The Santa Barbara Police Department’s decision last week to close their investigation into the suspicious death of a homeless man has hit a nerve among homeless advocates already edgy over the unsolved fatal assault of a second homeless man last spring. The members of this diverse group don’t always see eye-to-eye, but last Wednesday, March 18, they found themselves unequivocally united in the belief that the police move was premature.
“There’s no way if this was a Montecito resident they would have shut [the case] down on the basis of a conversation in a hallway,” said Ken Williams, a social worker who works with the homeless downtown and knows most of them by name.
Ross Stiles, 43, died from the effects of severe brain swelling on February 4. His friends say he told them he’d been hit over the head with a bottle on the night of Sunday, February 1, and complained of headaches the next day. Two other homeless people said they heard glass break and saw two people run from Stiles’s campsite the same night he claimed to have been hit. By the following Tuesday morning, when Stiles’s headache symptoms progressed to the point of visual impairment, his companions called 911 and both an ambulance and police showed up. He died the following day.
Police insist they searched diligently for leads in the weeks that followed, completing multiple interviews of homeless people in the beachfront area where Stiles camped and in and around the railroad tracks where two Hispanic men were rumored to have assaulted other homeless campers. They say they interviewed men on the labor line as well, but no workable leads emerged. Then, when the Coroner’s Office informed them the results of their investigation into the cause of Stiles’s death would be “inconclusive,” they judged the case dead pending fresh leads.
But homeless advocates beg to differ, especially in light of the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office confirming their investigation into the cause of Stiles’s death unfinished. “The doc still has work to do,” said Lieutenant Sol Linver of the County Sheriff’s Department. “He still has some tissue samples to look at.”
On Friday, two social workers recalled that in the week after Stiles’s death, city police ratcheted up their enforcement of codes that homeless routinely violate - bans on sleeping and camping in public, for example. The social workers said these tactics would not likely produce sensitive, criminal information relating to the Stiles case. A few of them, including Williams, also believe police officers’ announcement of Stiles’s 0.368 blood-alcohol level at the time of his arrival in the ER was an attempt to blame Stiles’s inebriant behavior for his injury.
But Sergeant Ed Olsen, supervisor of the Police Department’s crimes against persons division, said police worked hard to uncover evidence of Stiles’s alleged assault. “We opened up a number of cases of assault [based on this],” he said. “We really pulled out all the stops.” But he added, “I need to know how this person died.” Olsen said the pathologist couldn’t say why Stiles’s brain swelled.
However, the Sheriff’s Department says the coroner’s division had not finished their work on Stiles’s case and therefore had not made a determination of death.
“The reason it was inconclusive is because he hasn’t completed the report,” said Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Geoff Banks.
“We’re not going to make a determination [of death] until we’ve completed the case,” Linver said. A coroner’s report into a suspicious death can take two to three months.
Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, said that if the victim had not been a homeless man and instead was the 19-year-old daughter of a judge who had been hit over the head during a night of partying in Montecito, investigators would perhaps not be so quick to throw in the towel. “I think this is yet another reason for our police officers to redouble their efforts and make sure everyone knows this case is very much open and that they’re doing everything they can to come up with evidence that will lead them in a different direction,” Foley said.
Foley, Williams, and others are urging citizens concerned about the Stiles case to write to police and City Council members and urge them to reopen the investigation.
Homeless advocates and the homeless themselves are still awaiting news as to the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into last May’s beating death of Gregory Ghan. A 53-year-old homeless man, Ghan was found beaten to within an inch of his life in the doorway of the Isla Vista Medical Clinic May 31 and was removed from life support June 10. No arrests have been made and the results of a 10-month investigation haven’t been released.
On Friday morning, near the Cabrillo Boulevard restrooms where Stiles once camped, some of the homeless who knew him said they weren’t surprised police gave up. Harry Wilfong, a 67-year-old homeless man who used to build and sell elaborate wooden models on Stearns Wharf and now camps somewhere downtown, said Stiles was a quiet guy. “He was a hell of a nice person. He just liked his booze but he never bothered nobody.”