ST. PETERSBURG — George Earle Wicker, 77, was walking home one night last month when two men pistol-whipped his face, kicked him in the back and took his wallet, keys and cell phone.
They made off with $6.
A big-hearted man who spent four decades rescuing men from gutters, stitching marriages back together and reuniting parents with children, Wicker died five days later in a hospital. An autopsy blamed complications from internal bleeding.
Police say it's not a homicide, citing a lack of physical evidence linking his death to the attack.
Wicker's family doesn't buy it.
"I consider what happened to my father a murder," said Anne Leslie Mattson, 46, of Atlanta. "He was a frail person with bad health, and they beat him up."
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Earle, as everyone knew him, was a great storyteller.
It served him well as a salesman and during long fishing trips. He talked of shooting at speedy rats in the trenches of Korea, refusing to stop fishing in the face of a hurricane, of growing up in Canada.
But mostly he talked about his checkered past and his more than four decades helping people through Alcoholics Anonymous.
"He was extremely proud of it and proud of his sobriety," said Mattson.
Daughter Jacqueline Salamone, 31, remembers attending AA meetings as a kid. Mattson learned to shoot pool from recovering alcoholics.
Family and friends estimate he sponsored more than 100 people. "He had an unusual ability to give that last drop of love to the suffering alcoholic," said longtime friend Michael F. Brennan.
For more than 42 years, Wicker was a regular at AA meetings, first in Rochester, N.Y., later in St. Petersburg. He often attended several a week.
He was walking home from a meeting the night he was mugged.
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It was 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 11, when a man asked Wicker for spare change, police and family members said. Wicker told the man he didn't have any.
The man asked again. Same response. "You better give me something," the man demanded. Then he pulled a semiautomatic handgun and told Wicker he would kill him. Another man grabbed Wicker from behind and rifled through his pockets. He was pistol-whipped to the ground and kicked in the back. Both men got away.
Wicker was shaken, but managed to call police from a neighbor's phone. Except for a small cut on his upper lip, he seemed fine.
Wednesday morning Wicker awoke weary and slept most of the day. He still felt sick that evening. On Thursday he couldn't get out of the bathroom and was rushed to Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
He had surgery on Friday and died Sunday morning.
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Wicker's family said he died after a vein in his gastrointestinal tract ruptured, sending him into septic shock, meaning he had a widespread infection.
An autopsy found no link between the mugging and Wicker's death, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. "He had a natural disease process that was occurring," Pellan said. "That process was not influenced by the incident a few days before."
Wicker's wife, Carol, and two daughters find that hard to believe.
"My dad was okay the day before he got mugged, and the day after he wasn't," Salamone said. Mattson, a registered nurse, agreed: "It definitely escalated the problem to where we couldn't keep up with it."
But police said that would be hard to prove. "The bottom line, in a court of law, you would have to show a distinct connection," said police spokesman Mike Puetz.
Wicker's family are grateful that police detective Joseph Truong visited Wicker in the hospital and requested an autopsy.
Still, they want justice.
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Police, who got only vague descriptions of the men from Wicker, have made no arrests. Salamone thinks the men who attacked her father must have been impaired.
If they had they met her under different circumstances, she said, he would have tried to turn their lives around.
"Instead, they took his," she said. "Maybe he sees the irony in that."