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Questions over kidnap claims of woman later found dead in trunk

Rita Maze and her daughter Rochelle.  

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SPOKANE, Wash. -- Police are calling into question the account of a Montana woman who called her family Tuesday and said she had been kidnapped and was in the trunk of her car. She was later found dead in the car 325 miles away near Spokane International Airport in Washington, but authorities in Washington say they’re not convinced her death wasn’t a suicide.

Rita Maze, 47, of Great Falls, Montana, called her husband Tuesday evening and said she had been struck on the head by an unknown assailant at an Interstate 15 rest stop north of Helena, and that she was in the trunk of her car and didn’t know her location, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said Wednesday. She had been en route from Helena to her home in Great Falls. Her daughter Rochelle Maze told the Great Falls Tribune her mother was “hysterical” and hard to understand when they spoke on the phone for about 10 minutes.

“She was talking to my dad and told him, ‘Help me, help me,’” Rochelle Maze told CBS affilaite KREM.

Law enforcement tracked the use of her cellphone to help locate the vehicle. Her car’s license plate was captured on a license plate reader near Post Falls, Idaho. An officer called the number Maze used to call her family, heard gunshots and then nothing, according to KREM.

Sheriff’s deputies found her body in the trunk at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in an industrial area near Spokane. But questions surrounding how she got there – and how she died – remain unclear.

“We know where the body was located; we know where she started out,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.​“What happened in between? Don’t know.”

Asked whether news media should question Maze’s kidnapping narrative, Knezovich told the paper, “Yes, you should.”

A medical examiner determined her cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the chest and abdomen, but stopped short of naming the manner of death homicide, listing it as pending, reports CBS affiliate KXLH​ in Montana. Knezovich tells KREM in Washington they are still investigating and haven’t ruled out suicide as a cause of death.

The FBI, which is leading the investigation, says they’re pursuing all leads. Lewis & Clark County Sheriff’s Office in Montana is also probing the case. An official there referred calls to the FBI.

Dutton initially told media outlets there was a person of interest in the case and authorities were looking at surveillance video from a convenience store. During the course of the investigation, however, it was discovered that early indications of a person of interest in the case were false, a law enforcement official told CBS News.

Family told KREM Maze had a gun in her car and had a permit for it. They said Maze told them over the phone that her alleged kidnapper had her gun. Authorities found a gun and two casings next to the woman’s body in the trunk, KREM reports.

Rochelle Maze told the Spokesman-Review that she believes her mother, a longtime cook at a Great Falls elementary school, was abducted.

“She did not hit herself, stuff herself in the truck and drive all the way to Spokane and shoot herself,” Maze told the paper.

Authorities found the keys in the car’s ignition and a purse in the front seat, the paper reports. There was blood on the ground and a $20 bill nearby.

“I believe they shot her and left the gun and keys in there to make it look like she killed herself,” Rochelle Maze told the paper. “I know she did not.”

But Knezovich told the paper people should hesitate to call Maze’s death a murder “until we actually find out what is going on.”

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for CBSNews.com's Crimesider.