More than half died outside. Eight died in hospitals and hospice at taxpayer expense. Two were hit by cars. Two were dead so long before anyone noticed it was impossible to say what killed them.
Jose Abelar showed up at the emergency room at South Bay Hospital with terrible pain in his stomach. Soon, he couldn’t talk at all. He suffered internal bleeding from cirrhosis of the liver caused by heavy drinking and died Jan. 19 at Sun City Center Hospice. No one called about him. No one came.
His New Jersey farm worker ID yielded few clues to help find next of kin. Nor did state and local records, Ancestry.com, Google, Homeland Security or the El Salvadoran Consulate. He had small scars across his knees — was he here for seasonal work picking tomatoes or strawberries?
His fingerprints showed he had been arrested locally on minor charges. His birthplace was listed as “El,” occupation “laborer.” But his address was always blank. After the required waiting period, he was buried at sea at taxpayer expense.
Levi Alvarez grew up poor in Honduras and landed in Tampa as a young Merchant Marine. People called him Panama. He collected cans to pay for his Spanish food and Natural Ice beer.
His daughter Monica Alvarez was pregnant and pushing his favorite granddaughter in a stroller on a dark street when she was hit by a car in 2011. The little girl survived, but her mother and unborn brother were killed. Family said it changed Alvarez, who started drinking more, then disappeared.
In February 2017, the new owner of a foreclosed house in a neighborhood called Little Cuba peered into the concrete shed out back and discovered the decomposing remains of the homeless man neighbors saw coming and going through a rusty fence. He was on a mattress with his head on a pillow. His pants contained his wallet, ID and a single dollar. A medical examiner’s report noted he was an alcoholic and a smoker, but he had been there too long to say what killed him.
Cuban-born Hector Ariosa got arrested around West Tampa for sitting with a beer where he wasn’t supposed to: behind a Cuban sandwich shop, at a quickie mart, on school grounds after hours. A police report listed his occupation as “MOOCHER.” He abruptly quit drinking in 2013. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and died just after midnight Aug. 11, 2017.
Records said he had no family in the United States. but investigators found a grown son in Georgia. The son had only a faint memory of a slender man with a mustache who vanished after his parents split up when he was very young. He knew his father spoke Spanish, a language he himself understands. He wondered if the man was balding like he is. He was.
The Air Force man and his Japanese bride tried to have a baby, only to be heartbroken again and again.
Finally, when Bill and Mitsuko Boartfield were stationed in Fargo, N.D., they adopted a girl they named Patricia Ann — Patty. And then a little brother they called George.
The two weren’t related by blood, but they both came from an orphanage of American Indian children and both were from the Sioux Indian Nation. Patty’s birth name was AnnMarie Plenty Chief. Their father later told her George was taken from his mother because she was intoxicated when she gave birth. George’s birth parents later died in a car wreck, he said.
He arrived covered in an alarming rash. He was not a peaceful baby — he didn’t just cry, he screamed and could not be comforted.
The Boartfields settled in the Town 'N Country suburbs. Patty was popular, athletic and tough. Her little brother was shy, quiet and weak, always falling down, always getting picked on. She had to protect him.
Their parents never treated them like they were adopted. But they were always “the weird-looking kids, the only Indians, everywhere we went,” she said in 2017. The Japanese half of the family accepted them, but their father’s side referred to them as “Bill’s Injun kids,” she said.
Their parents put George in judo and PeeWee football to boost his confidence. He was fast and strong — couldn’t throw a ball but he could sure knock someone down. He seemed to do better when people told him what to do. He started lifting weights and learning to use his size.
He did not fit well in public school. In a private Christian school, he judo-flipped a boy who was teasing him and broke the boy’s collarbone.
While his sister played flute and ran cross-country at Leto High School, George was egged on by older boys to break into houses. His parents tried boys camp, boot camp and drug treatment. He spent time in a hospital psychiatric ward. He went to juvenile detention.
