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Homeless but not alone

John Robert McGraham, the man who was torched to death in Mid-Wilshire, had siblings and a community that adopted him.

October 13, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

After he sank into depression in the early 1980s and lost his job at the old Ambassador Hotel, his sisters got him to see a therapist. But it didn't work. In desperation, they tried to get him committed, but he skipped out.

And so John Robert McGraham's sisters settled into a pattern: visiting their brother on the streets of Mid-Wilshire whenever they could. They brought him food, money and clothing. They brought their children to see their "Uncle Johnny." The sisters were pleasantly surprised to learn that the neighborhood -- with poor immigrants and merchants -- also looked out for him.

Then last week, someone threw gasoline from a red canister on the homeless man who seemed rooted to the corner of 3rd and Berendo streets, in a densely populated, diverse neighborhood west of downtown. Neighbors rushed to save him in the Thursday night darkness. But his body had been charred, and he died.

On Sunday evening, more than 200 people crowded the sidewalk and spilled over into 3rd Street for a memorial to McGraham. Many of them wept as dozens of votive candles glowed on the concrete. McGraham's sister Susanne McGraham-Paisley brought pictures of her brother.

One showed him in front of a slot machine at the Lady Luck in Las Vegas. With his curly top and clean-shaven looks, he was a looker, said an elderly Central American immigrant woman.

"Ay, how handsome he looks," said Mari Umana, with a note of awe and sadness.

"He was loved here, seriously," a woman told another bystander in the throng.

"Remember his eyes?" a young woman asked. "I really hope they get whoever did this."

But police Sunday had no new information about who might have killed the 55-year-old man, LAPD Officer Karen Smith said.

As the outrage over his gruesome death settled in, so did testimonials about the disheveled homeless man with a Buddha-like frame known in the neighborhood as "John," "Mr. John" or "Grimley." People spoke about his piercing blue eyes and his kind, quiet manner. The owners of the local convenience store spoke about how conscientious he was.

"He never paid a penny less," said Anjana Bhowmick, owner of Bengal Liquor store.

McGraham's place in his neighborhood gave some relief to his family.

"I feel that it has been a great comfort to myself and my brothers and sisters to know that he was not alone, unnoticed, untouched by other humans -- because that is what we had imagined," McGraham-Paisley said in an e-mail to The Times.

But in interviews Sunday, relatives also said they struggled for answers that seemed hidden within the clutter of half a century, and they were asking questions that would seem familiar to loved ones of many of the thousands of people who live on Los Angeles streets. Why did their brother end up on the street in the first place? Could they have done more?

McGraham rebuffed the family's offers to take him in. And over the decades that he lived on the streets, his family tried to keep in touch.

He was the second-youngest of six children, growing up in working-class Cypress Park. As a boy, he devoured superhero comic books and clasped a towel around his neck to channel Superman. He was a Star Trek fan who looked up to the dashing James T. Kirk.

His father was an alcoholic and abusive, and sister Sharon McGraham, 58, said her younger brother seemed to be the proverbial "lost child" of the large family. But their mother "used to say he was the good-hearted one," Sharon said.

In a strange way, McGraham's sensitivity seemed to bespeak of inner turmoil, his sisters said. Troubles that others could shake had a way of embedding themselves into his soul.

In the 1970s, when McGraham was in his early 20s, Sharon McGraham helped him get a job at the Biltmore Hotel; McGraham later took a job as a bellhop at the Ambassador Hotel, where he was a well-regarded employee.

He fell in love, but the romance did not work out, and McGraham became depressed and lost his job. Sharon got him to see a therapist, which helped at first, but when the therapist took a monthlong vacation, her brother became utterly lost, she said.

One day, when Sharon refused his request for money, he hit her, she said. She was not badly hurt but pressed charges in a futile effort to get him help.

He was never diagnosed, the sisters said, and they couldn't have him committed. McGraham began to spend time on the streets, disappearing for long periods. He eventually moved in with his mother, but they didn't get along and she eventually asked him to leave.

A few years later, in 1987, his mother was dying of cancer. A Good Samaritan cleaned McGraham up, dressed him in a suit and took him to the hospital.

"I love you Mom," he told her, according to Susanne.

"John, please take care of yourself," his mother told him tenderly. "You look good."

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