In journalism, it’s a continual roll of stories, and after a while, they recede. But sometimes, years later, they return with unexpected consequence.
This month, Jeff Crosby, a Bellevue financial analyst, got a call from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
An investigator asked if he knew somebody named William Kaphaem.
“I thought it was a prank call,” says Crosby.
The investigator said, “You might know him as ‘Three Stars.’ ”
Kaphaem had been found dead around noon on Aug. 7 in a 14-foot aluminum rowboat, tightly covered by a tarp stretched over a PVC frame. The boat was anchored in the lily-pad shallows, about 10 feet off Marsh Island along Seattle’s Arboretum Waterfront Trail.
“Oh, my goodness,” Crosby thought. It had been a while since he had seen Three Stars.
Then Crosby contacted me.
Kaphaem was a homeless man with whom Crosby had developed an unlikely acquaintanceship beginning in 2011.
Crosby had met Three Stars after reading my Seattle Times story in April 2011, headlined, “Man makes a rowboat his home under the 520 bridge.”
“After your story I would go down and see him and give him money, and batteries that he needed for his lantern and I bought him army pants that he really wanted and other things,” Crosby told me. “I told him to call me anytime and see me as his emergency contact.”
Kaphaem preferred to be called Three Stars, saying he had Mohawk tribal ancestry, and that the name reflected his bond with the outdoors.
The Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Three Stars had been dead for eight months. A dog in the boat had also perished. The Medical Examiner’s Office said there was “no anatomical cause of death” — no apparent foul play — in Kaphaem’s “skeletonized human remains.” He was 59.
Like many among the homeless, Three Stars lived a lonely existence and died a lonely death. Even in an urban nature preserve, numerous people would have walked by his boat. He became one more number in the growing list of homeless people who died in King County, which saw a record 194 deaths in 2018, over half of them outdoors. In 2017, the number was 169.
The fact that eight months elapsed before Three Stars’ body was found is at once shocking and yet hardly a surprise to Rex Hohlbein, a Seattle architect and founder and creative director of Facing Homelessness, which seeks to raise awareness of the homeless through photos and stories.
In January’s one-night homeless count in King County, roughly 5,000 of the 11,000 of the individuals counted were listed as living “unsheltered” — in the streets or under freeways.
When an unsheltered person dies, “there’s hardly a ripple,” says Hohlbein. “They’re invisible. Whether they were there yesterday or not, you don’t see them. Their connections are few and rarely outside the homeless community.”
When Crosby visited Three Stars, the brief conversations usually were with Crosby standing outside, and Three Stars speaking from inside the tarp.
Crosby had lost track of Three Stars, who had moved from his preferred location when there was construction work at the 520 bridge, bounced around various places along the Arboretum waterfront, and eventually ended up by Marsh Island.
The medical examiner’s investigator had found a Christmas card that Three Stars had kept with him for years. Crosby had given him the card, with money tucked inside and his cellphone number written down.
The boat had been moored off Marsh Island for months until a man complained that it “could be polluting the water and upset the delicate ecosystem for fish and birds,” and Seattle police Harbor Patrol officers went to check it out.
The cops had to make a hole in the tarp to see what was inside. They found Three Stars, and they also found a dead dog. That was Buddy.
In his homeless life, Three Stars owned three dogs. They were his closest companions. It was understandable.
A Seattle Animal Shelter report says “… the dog wasn’t able to get off the boat and died as well …” Buddy was described as a small mixed-breed, under 24 pounds.
In the 2011 story, Three Stars said life on the streets was not for him.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff. I didn’t want to schlep it around like some tramp. I’ve got more dignity than that,” he then said.
The boat was crammed with clothes to layer up when it got cold, five spinning rods for catching perch, bass and the occasional trout in the Lake Washington surroundings, a collapsible trap for catching crawdads, a Coleman lantern and stove to heat soup or fry the fish and a battery-powered radio for listening to baseball games or KIXI-AM and its nostalgia music.
Explaining how he ended up homeless, Three Stars said that since his youth, he had an attention-deficit disorder “in which like I had 40 jobs in two years, and I got fired in all of them … Burger King, grocery store … sometimes I can’t shut my face.”
So he qualified for a SSI program for the aged and disabled, and that got him $636 a month. For a time, he said, he even lived a kind of a family life, fathering a daughter, living with her mother (who he said died years ago), bouncing around cheap motels and subsidized housing. He told people he was estranged from his daughter.
The main constant were the dogs.
In 2011, it was Lulu. The old dog appeared to be a cattle-dog mix, black with white paws and a grayish face. Three Stars loved Lulu, always patiently by his side.
“When Lulu passed, Three Stars did a Native American burial,” remembers Hohlbein. “We dug a hole for Lulu, covered her up, and Three Stars did a calling to the elders, to the hunting grounds, asking for safe passage.”
After Lulu came Sunny, a black Labrador cross.
Three Stars ended up having to give up Sunny. In May 2015, he was charged with animal cruelty, according to Seattle Municipal Court records.
According to a man’s witness statement, Three Stars had gone with Sunny to the Safeway at 22nd Avenue East and East Madison Street that he frequented.
The witness wrote, “… I saw a man yell, ‘Get off me!’ at his dog and throw the dog down on her back. I could hear the dog yelp out either in surprise or pain at his actions … it appeared that this man was holding the dog down by her throat so she could not move and he could tie her to a garbage can while he shopped in the Safeway.”
Besides surrendering Sunny, Three Stars had to take eight hours of anger-management classes and an animal-obedience course prior to getting a new pet.
The court records said that several individuals submitted statements on behalf of Three Stars, “stating he loves his dogs and has never been abusing them.”
At 59, Three Stars also reflected another growing trend among the homeless, which is rapidly aging into the 50 and 65 range, matching the baby boomers’ aging. Based on data from 300 programs around the country, the head of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council told The Seattle Times in January, “It’s robbing years of life, decades of life.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office says it did manage to contact next of kin for Three Stars. The office passed on a request to the family for an interview, but there was no response. It’s up to them what to do with his remains.
As for Buddy, who was trapped in the tarped boat, the Medical Examiner’s Office says there was “no indication of scavenging” on Three Star’s body. Buddy stayed true to Three Stars.
The little dog, says the Animal Control report, simply was found “curled up next to the deceased owner.”