It made no sense to his sister: He had whatever he wanted — a stereo, bike, braces for his teeth. Their parents could not have loved her brother any more than they did. But he would leave a bong in plain sight in his bedroom. He went to adult jail for the first time for breaking into a house to make a sandwich. What was going on in his head?
Their father cleaned kick marks from the walls and patched holes made by his son’s fist. George started physical altercations with his sister. She didn’t hate him. She just wished he was gone. “It was hard to be his sister,” she said.
She got married, had kids, moved away. Back in Florida her parents sought court orders to keep their 6-foot-1, 200-pound son at bay. He banged on their windows at night. He broke in their house.
Now Patty Ecker, she happened to see a TV movie called The Broken Cord about a father’s struggle with an adopted American Indian son born to an alcoholic mother. The movie explored Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol through the mother. It can lead to a litany of problems including difficulty with judgment and reasoning, trouble with attention and memory and learning disabilities.
Ecker called her father in Florida. George, they both said.
In 2000, he stood on the sidewalk outside his parents’ home and exchanged words with his father. Soon after, Bill Boartfield sat down at the dinner table with his wife and slumped over. He died at the hospital that night. Heart attack.
Ecker worried about her mother and moved her north. Mother and sister would not see George again for nearly two decades, years he spent restless, roaming and drinking.
Indian George — the racially insensitive name he was known by — had been around since some veteran Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies were rookies. He’d walk the suburban streets where he grew up and prowled behind the Bravo Supermarket. He’d get arrested on his latest open container or petty theft charge by the BJ’s Warehouse and go complacently across town to jail. When he got out he’d wander over there.
“He got around,” said Deputy Joshua Boyer.
He was friendly when he wasn’t drinking hard. Beer was his poison and it left him with filthy, stained trousers, terrible hygiene and rotted teeth. He was a classic ”chronic,” resistant when they offered him detox, food stamps or housing. “Never wanted help,” Boyer said.
But in 2016, Boartfield voluntarily checked himself into a wet shelter for drinkers to dry out. For the first time, it looked like he meant it.
In a photo snapped at the 30-bed Amethyst Respite Center, he is transformed from mug shots showing matted hair and a bleary face — clean, his black hair smoothed back, holding up his new ID card, a homeless person’s magic key to moving forward. His smile is small but it’s there.
“Hey, you look really good, George,” Deputy Stephanie Krager remembers telling him. “I’m sitting here having a conversation with you and it makes sense.”
“We thought he was going to turn over a new leaf,” said Deputy Craig Hoffman. But a week later, he was gone. He was filthy, slack-eyed, worse than ever in his next mug shot, the one that would be his last.
They came to Patty Ecker’s door after 2 a.m. to tell her the brother she had not seen in 17 years was dead. A deputy found him under a thin red blanket outside the Town 'N Country library by his shopping cart. He wore a rope for a belt. “We didn’t know he had family,” the deputies said.
She realized her brother laid down and died across the street from their first family home in Tampa. She felt so sad, so guilty. She called her mother. They had been planning his funeral for at least a decade.
The autopsy said it was chronic alcoholism.
Ecker went looking for answers on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. What she found sounded so much like her brother. They didn’t know any of this when he was growing up. “The safety net just missed him completely,” she said.
She and their 89-year-old mother were the lone mourners at a graveside service to inter his cremated remains. They talked about when George was a baby who could not be comforted, about his life. He was in such pain, his sister thought. “He was loved,” she said. “He was just born broken, and I couldn’t help him.”
His mother brought along his first baby walking shoes and a goofy red stuffed dog he called Bee-Bee to be buried with him. It still had an ancient band-aid where its eye had fallen off and his mother made it better for him. She brought a letter she wrote to him, private words for a son she loved despite everything.
“He taught us a lot about what it means to be a family,” his sister said. “He taught us about what it means to forgive.”
