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Ventura County

A Nephew Pays His Respects

Grieving: Tom Clark is looking for answers after his uncle, a homeless man, is beaten to death near Ventura River.

July 13, 2001|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks ago, Tom Clark knew almost nothing of the people who sleep among the bushes and meandering dirt trails near the edge of the Ventura River.

He had only heard a few stories from his uncle, James Clark, a homeless alcoholic who had lived there himself, in Ventura's Hobo Jungle, for more than two decades.

But in the past two weeks Tom Clark has made it his business to find out everything he can about the homeless men and women who were his uncle's companions. It is his way of doing his duty. "This is family. This is blood," Clark says. "You can't get that back."

On June 29, James Clark was beaten to death as he slept on a patch of sandy dirt he considered his home on the edge of Ventura. The homeless people who knew him best found his bloodied corpse the next morning.

Since the day the coroner's office gave him the news, Tom Clark has searched for answers and vowed to bring some dignity to his uncle's death.

He has found some of those answers among the band of people who shared their booze and food with his Uncle Jim. He has also stood with them at the primitive shrine of rocks they built in the shape of a cross on the spot where his uncle was killed.

And he says he is feeling good that his uncle is being remembered with respect.

"He was doing exactly what he wanted to do," Tom Clark said. "And he deserves for someone to know that he was a victim."

There is no disputing that fact, police and prosecutors say. On Wednesday, Timothy John Becker, Christopher Michael Dunham and Robert Allen Upton, all 18, were charged with robbery and murder in the death of James Clark.

The three face a July 24 arraignment and are eligible for the death penalty. Police suspect the three 18-year-olds and a 14-year-old boy first robbed Clark and later returned to beat him and pummel him with rocks. The 14-year-old appeared briefly in Juvenile Court Thursday, where formal arraignment was postponed until Aug. 1.

James Clark lived with his nephew's family briefly in the early 1970s before he rented a home in Newbury Park and found a job as a sheet metal worker. He left his job and his house about 20 years ago and moved to the Ventura riverbed. From time to time, Tom Clark would see his uncle. He would leave notes for him at a local homeless shelter inviting him to holiday dinners; sometimes the uncle showed up, sometimes he did not.

Since the discovery of the body and the arrests, Clark has made several trips to the Ventura River to track down his uncle's riverbed colleagues.

Tom Clark's father died in 1986. Clark believes his father would have done the same thing. In paying his respects to his uncle, he was also honoring his father's memory, Clark said.

Tom Clark first went to the beach near Surfers Point, where local surfers spoke fondly of James Clark and told his nephew how his uncle would watch their gear while they were in the water. In return, they would buy the 58-year-old ex-Army veteran lunch or dinner.

Ventura's homeless were not nearly as anxious to talk, Clark said.

"At first they thought I was a cop," the nephew recalled. "They frisked me. . . . But once they trusted me I got an overwhelming response. People in the street knew him and said nothing but good things about him."

Thursday afternoon, Clark took one more trip across the oily train trestle that crosses the Ventura River estuary. Down a dirt trail marked by the remnants of yellow police tape, he stared at the stone cross, surrounded on three sides by thick weeds and scrub brush.

In a nearby clearing, a group of riverbed homeless talked about his uncle and the life he lived.

Jim Vining, who shaped the rocks into a cross, said teenagers and others hike through the homeless camps on their way to the beach nearly every night.

Sometimes they come looking for trouble, he said. Most of the time the homeless manage to keep their distance, but not always, Vining said.

"It's all part of the risk of living out here," said Vining, a squat 31-year-old with a thick gold chain dangling from his neck and a shaved head. "I wish they would have tried to come down here and beat me."

Clark, a building contractor from Thousand Oaks, stared at lavender wildflowers stuffed into a plastic milk carton serving as a vase at the makeshift memorial. "It's all really touching," he said. "I know people think that the homeless are scum, but they are not."

The homeless talked about how life has changed in the tangle of trails and wooded camps since James Clark's death.

They are more wary now of outsiders and have banded together to survive.

"What you're seeing is an uprising of people," said Fred Frederick, 30, as he sat on a cardboard mat. "He [James Clark] was a frail little man and he never spoke out of turn and this has affected us all. This was in my backyard."

Others talked about getting even. But then, just as quickly, they said they aren't looking for any more problems.

"I'm not a big person on incarceration," said Eric Anderson, a bearded 49-year-old man who goes by the nickname "T-Bone." "But I hope those boys [responsible] get life in prison."

James Clark will be cremated and buried in the same Camarillo cemetery plot as his brother, Tom Clark Sr., who died of kidney cancer in 1986.

There will be no service at the cemetery, Tom Clark said. Instead, a memorial is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Joseph P. Reardon Funeral Home on Main Street in Ventura.

Several local business owners and surfers who knew James Clark have offered to pay for the burial, but Tom Clark turned them down. "No one here has transportation, so that's why I am having it here," he said. "They were closer to him than I was."

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