Homeless in Bemidji: You see them, or maybe you don’t, but they have stories to tell
Editors Note: Following the June 21 death of Butch Ryan, a local homeless man, the Pioneer began looking into a group of men and women who, as Butch did, live on the streets of Bemidji. In Part 1 of a three-part series, we spend time with the non-traditional family unit of Andy Reed, Shelly Whitefeather, Melvin Kingbird and Lawrence Goggleye.
A young boy blew bubbles through a wand July 5. His father packed a bag while mom readied the stroller. It was a scene among hundreds on Independence Day weekend.
As the translucent spheres drifted, a far different, dirtier, drunken and more dysfunctional family sat about a football field away from the boy and his bubbles. Two leaned against the cinder block wall of a forgotten building, while two others lay on the ground. One of them -- Andy Reed, his face buried in his hands -- was half-asleep, moaning either in drunken ecstasy or hungover misery.
"As long as we know he's breathing we'll be alright," said Lawrence Goggleye, one of the men with his back to the wall of the building.
Reed, Goggleye, Shelly Whitefeather and Melvin Kingbird are among what might be more than two dozen homeless men and women in Bemidji, but the actual numbers are difficult to determine.
It's hard to tell if the foursome's presence was more obvious or harder to distinguish among crowds that reached into the thousands over the holiday weekend.
Most people travelling to Bemidji for July 4 wouldn't have trekked to the forgotten building Kingbird and Goggleye leaned against, or walked the path that leads under a wooden bridge over the Mississippi River. There, green spray paint reads "Indian Drunk Spot." They probably wouldn't have noticed the boxcar where Goggleye said he and some of his friends sometimes sleep. However, some might have ended up on Nymore Beach, near concrete pylons that used to act as support mechanisms for a long-gone logging facility. Now, they are silent witnesses to many drunken days and nights, and at least one death.
Adelbert James "Butch" Ryan made it to the age of 63 after many years on the streets of Bemidji. On June 21, he made it to Nymore Beach, but no further.
Hiding in plain sight
The cement blocks where Butch was found are one of the spots. Another is the waterfront gazebo. Then there are the benches, scattered throughout downtown, and the alleys and bike trails under the bridges that span the Mississippi. Some of the spots are hidden; others, in plain sight.
On Aug. 14, as the first chill of autumn wrapped its cold fingers around the shores of Lake Bemidji, a group of homeless representing three generations of Ojibwe people gathered at the waterfront. One of the spots. This one, "out of the way of the cops," according to Reed.
Andrew Willard Reed, born Jan. 28, 1955, was joined that night by Roger Ricci, 48, and a few others who wished to remain anonymous. Reed was limping, as he had been for a few weeks. He said he'd been jumped; "Vice Lords" were responsible for the beating, which occurred over a six pack of beer, Reed said. The younger ones in the group, the ones who didn't want to be named, talked about drugs.
"I'm trying to get rid of a Vic 10 so I can get some weed," one of the men said. He had Vicodin, a prescription painkiller. Some in the group talked about crushing and snorting the pill.
The older ones kill their pain with alcohol.
"It's 3.2 (percent alcohol) beer," Reed said. A six pack sat in a plastic bag between his legs. He ate cheese curls bought from a gas station across the street. "But it's better than nothing."
Some drink to "forget about life," according to Ricci. "I didn't choose to be homeless," he said. They're constantly on the move. Spot to spot, night after night, bottle after bottle through the seasons.
"They search us out," Ricci said of the police. "So we find a different hiding spot. Sleep wherever we sleep. They'll fine us and ticket us (for alcohol) or just dump it. I tell them 'why don't you go around the bars cause there's caucasians drinking outside the bars.' Beers, mixes. ... Why don't you go ticket them?'"
The group dispersed. A brother and sister walked north along the lake to find a place to sleep. Reed and Ricci did the same, walking south. The younger ones went to destinations unknown. One of them would be arrested the next night on a warrant for theft of a motor vehicle. He smiled in his mugshot, his black hair pulled into a tight pony tail. Melvin Kingbird's brother, Conrad, was arrested a few days later. The charge: urinating in public.
'A grieving process'
Whitefeather and Kingbird are from the Red Lake Indian Reservation; Goggleye and Reed, the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. They talked and passed a bottle of Taaka Vodka back and forth on July 5. They joked that a pile of small, dead fish near them were the remnants of their dinner. But they didn't talk about the meals they'd taken in that day, if there were any. All they knew was they'd gone through five bottles of vodka. Goggleye pulled an airplane bottle of whiskey from his pocket and downed it.
"We got a high tolerance, bro," Kingbird said.
Before 8 p.m. that night, Reed had already succumbed to the liquor. He was up later in the evening, though, roaming the streets of downtown with friends, occasionally asking for money or a cigarette -- just as he was a few days after the death of his friend, Butch.
"I'm going through a grieving process," he told a bartender at Keg 'N' Cork in late June. He dumped a pile of change on the bar, asking for a beer. "A lot of people cared about Butch."