His headstone had room for four words under George Lee Boartfield, a man who wandered restless for so long. They decided on this:
He Walks In Peace.
On a February morning, a maintenance worker was picking up trash behind a strip mall off busy Hillsborough Avenue on Rocky Creek Drive. On the banks of a swampy creek behind the Hungry Howie’s and the nail salon, he paused to scan the water for fish and saw what looked like a log embedded in the mud. Then he saw pants and the shape of a man.
In the thick tangle of mangroves was not much more than a skeleton wearing a single sock, pants and a belt decorated with a distinctive lightning bolt pattern. Investigators would see that the teeth, jawbone, forearms and left foot were gone, likely the work of crabs and raccoons. Nearby lay a blanket and a baseball cap that said Vietnam Veteran.
Deputies talked to homeless people who were regulars at the nearby Burger King and bus stop, and someone said he hadn’t seen his friend Alan in awhile. Yes, that was his belt, the one with the lightning bolts on it.
The autopsy showed that Alan Bogush suffered numerous fractures to his face and ribs sometime in his life, but not shortly before he died. There were no signs of fresh trauma, but his body was too badly decomposed to determine what killed him.
The Vietnam veteran ball cap they found was only half correct. Military records indicate Bogush went into the Army in 1970 and was a private who served one day shy of a year. Records indicate he never left the United States before he was discharged.
He worked construction, but mostly he was a criminal, and not a very successful one.
State and local records show Bogush spent nearly a half-century breaking into houses, trafficking in stolen property, forging checks, selling cocaine, possessing pot, violating probation, failing to show up for court and driving without a license. He shuttled in and out of state prison nine times: a two-year sentence here, four years there, a 12-year stretch for cocaine, earning him the designation of “habitual felon.” A parade of mug shots over the years show his decline from a young man with a clear smile to a road-worn vagabond with a gray beard and dead eyes.
His stepdaughter Dustin Azpeitia called him dad and said he had loved her like his own. He was a good guy, but he stole to buy his drugs. “The drugs won,” she said.
She visited him in jail and once picked him up at the bus station when he got out. She bought him clothes and groceries. She told him he could not stay in that life.
Bogush was born in Arizona, a doted-on son and talented artist who once sold his work to a greeting card company. He was good at tattoos and his own skin bore more than a dozen. Laugh Now, Cry Later, one of them said.
His final arrest was a failed if grandiose attempt at thievery. According to a sheriff’s office report, an accomplice used bolt cutters to remove anti-theft devices from two chainsaws at the Home Depot on Memorial Highway. But an apparent plan to sneak the chainsaws and a tree trimmer out and over a fence to a waiting Bogush was unsuccessful, the report said. Bogush joined the accomplice in the store and the two were caught trying to saunter out with the $428.99 in merchandise, the report said.
When Bogush didn’t show up for court, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. He might already have been dead.
His stepdaughter learned he had been found from a Times reporter. She thought he was working construction down in Miami. She knew the life he had lived, but hated that he died alone and unnoticed. She wondered if he had used the veteran’s ball cap for panhandling.
In 1995, Robert Bonnice was quoted in a newspaper article about the difficulties of dating with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system that can affect vision, balance and muscle control, and the reason he would one day use a wheelchair.
Described as a former salesman from Brooklyn, Bonnice told a reporter that friends advised him to seek out women with MS. “It makes sense,” he said. “You can share and understand the problems you’re having.”
He had his share of problems.
Bob to his friends, Bonnice played the saxophone. He never married or had kids. By 2015, he was fighting being evicted from the tidy mobile home where he lived in a gated community in north Tampa. According to records, he was three months behind in paying rent for the lot.
Bonnice made a handwritten plea to the court, explaining he was disabled and on a fixed income — $733 from a monthly government disability check. He said he had been robbed twice in his wheelchair trying to get money orders to pay the rent. He said he had a lawsuit pending and would soon be able to make good.
