By Vera Sanchez and Sunny Rey
December 25th, 2015 is the day we found Craig Miller dead. Most people celebrate Christmas by unwrapping surprises, with the smell of coffee, the sound of giggles, and the warmth of a crowded house. We were just two volunteers wanting to pass out sleeping bags; the season slump was to be uplifted in the streets of Ocean Beach.
An organization, The Urban Street Angels, had a goal of reaching 800 local homeless in the community by gifting them with newly donated sleeping bags. As fate would have it, we received an outdated flyer with an old starting time of the event, consequently arriving two hours late to an event that had longed past.
Disappointed and left with little options on how to fill up time on a deserted holiday crammed with closed business, we sat in our car looking for a cheap distraction. Not too long into our loitering, we observed a German Shepard frantically running, attempting to flag down the attention of opportune passing cars and pedestrians. Amused by his enthusiasm and softened by his failure, we decided to get out of our car and follow him by foot on whatever adventure he invited us to. We whizzed by antique shops, closed stores with shells, propped up San Diego sweaters on window seals, handmade beads, and glass bongs, but then our K-9 vanished.
Appearing in its place an open coffee shop, Mama’s Mug. We indulged in their unique elixirs and paid homage to the town by purchasing an iconic OB sticker sporting a seagull stretching its wings. Exiting the shop, we found ourselves aimlessly dragging our feet through the Christmas morning. We made a left on Sunset Cliffs, crossing over a gas station, and hugged another left onto a deserted Santa Monica. A quarter way down the street, emerged a figure flapping his arms to the beat of his sobs. The closer we get to this figure, the more he became in focus as he lunged into our path.
“Help! Do you have a cell phone? Do you have a cell phone?” he repeats as he begs for the common device. “I think my friend is dead. He has no pulse. I checked it. He has not pulse. He’s dead,” continuing on with his hysterical dialogue. We look at each other, and no words need to be said. “I was sleeping with him all night. It was cold, but not cold enough to die, man. Oh God, please let him be alive, man.”
As we split up duties, one calls 911, the other crouches down to inspect the validity of the gruesome claim. From an aerial view, one would see a flood of cop cars, caravanned by firetrucks, and the roaring sirens of paramedics on their way. You would see Skip, the frantic friend, stacking deep into a bush a fifth of vodka halfway lit. One of us still on the phone with emergency responders, coordinating what moves to make next, one shouting out the other, “They said to lay him down.” Orders were followed as the body was pulled out of its half slummed sitting state and dragged down flatting on the cement. A cold body on cold cement.
While laid out, we notice a medical tag that is commonly found on a wrist during a hospital stay. Etched in bold ink highlighted the name, CRAIG WILLIAM MILLER.
The still moment interrupted by the skilled movements of well trained professionals, fluently moving inside of what appeared to be a comfortable routine, and we collect uselessly off to the side along with Skip. Disturbing images flashing of an artificially pumped body, moving more lifelike then one would expect from something dead, with a medical IV dripping into a stiff vein. Oddly standing out amongst all of the darkness was the irony of squeaky new white tennis shoes pointing directly up to the seagulls.
We stood there trying our damndest to keep Steven together as he slobbered on our shoulders, leaking out the various smells of combined booze. Eventually emerging, the lead sergeant spoke in words we assumed from the beginning, as the medics took out the needles and covered the body with a blanket.
As the sheet was straighten out, Skip simultaneously fell to the ground. Casually, the cop interviewed us with standard questions. As we went thought the motion, we saw the badge on his chest that read, “S. Hurtado Jr.” noting three stars on his gold platted name tag, along with embroidered stripes on both sides of his sleeves.
“Look, motherfucker,” vomited out of the mouth of a local transient, who stood at 5’6, crowned with long gray stringy hair bound together by what could only be a torn cloth from a t-shirt that stretched out over his forehead in a Rambo like aggression. Charging at Skip now, nose to nose, “This is all your fault, motherfucker. I’ll bury you outback.”
Skip shaped shifted from victim to shame, crouching backwards, like a dog tripping over his guilty tail dangling in between his legs. The cops position themselves around the belligerent man, curious as to how far his passion would take him, but the presences of the sergeant and his crew defused the situation. The threat of bearing blurred once more, as both Skip and his foe walked off in opposite directions.
“You are free to leave,” Sergeant Hurtado instructs us. We walked slowly, thick in a days, empty of what to do next. Cutting across Cable Street, we find our bodies back on Newport Ave, and decided to head back to our car.