The spot on Nymore Beach -- the one with the concrete pylons -- was home to the last few moments and hours of one of an extended homeless family. Butch was well-known among the homeless, and his friends continued to mourn his death on Independence Day weekend.
"I remember his smile," Whitefeather said.
The night before
Butch was a quiet man, by most accounts. He was also a drunk man. In a police report written about an incident that occurred the night before his body turned up on the beach, an officer with Bemidji Police Department described Butch's state.
"Ryan appeared to be highly intoxicated as he had a strong odor of alcohol, slurred speech, and red, watery eyes," the officer wrote. "Ryan admitted to being 'really drunk.' Ryan had an overall disheveled appearance. His coat was only on one arm, and the rest of his clothes were very dirty and soaking wet due to the weather conditions. Ryan is a known homeless male from multiple previous contacts."
What wasn't in that report was an incident that a Bemidji man said occurred not long before police arrived. The weekend after Butch died was an eventful one for the town. Hundreds of firefighters from across the state poured into Bemidji for the Minnesota State Fire Department Association's annual conference.
As Butch lay drunk on the sidewalk that night, a man, who wished to remain anonymous, saw a group of firefighters harassing Butch. When police arrived, the man informed the officer of what he saw, pointing out a group of firefighters to the policeman who would later take Butch to the Law Enforcement Center.
In a letter addressed to the Pioneer and Det. Sgt. Mike Haines, the man who said he saw the firefighters surrounding Butch, wrote: "I witnessed (the firefighters) pick (Butch) up and try to make him walk. He was too intoxicated to stand. When the fireman let go of (Butch) he fell to the ground and that's when he received the cut on the forehead. They did this at least two, maybe three times."
Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said his department has looked into the incident, but none of the men who allegedly accosted Butch that night have been located. No signs of trauma were found in an autopsy performed by Beltrami County Coroner Mark Robia, and Mastin said foul play is not suspected in Butch's death.
"It sounds mean, but in this case, we no longer have a victim who could testify as a witness," Mastin said of the alleged assault the night before Butch's death.
Just before taking him away, the officer asked Butch: "Is there anywhere I can take you? Any friends or family you can stay with?"
Butch didn't answer. He simply looked up at the officer with glassy eyes, a thumb-size drop of blood on his forehead. About 13 hours later, another officer would report to his superiors the body found at Nymore Beach -- Butch's body.
Butch isn't the only one who died outside, where some, by choice or fate, live their lives. In March 2010, 40-year-old Michael Jourdain died near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Sarah Einerson, who works with Churches United to provide shelter at various houses of worship come wintertime, said Jourdain's death "tugged at her heart."
When Einerson spoke at a City Council meeting about Jourdain, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, was in attendance.
"He was stunned to hear we had a homeless person die on the streets."
There are more.
Four years earlier, in June, 2006, a man and a woman were run over by a train as they sat on tracks not far from where Reed, Goggleye, Whitefeather and Kingbird drank on July 5. Vanessa Rose Stillday, 25, and Herman Joseph Strong Jr., 35, were with Ronald Gary Brunette, sitting on the tracks when the train struck the trio. Brunette, 35, lived. Strong and Stillday did not.
The conductor was rolling along at about 30 mph, according to media reports. He blew the horn. He slammed on the brakes. Stillday, Strong and Brunette didn't move.
"I've lost a lot of friends over the years," Goggleye said, remembering Stillday and Strong.
Reed continued mumbling restlessly on the ground.
On the night of the coins at the bar, when Reed used the change to pay for a beer, he grieved instead of groaned. He seemed lucid, perhaps having recently awoke from round one.
Butch's body had been identified a few days earlier. But until autopsy results came in, released in a one-sentence report from Haines on Aug. 14 at the request of the Pioneer, that's all anyone knew.
The cause of death: drowning.
Much of Butch's last hours are known. Police picked him up near Keg 'N Cork the night before, wet from the cold rain that soaked the streets just before midnight. Butch said he wanted to go to detox, a facility near Nevis called Pine Manor, but there was no room there, according to a police report. He then said he wanted to go to the waterfront, but changed his mind. So, he was taken to the hospital, but he "refused to be treated" there and was again picked up by police. The next stop was the Law Enforcement Center where Butch slept on the floor, the report stated. Where he went after that, how he ended up on Nymore Beach and who he might have been with, however, remain unclear.
Butch was found with the top portion of his body submerged in Lake Bemidji. His feet remained on shore. Two children riding their bicycles made the discovery.
"I don't know how he became dead, but he's dead," Reed said. "That's all I know."
Reed was down and out on July 5, moaning, rolling on the ground. A few weeks later Goggleye would be side-by-side with two Bemidji police officers, cooking hotdogs and burgers at the ACLU's Community Connections Picnic. Melvin Kingbird would be in jail.
But Reed's family is large. Without Melvin, Goggleye or Whitefeather, the 58-year-old is just fine. On the night at the waterfront, with the mercury falling and a six-pack of 3.2 percent alcohol Bud Light dwindling due to his generosity, Reed called the men there his brothers.
The only bubbles were in the beer.
"We take care of each other," he said. "Who else is going to?"