“I am very unlucky,” he wrote. “Please help me. I beg you. Thank you.”
His lawsuit — he had been knocked backward and injured trying to board a public HARTline bus using the wheelchair lift —indeed settled for $10,000, what his attorney called “a fair and good result.” But by then he was evicted.
He had rolled into attorney Alina Morros’ office near the Salvation Army shelter near downtown where he sometimes stayed. He told her about playing the sax and said he once met Janet Jackson. “He was a great client,” she said.
And maybe a soft touch. Tampa Police Officer Daniel McDonald — one of the department’s two homeless liaisons — remembers advising Bonnice against sharing his monthly government check with a woman who befriended him. The next time he saw him, Bonnice had done it anyway.
Things were looking up. He had a handful of misdemeanor panhandling arrests but was offered a court intervention program that aims toward helping homeless people instead of jailing and fining them for minor crimes. They found him a bed at the DACCO treatment facility. He was working toward an apartment.
In December 2016, Bonnice was hit by a car in his wheelchair and treated for a broken leg. Weeks later he showed up at Tampa General, a regional safety net hospital for the poor. He was hurting, out of pain medication and unable to afford a follow-up doctor visit. He couldn’t move well enough to bathe and hadn’t in days. He was having chest pains. One hour into New Year’s Day, he died from a blood clot related to his MS, his autopsy said.
Contacted by the Times, family members from out of state would not talk about him.
Ronald Paul Burden was one of more than 40,000 veterans who were homeless in America 2017. He served in the Army from 1980-83, earning a sharpshooter badge.
In January 2017, he was in the Falkenburg Road Jail charged with panhandling. The sign he held up on busy Dale Mabry Highway at Spruce Street said “Vet U.S. Army Need Help God Bless.” Records say he drank two pints of vodka daily and had cirrhosis of the liver. He went to the jail infirmary with terrible abdominal pain and later died at Tampa General Hospital.
The number of homeless veterans in America was cut nearly in half since 2009, but in 2017 crept up 2 percent.
Shirtless and shoeless, Jeremy Richard Lee Haag stumbled down the railroad tracks in rural Seffner on a Sunday evening in May. The man with the long red hair and beard gave no sign he heard the Amtrak passenger train bearing down on him even as the engineer blared the horn again and again. He was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 43.
He grew up in Portland, Ore., and was a heavy drinker who had been homeless off and on for years, charged with panhandling, public drinking, domestic violence and trespassing. His name did not appear in a database of homeless people who had been helped by local agencies for housing and treatment. His father said they had not spoken in 20 years.
She was smart and outspoken, the independent one.
Siham and her sister Sana were twins born in Morocco. Their father, an electrician, died when they were babies. They came to Tampa after their mother married an American.
The twins were just 16 in a new, very different country. They were expected to go to Gaither High School and come home — no football games or homecoming events. Their family wanted to protect them.
But Siham — who told everyone to call her Cici instead of the unfamiliar “See-ham” — wanted to go out and have fun with friends, her sister said. Once she came home after she had been drinking. The family said enough. Papers were drawn up to transfer her to a school in New York. But at Tampa International Airport, she said she had to use the bathroom and disappeared.
Her sister would see her at the Carrollwood Publix where they both worked. Cici didn’t graduate with her sister in 2004, but she worked and paid her rent. “She wanted to be independent and do her own thing,” her sister said.
She married at 20 and had a baby girl, but the marriage fell apart. Her bad back got worse at her night job at Walmart. She went to doctors and got therapy and pills, her sister said. And more doctors and more pills.
“One doctor sent her to this one and that one,” her sister said.
Her bosses pulled Sana aside —Cici had been such a hard worker, but now her eyes looked like she was falling asleep. She was addicted — Oxycontin, Xanax and other pills, her sister learned. She later confessed to her twin about how a girl she knew taught her how to shoot up.