A few steps into this decision, we stumble across Skip’s nemesis. Hovering Godlike over a pack of young inebriated zonked out teens, he preached to choir of deaf ears. We hear snippiest of, “Fucking Skip was Craig’s partner. He wasn’t supposed to do him like that. Skip is only worried about where he’s going to get his next fix. Yeah, you should of seen him all dramatic like shouting, ‘Poor me. Poor fucking me,” as the Robin Hood of the streets acts out the scene.
We debate our involvement and choose once again to get tangled with the situation. We popped off with an open window question, “Hey are you alright?” Without skipping a beat, Robin Hood spilled his guts to a much more interested audience of two.
“You want to know the truth? Do you want to know the fucking truth? I told Steven last week that his partner was looking bad. I got up in his face.” He demonstrated his theatrical skills and pushed himself in our faces. For each step he took forward, we took back two more. “I fucking told him if I caught him mixing that booze with those prescriptions that I would bury his ass out back. And do you think he stopped?”
Robotically, we chimed in, “No.”
“That’s right no because where is Craig now?”
“Dead?” We both idiotically repeat in sync once more.
“That’s right! Craig is fucking dead now!” He puts his head down and shakes to the recalling of a recent memory when he and his wife, just the week prior, found Craig used up, passed out, penniless, pissed on, and puke stench drunk. Robin Hood and his wife shoveled Craig out of the sand, purchased a used pair of pants at the thrift, cleaned him up, and gave Craig a solid, warning that Steven was not to be trusted.
“Penniless?” We asked aloud, wondering in silence what does one homeless man have that another would want to take?
“Oh yeah, Craig had as shit load money,” he continues, “he played professional hockey up in Canada. Dude was only 59 years old. What a fucking shame, man,” Robin Hood shakes his head again.
With little to contribute to the conversation, we offer our condolences, “Yeah, man, that’s fucking bullshit,” we do our best to match his street credit with our response, “fuck that guy, Steven, man. Really sorry he did Craig like that, man.” We excused ourselves with a universal peace sign as we strolled out, while looking back to ask our final question, “Hey buddy what’s your name?”
“It’s Davis, man. Davis.”
Sinking back into our car, the time pops up on the dash, the red lights flashing 1:09 p.m.; we comment as to how quickly two hours passed.
As we drive down Sunset Cliffs with full intentions to hit the freeway, we hugged a left, yet again, and see Sargent Hurtado standing in front of Craig and his shielded body. We parked and headed back towards the scene, as though we wanted closer to the situation. We silently stand next to the sergeant, who hovered over Craig Miller for some time.
Without all the clutter of first responders and sobbing Skip, we were able to let the lonely scenery digested into our system. We take in the fact that this man died against a vacant building, where a few stores down a woman casualty waddled into a dentist office, unaffected by the scene. We take in the fact that there is a connecting residence where someone through the night must have heard the bantering of two friends, one voice falling quiet and the other boasting out begging for a phone to confirm a second opinion.
Sergeant Hurtado reminisced, “I knew him for three years,” he reminded himself of the length of time, “he is the sixth death by noon today,” as his eyes glazed over with a tear yet to drop. He continued, “Just last week I had coffee with the guy, and just like this, he is gone.”
We inquired, “Have you heard if he was a professional hockey player. Is there any truth in that?”
Sergeant Hurtado responded, “I have met a lot of prince and princess in these streets. I haven’t looked into it myself, but he seemed like someone who didn’t belong out here.”
We excused ourselves back into our vehicle and head to our separate homes finishing the holiday with little spirit left under a full moon, the first on Christmas in over 30 years.
Next day, the name Craig Miller echoed in both of our minds. We conducted separate Google searches and easily found our match. Could this be our guy? Our first match when typing “Craig Miller hockey” pulled up the information of a man born on March 17th, 1956 making him 59. Clicking on the link brought up an active list of hockey teams Craig played on from 1972-1977, the last two years with unavailable statistics. Hitting the drop option of images was a younger version of the man found dead. Now that we knew with certainty that Craig had once been positioned with so much promised, we had to find out how he lost his way and found himself nameless and deceased.
We met up again back where it all started, Mama’s Mug. There, we called the non-emergency police line, hoping to connect with Sergeant Hurtado. Within fifteen minutes of leaving a message, our phone rang, “This is Sal. I’m so glad you got a hold of me. I’ve been wanting to talk more about Craig. I’ve been thinking about him all night.” We invite him to meet us at the coffee shop, and he arrived in minutes.
