Calls bring little help homeless man dies

January 12, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Richard Wagner was the homeless man everyone knew but no one could help.

Although South Baltimore merchants made repeated attempts to get help Tuesday -- including at least four calls to 911 -- they said police and paramedics did nothing beyond moving the man from the street to a vacant store's doorway.

By 9 p.m., after three visits from the same police officer and two visits from paramedics, the 41-year-old man died -- just a few feet from the spot where he had been found that morning. And his death -- on a day when the temperature hovered near freezing -- left those who knew Mr. Wagner questioning whether rescue workers did enough.

"He was going to die, and we knew it," said David J. Repischak, who owns Eclectic Collection, a store near the spot where Mr. Wagner was first found face down on the sidewalk. Mr. Repischak said the man, who sometimes slept in an alley of a neighborhood church and did odd jobs for merchants at Cross Street Market, was shaking and babbling incoherently.

"You can't lay half-naked outside and expect to survive the elements," he said. "The paramedic said, 'He's a frequent flier, he's not sick. He needs to walk it off.' "

Baltimore police are reviewing the incident. But officials defended the officer who handled the calls, saying Mr. Wagner refused help and was not disorderly.

"He did not appear to be ill," said police spokesman Sam Ringgold. "He was not violating any laws. We can't force them into wagons. Homeless people have rights, too." Mr. Ringgold said police can order emergency transportation against a person's will only when there is reason to believe the person is in imminent danger to himself or to others. "The officer says there was nothing to suggest that," the spokesman said.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said, "It appears that Fire Department protocols were followed."

According to police, a Southern District officer first spotted the man shortly before 11 a.m. and called for an ambulance. Both left about 11:15 a.m. Subsequent 911 calls were received at 1:54, 2:29 and 9:06 p.m.

Police said Mr. Wagner was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. He was wrapped in a blue blanket, lying in the doorway of the vacant store at 1124 S. Charles St. A bottle of alcohol was nearby.

Several merchants said that during one call police had to pull Mr. Wagner from under a beer truck, and that another time, he was lying partially naked on the sidewalk.

Mr. Repischak said he became so frustrated that he called the mayor's office about 4 p.m. and spoke with an aide who got in touch with the Department of Social Services. Mr. Repischak said a representative of the organization called him to say it couldn't send anyone before morning.

Mayoral spokesman Clinton R. Coleman said that "police and paramedics all indicated that the guy was belligerent, was intoxicated and violently refused services."

The spokesman said one 911 call indicated that Mr. Wagner was crawling up the sidewalk on his stomach. "It is frustrating, because you can have all the services available, but we can't force them to take it," Mr. Coleman said.

Some neighborhood store owners agreed that Mr. Wagner refused assistance. But others charged that the police officers and paramedics were callous and unwilling to help a man in obvious need. And the people who called 911 said rescuers should have helped Mr. Wagner by taking him to a hospital or shelter -- despite any protests he might have made.

"We called to help the man and they turned him down," said Alston John Andrews, who works at a fish stall at Cross Street Market and said he had known Mr. Wagner for 22 years. "I don't think that's right at all."

Michael Katz, owner of the Charles Street Liquor Store, said, "Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. It's a shame that he had to die unattended. In my opinion, there should have been some place for him to go."

Such situations represent a quandary for officials, especially for police who must balance the rights of the homeless with people who file complaints. Sometimes, merchants call 911 and complain that someone is drunk so police will remove a homeless person from their business, Mr. Ringgold said.

"That is not to say that is what happened last night," he added. "That is the awkward postion that officers find themselves involved in."

Norma Pinette, executive director for Action for the Homeless, a statewide advocacy group, said there is no organized response to help people found wandering the streets.

Calling 911, she said, is one of the few options. "Even if someone is seeking service, they have to go to many places before they find what they need. It is a very tough situation."

Mr. Wagner apparently became homeless about two years ago after divorcing his wife and leaving his job with a moving company, according to friends at the Cross Street Market.

Bob Richter, who works at a fish stand and hired Mr. Wagner to do odd jobs such as make trips to the cleaners, said the man did not want to be helped.

Mr. Wagner, he said, spent money on vodka, and frequently was hospitalized because of his addiction. Last month, Mr. Wagner passed out in the Cross Street Market; he was released from the hospital earlier this week.

"The police claim they don't have time to respond to all these drunk people," he said. "Look at how many times the police were called. They could have avoided all that and done something the first time and saved a life."

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