Her life spiraled. A close friend was killed by a drunk driver. She was sitting by the pool at her apartment complex off Lake Magdalene when a 35-year-old man on a jet ski invited her to go for a spin. On their second pass across the lake, he toppled off and cried for help, but she couldn’t pull him from the water and he drowned.
She met the wrong kind of boyfriend, her sister said. There was the methadone clinic and the time she had a bad seizure. Records show she was Baker Acted — taken into custody because she posed a danger to herself or others — at least twice.
She made it through treatment and came out glowing, but it didn’t last. Her second baby was taken from her soon after she gave birth, which hit her hard. Her sister took in one of her children and the other was in foster care. She had an appointment to be seen at a mental health facility but she missed it because she was in jail. “We really tried with her,” her sister said.
Eventually, she didn’t have a home. Her sister couldn’t take her in because her daughter was there.
On her last day, Cici called and asked for a ride. She was funny that day, making her sister laugh in the car. Sana dropped Cici off to stay with a friend at an apartment near the University of South Florida.
Debbie DiDonato and Cici had become instant friends years earlier. Cici was loving and fun — you couldn’t help but like her. But DiDonato had seen what was happening. Cici had "sticky fingers" — she would steal medication when she came over, Didonato would later tell investigators. DiDonato had warned her friend she could lose her child.
"She promised me she’d stop," DiDonato said.
They stayed up until 1 a.m., Cici in her red T-shirt and zebra-striped pants with her toenails painted bright red, talking about her kids. DiDonato thought her friend might be under the influence — she would laugh, then cry — "a roller coaster," she said.
The next morning, Cici lay on a mattress in the living room, her body cold. A prescription bottle was nearby. DiDonato tried CPR, but she was gone.
An autopsy ruled her death was accidental, due to the combined effects of the pain medication hydrocodone and Alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug sold under the trade name Xanax. She died with the word "dreams" tattooed near her left shoulder. She was 32, the youngest of five women who died homeless in Hillsborough County in 2017. She was also one of two homeless people that year who left behind a twin sibling with a job, a family and a life firmly on the grid.
Her sister could not believe she was gone — her twin who wouldn’t let her get picked on when they were little and always had her back. "She was strong in all aspects," Sana said, except this one.
"It’s sad. Addiction is a hard thing," DiDonato said. "She did try. She did fight. She couldn’t shake it."
"I’m going to miss her for a very long time."
He had a fishing pole in his hand at the age of 3. His first catch was a tiny flounder too small to bother with, but his daddy filleted it for him anyway. No matter how bad things got, Ryan Haynes fished. He knew every bend of the waters through rural Ruskin where he grew up, and where he died.
He made it as far as Eisenhower Middle School. His mother’s rule was if you weren’t in school you got a job. Before he was 16 he was working as a steelworker like his father on building jobs that took him to Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas.
“He wanted to work and work and work,” said his mother Beatrice Haynes.
Theirs was a family of modest means and its share of grief. They landed in Ruskin, a Florida town still more country than city south of Tampa, from Illinois after a motorcycle wreck killed a beloved family member who was only 21. “We came here for better things,” Mrs. Haynes said.
In 1995, she was in a horrific car accident that cost her her right arm and ended her career as a certified nursing assistant.
Ryan had his first epileptic seizure at 17 — no warning, no family history. After that he could go six months without one, then have three back to back, grand mal seizures that meant trips to the hospital. He took five medications a day to keep his job. When one medicine quit working doctors tried another, his mother said.
Then he lost his job and couldn’t find work, his mother said.
“Steel was all he knew,” she said.
He wouldn’t stay with his parents because he couldn’t pay rent, they said. He told them he would pitch his tent not far away in the woods near an inlet that curved in from the Little Manatee River. Still his mother saw him every day. He came for coffee in the morning, for a shower, a sandwich.
“I’d never turn my back on him,” she said.
He panhandled by the roadside in Sun City with a sign asking for help.
“It bothered me. I didn’t want him to be homeless,” his mother said. “But he chose that. That was his choice.”
He had Medicaid benefits to pay for his medication for awhile, his mother said, but that stopped and she isn’t sure why. He reapplied, she said. “I don’t know if he didn’t follow up with an appointment or what happened,” she said.
He was blue-eyed with a red-blond beard. He liked country music. He could be funny. He never married and never had children. His mother believes he didn’t want to pass on his seizure disorder.
He racked up mostly misdemeanor arrests — trespassing, resisting arrest without violence, disorderly conduct. Police call these “status” crimes related to being homeless.
In December 2016, a woman called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office about a man she didn’t know asleep on her front porch just before midnight. The deputy woke him. According to the deputy’s report, Haynes refused to leave. He was handcuffed and arrested, and in the back of the patrol car, spat through the partition three times on the deputy’s shirt. Haynes was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, a felony. He got out of jail nearly three months later with a sentence of time served.
A few weeks later, he didn’t show up at his mother’s door. A woman came up her driveway and said they found Ryan.
The spot is less than a mile from his parents’ home at a pretty bend where moss-draped oaks lean across the water. A messy homeless encampment of tents sits in a clearing nearby.
The medical examiner’s report concluded he accidentally drowned. The report also noted his seizure disorder and hypertensive heart disease, a heart condition associated with high blood pressure. It noted “intoxication by methamphetamine” and the synthetic marijuana called Spice. He was 33.
Coins and bills stuffed into donation jars at gas stations and stores helped pay for his cremation and for a gathering in the family’s shady yard to remember him. His father cooked 100 hot dogs. His mother remembers there were butterflies.
The urn stands at the center of a small shrine near their kitchen. It’s blue with the silhouette of a fisherman on it, and the words “Ryan Paul Haynes has gone fishing.”
“He’s home,” his mother said.
On an August night, Tampa Police rousting lingerers at a park frequented by street people found the body of a heavyset man. His Arizona driver’s license said Joshua Jakob.
When he was younger, his father took him along on business trips through Europe. His son’s high IQ should have opened the world to him, Kenneth Jakob said, but Joshua cared more about drugs, which he started taking in middle school. He got good at talking people out of money, his father said.
Jakob surfaced in Texas, Louisiana and finally Florida. Paperwork police found in the park indicated he was released two days earlier from Gracepoint, a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility. His bag contained prescription medicine for anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. Records noted a history of cocaine, spice, methamphetamine and alcohol abuse. An autopsy found he died from heart disease. It listed drug and alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity as contributing factors. “Never married, no children, never worked,” a report said.
“How can anybody get hooked on drugs so bad like that?” his father said. “Nobody can give me an answer.”
On a hot April afternoon, Michael Mansfield drank beer with a group of men behind a Sligh Avenue Sunoco. Then one of them noticed his beer can was upside down. They tried CPR and called 911 but he died at the scene. One of the men said Mike — he did not know his last name — drank a lot. In his pants pocket police found loose change and a bottle of cologne. He died of chronic alcoholism.
He had arrests in California, Arizona, Minnesota, Key West and Tampa, where he had just missed a court date on a public urination charge.
As soon as his body was wheeled away, police removed the yellow crime scene tape from behind the gas station, the only sign that anything out of the ordinary happened.
Just after 2 a.m. on Oct. 10, a man driving a dark stretch of W Hillsborough Avenue along Tampa International Airport saw a body in the road and called 911. Police determined it was a hit and run but found little evidence at the scene.
Addy Prince-Failde had previously been taken into custody under the Baker Act after she walked into traffic. She came here from Cuba in 2003 and lived with a nephew in Tampa, but he told police he had not heard from her in months. Records indicate she was diagnosed with mental disorders but would not take medication. Her occupation was listed as “painter, unemployed.”
Investigators found her shoes on the curb and what appeared to be torn pieces of a cotton shirt stuffed in her ears. Her death remains unsolved.
The man called Scotty slept in his van. But it was cool out, so his friend who owned a Nebraska Avenue auto repair shop let him stay inside for a few nights. They found him on the floor in his boxers when they opened up on the morning of April 3. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The name people knew him by — Scott Jackson — wasn’t his. His fingerprints came back under another name, one with active warrants for selling marijuana and violating probation 13 years earlier. Investigators reached a sister, who said his real name was Delroy Richardson.
He was one of 10 children born in Jamaica. He had been a car salesman. His sister says he chose his life and could always find her if he needed anything.
That last night, a nephew came to the shop and they watched the Celtics beat the Knicks. Among his possessions police found four prescription bottles of pills for his heart. An autopsy determined his heart killed him. He left behind a set of keys, an old watch and a wallet containing $11.30
Nearly 20 years ago, a hurricane brought Gloria Sales from a small town in Texas to Florida to do tree service work. She liked it so much she stayed. Over the years, she drank, got arrested and became homeless.
Like a surprising number of people living on the streets, she also stayed in touch with her family and even went back to visit. Her daughter said that was the family’s biggest struggle: that Sales was okay with being homeless. “She was living her life,” Kendal Perez said.
As Hurricane Irma approached Florida last year, Perez wanted her mother to come home. No, she said, she had weathered storms before and would probably just go fishing. In September, Sales collapsed near a Riverview Amscot store after a witness said she’d had at least eight beers. She died at 49 from heart disease with alcoholism as a contributing factor.
“We always knew someday we’d get that call,” her daughter said. “We just didn’t think it would be that soon.”
James Sowder called his sister Blueberry Muffin. “Toodles,” he always said instead of goodbye. He was the nicest guy when he wasn’t drinking.
Born in small-town West Virginia, he got good grades in school but started drinking at 12. His sister Penny Willis said it was how he dealt with childhood abuse. He worked drywall and would quit the wine for a while, then take it up with a vengeance. He chose his life, bunked down in a tent behind a Public Storage complex, doing odd jobs for a Korean church. “It was like two people living in one body,” his sister said.
In September, he didn’t show up for coffee at the Burger King. A friend found him lying in his tent, ashtray balanced on his chest, the radio he used to listen to the Tampa Bay Rays nearby. He had been dead for days. An autopsy said it was his heart.
His family knew the call would come but feared he would be murdered. “As sad as it is and as much as we miss him, I’m thankful it wasn’t an act of violence,” his sister said. At his memorial they played his favorite song, Free Bird.
Robert Carl Stewart’s heart gave out on him in February at a homeless camp where he lived with his daughter in Plant City.
Stewart served in the Army from 1981 to 1985, earning a sharpshooter badge and a good conduct medal. Some people called him Pops. He had been a long-haul trucker who loved to fish and camp. He drank heavily, favoring Busch beer. His son said he took up smoking spice.
Stewart was homeless off and on by choice, joining his grown daughter at the camp. Records say he had bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. He had gotten help and financial support through the VA. In 2017, he had surgery to put a stent in his coronary artery.
Jonathan Stewart said the last time he saw his father, “he said, 'I love you, I’ll call you later.’ He always told me he loved me. No matter what, he always told me he was proud of me.”
“It killed me the day he died.”
Wendy Lou Wilkins died in hospice care from end-stage liver cirrhosis. Alcohol abuse and COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive lung condition that makes it hard to breathe — were contributing factors in her death.
In 2013, she was charged with having an open container of alcohol. That same year she was jailed on a charge of hitting her boyfriend, who was also homeless, in the face. She told police she caught him going through her purse, where he found an unopened beer that he accused her of hiding from him. The state attorney’s office did not prosecute her.
She had two tattoos of roses, one of a heart. A relative told the Times the family preferred to keep details of her life to themselves.