FENTON — A homeless woman has become an iconic figure in south St. Louis County, with a Facebook page dedicated to her and social media dubbing her "South County Cindy." But many are disturbed by what they see as cruel exploitation of someone who is mentally ill.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the homeless woman has been a fixture in the area for years with her bleached blonde hair, often wearing a pink bikini top, but with a heavy brown coat.
Sightings are common as she'll walk into businesses to wash herself or repack her bags.
But social media has made her a local celebrity. Pictures on Facebook and Twitter show Cindy sightings. Some comments sympathize, but many make light or are cruel.
Melanie Martin, 22, said "any reasonable person, homeless or not," wouldn't want random people taking their photograph everywhere they went.
"The homeless cannot afford the luxury to live behind private walls, but that does not mean they do not deserve their own privacy," Martin said.
One Facebook page has garnered more than 14,000 "likes." The creator of another took it down after she grew concerned about the mocking tone of the comments.
The websites have caught the attention of Cindy's family. They know Cindy as Cynthia Marie Mueller, 54. She has a father, siblings, even a son, though she doesn't have custody.
Her father said she has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder but doesn't believe she needs help.
"That was the trouble. She wouldn't take her medication," Clarence Mueller, 87, a widower, said.
"At least I know she's still OK," he said of the social media attention.
Cynthia Mueller dropped out of Affton High School in the mid-1970s. Her family noticed behavior changes when she was in her early 20s. Police were called several times, and they had her committed to a state mental hospital four times.
She never stayed more than two weeks. Her father said she was prone to screaming and violence.
"She was a good kid, but you can only put up with so much," Clarence said. "She doesn't want anybody telling her what to do. She blows her top. She takes off walking and talking."
Since her mother died of a heart attack in 1997, Cindy isn't allowed inside her family's home. Her father collects her mail and talks to her from the front porch.
Cindy has pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, trespassing and loitering. She sleeps on benches, under bridges, in post office foyers. Sometimes she'll scrounge up enough money for a cheap hotel room.
Many have tried to help her.
"She's just another example of the failure of our mental health system," said Daniel Duffy, police chief in the small town of Lakeshire. He said he once called "every mental health advocate" he could get hold of and was told there was nothing they could do because Cindy wasn't homicidal or suicidal.
Darwyn Walker, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there were thousands of homeless people like Cindy. She's just more noticeable in the county than she would be in the city.
"This is not a new world for her," he said. "Somehow, she went all this time without successful care and treatment, to the point that nobody knows what to do with her."
A Post-Dispatch reporter recently caught up with Cindy, who said her doctor told her she was fine. She said she didn't abuse alcohol or drugs.
Meanwhile, George Riley, 29, pulled up and told her he'd been following her on Facebook.
"Do you mind if I get my picture taken with you?" he asked.
Cindy declined the photo op and scuttled down to the bus stop.
She said that she had noticed people taking her picture but that she didn't use computers. Shown copies of a recent Facebook page titled "South County Cindy," she said, "Oh, that looks terrible. That really hurts my feelings. I like to look my best when my picture is taken.
"Tell them I'll be fine. They don't need to be tracking me."