a license in 2002.

When Cruz came to him last April, Faiello was out on bail. As a condition of his release, he had closed his Manhattan office and agreed not to treat more patients. Nonetheless, he was surreptitiously performing surgery in a nearby apartment.

According to Jose Navarro, April 13, 2003, was "a normal day" for his niece. "She went to mass and she went to work," Navarro says. After that, Cruz shopped at stores near Faiello's apartment and then, apparently, kept her appointment with him.

Police say it is not clear whether Cruz died at Faiello's apartment or at his home in Newark. There were no signs of unusual activity on Elwood Avenue until Feb. 18, when police broke open a concrete platform—and found a suitcase containing "a deceased human body," in the words of a spokeswoman for the Essex County prosecutor.

For her family, the months between Cruz's disappearance and the discovery of her body were the most torturous. Every Sunday, Navarro, Lara and others plastered missing-person flyers with Cruz's photo on buildings and lampposts. "We called out her nickname—Pi Pie," Navarro says. "We kept thinking one day she would hear us."

Acknowledging her death has not come easily, but "we have to accept it," Navarro says. "At least her soul is in peace. And now we hope justice is done."

Michelle Green. Hope Hamashige in Manhattan and Tim Rogers in San José

From Our Partners