Sal is easy to talk to; it is his serenity, openness and availability. He gave us 60 minutes of his time. Many people passed us while sitting outside the coffee shop listening to his story of Craig.
Sal greeted everyone by first name and intimates. He welcomed the locals with a, “Hi, brother,” “how’s the business going,” and “do you guys need extra coverage this weekend,” as he asked a local bouncer. We were taken back and impressed by not only how much Sal seemed to love the community, but how the community seemed to love him back. It was with this new understanding of his love and commitment that one could conceived why a busy sergeant during Christmas season would take the time to walk a homeless Craig Miller into Starbucks, fill him up with a warm drink, giving him the priceless gift of time to be heard, and time off the street just be human.
Inside their private conversation, Sal learned of Craig’s love for hockey, love for the game, and watched the joy sweep over his face as Craig recalled his touring days, taking pride in his lifetime achievements. Craig spoke of the injuries that ruffed him up, and spoke of his final back injury that left him benched for his final two years of hockey. It was that injury that called for a devastating turn of events. What started as a need for pain medication turned into a life stealing addiction, the absences of hockey crutch him with a new sport of drinking, depression, loss of family and friends, and eventually left alone.
Even with all that Sal knew, he admitted that there was another police officer who knew even more, a man known as “The Mayor of Ocean Beach” or formally known as Efren. We met up with Efren after we got word that he was only down the street on his lunch break, and certainly he lived up to his nickname. From him, we learned that Craig was divorced with kids. His family lived on the east coast, Craig leaving his home to his ex-wife and children. Efren confirmed that Craig received a monthly income from the league, his family collecting the majority of the monetary asset. The homeless community knew of his monthly deposit, and some took advantage. One thing Sal and Efren both noted was that Craig was never disrespectful, even when intoxicated.
“Yes, sir. Not a problem, sir,” always the form of respect Craig showed as he was asked to leave the sidewalk because he was too close to the mom and pops store losing business, customers scared to go inside.
“He went by Ce-Ce. Every transient has a nickname. Ce-Ce had dual citizenship in Canada and the US. We saw his health really deteriorating this past month. He used to walk on his own, but he started to use a crutch. We knew it was only a matter of time that we would find him and scrape him off the streets,” Efren added, “Ce-Ce was never loud. He stuck to himself, a quiet guy. Not like Steven or Daniel. When I got the call that Ce-Ce passed, I knew immediately that Steven was responsible. Transients partner up in the streets. They are to look out for each other.”
We thanked the police officers for their valuable time and information, as we felt we knew Craig more after their encounters with him. Efren made one last comment, “If you haven’t talked to him yet, keep heading up Sunset. You will run into Willie’s Shoe Shine. Speak to Willie; he might know something.”
Willie’s hut was decorated with an oversized American flag, Marine paraphernalia, patriotic signs, and centered in the middle of the deck was Willie himself, a gentle man who clearly lived himself on the borderline of poverty. He spoke of similar testimony remarking of Craig’s character: respectful, low-key, and if though he didn’t fit into the typical homeless population.
When asked the last time he saw Craig, Willie’s responded with a gut wrenching, “Christmas Eve. The man had no shoes. Not right for a man to be barefoot in the winter, so I gave him a pair.” Inside Willie’s shack piled mountains of wooden boxes, horsehair brushes, tins of shoe polish, sponges, and buffing cloths. “Never did I figured that would be his last pair.” It was beginning to sprinkle, so we said our good-byes to Willie. Despite the rain before leaving Ocean Beach, the two of us decided to pay our respects back to where the story started.
If you go underneath the abandon awning, you will see a bike, several backpacks, a can of unopened soup, a tore gift bag stuffed with crumpled papers, and a pair of white sunglasses with green tips. If you looked even harder, you will see, tucked away at the wheel of the bike, a purple stuffed dinosaur enduringly covered with a dirty blankie, like a child tucked into the night. And if you looked even closer than that, you will see a brand new sleeping bag, heartbreakingly matching the sleeping bags that had been piling up for weeks by the Urban Street Angels Ministry. We knew that it was no mistake that we received the wrong flier too late to handout sleeping bags. We were not late. We were right on time and exactly where we supposed to be, meeting Craig Miller.
Note for the reader: After contacting the Medical Examiner’s Office, no one has claimed Craig Miller’s body, so there will be an informal memorial at 4869 Santa Monica Ave on January 31, 2016 at 11:00 a.m. (Editor’s Note: some of the names of the persons mentioned in the article have been changed.)
In addition, if you know any further information about Craig Miller, please contact the writers as they are at the beginning stages of co-writing a book: