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In a Dark Alley
Stevie McGuire sought safety and peace of mind living on the streets of downtown Indianapolis. Instead he met a tragic—and shockingly brutal—end.
The man traipsing about the rusty Dumpster last spring caught Karen McGuire by surprise.
Stevie? she wondered.
Who else could it be, digging through the trash? Then again, it was hard to be sure. Days, weeks, and even months sometimes passed without so much as a word from her brother, much less a good look at him. The man was gaunt, and his weathered beard revealed more gray than the last time she had seen Stevie, whenever that was. This is March … how long has it been?
The man looked up. His eyes sparkled—just like diamonds, Karen thought—and then he went back to the trash, behind a downtown bank.
“Stephen Edward McGuire,” Karen said, “that you?”
The man stopped. He was clutching a new comforter, still in the packaging.
“Who dat who know my name?” he said. Those eyes twinkled again. No worries, no pain—just diamonds. “My baby sister?” He smiled.
Karen wasn’t amused.
“What are you doing in that trash can?” she asked.
“I’m not in the trash can,” he said. “I’m throwing things away.”
“And why’s that?” Karen demanded. She peered into a Nordstrom shopping bag resting at Stevie’s feet. It held a telephone, an alarm clock, and picture frames. All of the items were unopened.
“’Cause I thought I liked ’em when I bought ’em,” he said. He raised one leg, teetered back on the other, cradled his belly with both arms, and laughed—heh, heh, heh—at his own joke. “Now it’s too much to carry.”
It was definitely her brother, the one she and her siblings had tried many times to bring home. Wrestling with schizophrenia since his teens, Stevie had been homeless for nearly five years. Yet the family knew he considered the streets of downtown Indianapolis to be his home. He felt safe here, living in self-imposed exile. Over the years, Stevie had woven himself into the fabric of 9-to-5 life on Monument Circle.
Karen dug into her purse and fished out a pen. She spied a paper bag and jotted down her name and phone number. She handed it to Stevie, along with a command.
“Don’t you throw that away,” she said.
“I won’t,” he promised. He tore the note from the bag and carefully folded the paper before tucking it into one of his pockets.
“You need to come on up off of that street—it’s time.”
Karen drew near and embraced her brother. Then she collected herself and made sure Stevie knew she meant business.
“Don’t you throw that away.”
Stevie leaned back on one leg, and Karen heard him laugh again—heh, heh, heh.
It would be the last time she saw her brother alive.
Stevie’s father, Melvin McGuire, made a good first impression. Though he was poor and worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, he dressed with flair and had a self-assurance women found attractive. By the time Melvin wed Stevie’s mother, Shirley, in 1949, he had already been married twice and fathered five children—two out of wedlock to a third woman. He and Shirley went on to have seven children of their own, and Melvin fathered four more with another woman before he died in 2008.
Melvin was verbally abusive and could be violent toward his family, and would disappear from their lives for long stretches. “I loved him, but he caused a lot of pain,” says Stevie’s oldest sister, Rochelle Poole.
In all, Melvin fathered 16 children with five women, but he saw something special in Stevie—himself. Born in 1949, the oldest of Shirley’s children bore a strong resemblance to his father. Melvin cultivated the likeness by setting Stevie apart. When the boys needed haircuts, Melvin took Stevie’s brother Reggie to one barber and Stevie to another—the man who cut Melvin’s hair.
Melvin tried to compensate for his long absences from parenting by paying special attention to his children’s clothing. Though the family lived in the Lockefield Garden Apartments, a rundown federal housing project on the near-west side of Indianapolis, Melvin insisted his children wear nothing but the best from first-rate department stores. Melvin reserved special flourishes for Stevie.
“Stevie had the white Buster Browns,” says Reggie. “I had the brown ones. When we were kids, I always had teachers telling me I wasn’t as smart as my older brother, or girls telling me I wasn’t as cute as him. He was funny, made straight A’s—he was special.”
But when Melvin moved the family to 506 Sutherland Avenue in 1961, in a neighborhood close to Fall Creek on the near-north side, his insistence on appearances worked against his children at their new school. The McGuires were bused to Arsenal Technical High, on the near-east side, where they were met with envy from some of the other black students. Living in what was then a predominantly white neighborhood and wearing department-store clothing gave the impression that the family came from money.
Stevie took the brunt of the teasing. Other boys didn’t like that some of the girls found Stevie—Sunday-school sharp—handsome. They often hunted him down in alleys, looking for a fight. They also poked fun at his lips—too big, they said.
Stevie’s grades suffered. At home, he withdrew to his room to watch basketball games on a 13-inch black-and-white TV. He developed odd tics. When he talked, he covered his mouth with his hand to hide his lips and scratched incessantly at the base of his neck. Frustrated, Melvin yelled at Stevie to snap out of the funk, and argued with Shirley. Sometimes the fights escalated.
At Melvin’s insistence, the McGuires removed Stevie from school and sent him five miles from their home to Larue D. Carter Memorial Hospital, a psychiatric facility near Taggart Riverside Park. Doctors diagnosed the boy with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia, a mental disorder that, in part, makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences.
After a month or two at the hospital, Stevie returned home. But something had changed. Adult family members whispered of “shock therapy,” and the children noticed that their brother was subdued and quiet. The rift between Melvin and Stevie grew. “When Stevie was little, my father used to take him around, show him off,” says Rochelle. But after Stevie’s time at the psychiatric facility, his father seemed to lose interest in him.
Melvin separated from Shirley in 1979, leaving Stevie, 30, as the man of the house. In the years running up to the break, Stevie had served a two-month stateside tour with the Marines (earning an honorable discharge and a National Defense Service Medal), spent a handful of days in the Navy, and had done a stint in the Job Corps.
But nothing stuck, and instead of regular employment, Stevie eventually developed his own peculiar routine. Each day, Shirley crushed antipsychotic medication and secretly mixed it into his milk. Afterward, Stevie put on his best clothes, grabbed a briefcase, and walked three miles to his “job”—or, as Stevie called it, “pattin’ and turnin’” on Monument Circle. “Gotta press those bricks,” he would say, pointing to his wingtip shoes. Then he’d raise one leg, teeter back on the other, and cradle his belly with both arms—heh, heh, heh. “I don’t know how he did it, but we’d leave the house at the same time in the morning, and by the time I got to my job downtown, he’d already be standing outside,” says Karen. To Stevie, the appeal of his chosen workplace was that no one knew him; the anonymity offered him the freedom to be anyone he wanted to be. But he still dressed well, just like his father had wanted him to.
Stevie spent his days walking around downtown, filling up bags with newly purchased goods and discarded electronics he picked up along the way. Back at home, he resuscitated the old gadgets in his room. He also indulged some of his stranger obsessions, creating, for example, a shrine to the number 7: Empty 7UP cans and bottles adorned his nightstand, along with a 007 “Goldfinger” wallet that contained seven one-dollar bills. He funded his diversions with a pension from the VA and a monthly Social Security check. “We’d laugh at some of the things he’d do,” says Karen, “but then there’d be other times when Stevie would say something to make us look at something in a different way or cause us to stop and think.” As when Stevie called the White House to lodge a complaint. When his siblings would ask why, his response was always the same. “Don’t want to deal with no middleman,” he’d say.
But when Stevie stopped taking his medication on a regular basis, the peculiarities became more pronounced, and his mother grew concerned. In the fall of 1984, Stevie was committed to Central State Hospital, and over the next several years he drifted in and out of professional care. “I don’t know what they did to him there,” says Reggie, “but it seems like they were just experimenting on him.” In 1987, Stevie appeared in the emergency room of a local VA hospital. He complained of pacing the street at all hours and being unable to sleep. If he wasn’t admitted, Stevie worried, he was going to explode and hurt someone. An examination concluded that Stevie cycled between periods of relative stability and “threatening, paranoid, and inappropriate behavior.” After a two-week stay marked by arguments with the staff, Stevie asked for and received his release because, according to the author of the report, he felt he was “being pressured out of here.”
Shortly after his release, Stevie left home for “work” wearing one of his prized possessions, a Duke University Blue Devils down coat. Night came, and he didn’t return. The McGuires made a frantic round of calls to the police and area hospitals. They finally located him at Wishard Hospital. Stevie had been shot on a nearby street off of Central Avenue after holding off neighborhood punks who tried to steal his coat. A bullet had ripped into the coat and passed through Stevie’s shoulder. He would be okay, but the incident left him rattled. He stopped shaving. Stopped bathing. Got rid of many of his trinkets. While most of the rest of the world seemed to value appearance and possessions, Stevie became convinced that superficial attachments led to harm. He might have “liked ’em when he bought ’em,” as he often said, but some of the items had become baggage—too much to carry.
A few months after the shooting, Stevie led some of his nieces and nephews on a jaunt to Big Mama’s, a variety store in his neighborhood, for iced oatmeal cookies. But one of his nieces, Shanel Poole, had been left behind. The 6-year-old ran to catch the group as they crossed Central Avenue. Cars whizzed past as Shanel waited for an opening. Chasing from behind, her mother, Rochelle, and grandmother Shirley screamed. Shanel teetered on the curb, then darted.
From the other side of the street, Stevie heard the calls for help. He broke toward the little girl, who stood frozen in the oncoming traffic. Horns blared. Stevie snagged Shanel by her ankles and dove safely onto the sidewalk, where he broke his niece’s fall. Shanel, now an adult, remembers the clouds, the feeling of weightlessness, and the notion she’d never been so high off the ground in her entire life. Cars were coming, people were screaming, she says, and then, then there was just silence. “From that moment on, Stevie was my hero,” says Shanel. “He was everyone’s. He saved my life, and for months after that, it was all anyone talked about.”
As Shanel grew into a young woman, she watched her uncle perform smaller, but no less significant, miracles. If her parents were arguing, Stevie would come pick up his sister and her children and take them to the safe haven of his mother’s house. “When we were all having our issues, Stevie was the savior of this family,” says Shanel. “Everyone respected him. If someone was doing something they shouldn’t, or acting a fool, it stopped when Stevie showed up. He was the man of the house.”
Stevie looked out for others but couldn’t do the same for himself. He refused his medication—Thorazine turned him into a zombie—and occasionally flew into rages requiring his mother or siblings to call the police for assistance.
By 2005, all of the McGuire children had moved on, and neither Stevie nor Shirley could take care of the other. At first, no one noticed. “I guess I was in denial,” says Rochelle. “I had kids, and things with my husband had been kind of difficult.” Stevie looked after his mother during the day but visited downtown at night. All alone, Shirley imagined she heard people in the house. Another time, a social worker came by to give Shirley her blood-pressure medication and found the home filled with natural-gas fumes. A pilot light had gone out, but neither mother nor son had noticed. The final straw came when Shirley forgot to pay the property taxes. Stevie’s siblings decided it was time to sell the house.
Rochelle made arrangements for Shirley and Stevie to live with her, but when the boxes were packed and the time came to move, Stevie wouldn't budge.
"Stevie, I've got the room," Rochelle said. "I want to take care of you."
“No,” said Stevie. He wouldn’t make eye contact with his sister, and instead stared at the ground, spoke under his breath, and scratched at a spot on the back of his neck. “Nope—gonna live off the land.”
The family understood Stevie’s motivation. “He wanted to go downtown,” Shanel says. “To him, that was freedom. He could be himself, mingle with policemen, businessmen, blacks, and whites. He got to be Stevie. At home, too many people knew too much about him and felt sorry for him. Downtown? He got to be a stranger there.”
Over the years, Stevie became a widely recognized figure downtown. Short guy. Slight. Shaggy beard. Wore a baseball cap and dressed in layers, even during scalding Indiana summers. (An uncle once told him the look had worked for Lawrence of Arabia.) Zipped around downtown with his treasures—jangling bags of electronic parts. Pattin’ and turnin’—every bit a part of the Circle as the bricks beneath his shoes or the Soldiers and Sailors Monument towering above him.
A creature of routine, Stevie began his day in front of the Emmis Communications building and listened to the morning news outside the glass studios. From there, he’d poke his head into the South Bend Chocolate Company, or, if the weather was nice, rest on the shop’s outdoor seating. Then it was over to Hardwicke’s Pipe & Tobacco for a candy bar and breakfast outside the T.J. Maxx on Illinois Street. He might spend the afternoon having a conversation on a payphone or leaning against a parking meter, just watching the people pass by. “We used to want to come down and see what Stevie did all day,” says Reggie. “We thought the guy probably didn’t have a care in the world.”
Something no one ever saw Stevie do was beg or panhandle. He didn’t need to; he had his own money. Once, in one of the banks downtown, a woman watched in disgust as Stevie shuffled into the lobby with his bags in tow. “Are you going to let him do that?” she asked a teller. The teller wagged her head and put the woman in her place. “Ma’am,” the teller explained, “he’s a customer.”
In 2006 and 2007, Stevie would occasionally show up at Rochelle’s home for laundry, a shower, or a haircut. He might stay a day or two, and then leave in the morning. When his brothers and sisters tried to reach him (Stevie had three cellphones and three different numbers), calls would go straight to voicemail. They got a laugh out of his outgoing message—“Stephen! Edward! McGuire!”—but worried all the same.
Rochelle and Karen once scoured the Fall Creek area after seeing TV reports about the body of a homeless John Doe who turned up in their old neighborhood. The two sisters knew that Stevie would sometimes come back to their former home on Sutherland just to stand on the sidewalk and stare at the old place, so they had cause for alarm. Later in the day, someone phoned to report having seen Stevie downtown. But the scare only reinforced their conviction that Stevie would be better off living with family. “We’d find him, pick him up, and take him to family things,” says Shanel. “But the next morning he’d be gone—gone back downtown. You can’t strap a 60-something-year-old man to a bed and say, ‘Stay here.’”
While Stevie shied away from family who wanted to help, he gravitated to a pair of downtown professionals. Jake Query, then one of the hosts of a radio show on WIBC, knew most mornings would begin with a visit from Stevie. Beaming with pride, the homeless man would show off his electrical handiwork to Query and his co-hosts, pressing once-discarded gadgets that he had repaired up against the street-level windows of the studio where Query worked. During breaks, Query would join Stevie on the sidewalk and talk about high-school basketball. Query liked that Stevie was different. “He was so proud of his work,” says Query. “Stevie found value in things others had thrown away. That was pretty cool. I figured those things in the bag were a lot like him.”
Eventually, Query offered Stevie food, rides, and opportunities to do laundry, but Stevie never accepted. He just wanted to talk about basketball, or, more often than not, simply listen to Query. Sometimes Query would buy other homeless men soda and popcorn so they could enjoy broadcasts of Pacers games in the evenings, but Stevie would stay off to the side and enjoy the game from a distance. The next morning, though, Stevie would return to show his broadcaster friend another treasure that he’d rescued.
Tara Toction, then a sales representative with e-mail marketer ExactTarget, befriended Stevie with small talk, mostly kind hellos. Toction often gathered her co-workers’ lunch leftovers and brought the food to the Circle, sharing them with a group of about 16 homeless people. Stevie stayed away at first, but after seeing Toction perform the gesture day after day, he ultimately accepted the food.
A few months into their friendship, Stevie confided in Toction. He told her that he had a family and that he was mentally ill. Toction begged him to let them help.
“I don’t want to hurt them,” he said.
Toction was confused. She never saw the homeless man as anything but gentle.
“But they want to help you—”
Stevie cut her off. “I don’t want to be a burden to my family.”
A few days before Easter, on Wednesday, April 19, 2011, Reggie McGuire and his wife walked to their car after watching their grandchildren perform in a school play at The Oaks Academy, not far from the Fall Creek neighborhood where he grew up. He saw a man walking in the shadows of the parking lot.
At a glance, Reggie thought it was Stevie.
Reggie often dreamed Stevie would appear on his doorstep. Freshly shaved. Wearing a suit. Looking and acting like nothing was wrong—the old Stevie, the Stevie he remembered as a kid, but now, in the dream, standing before him as an adult ready to finally come home.
The next morning, the vision still haunted Reggie. He shared his sense of foreboding with a co-worker: “Ever get that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you sick and you don’t know why?”
A night removed from Reggie’s premonition, and a month after his sister Karen gave Stevie her phone number, Stevie carried his bags down an alley behind the downtown Sheraton, to the hotel’s loading dock.
The spot was a favorite. Three battered exhaust fans—a low row of dented, army-green vents that stretched for about 10 feet along the dock’s north wall—spewed warm air onto the dank concrete just below the curb where Stevie rested his head. A grease trap and a recycling bin provided a modicum of shelter from the south. To the west and east, alleys offered quick getaways to Stevie’s beloved Monument Circle. The hotel security staff, familiar with Stevie, turned a blind eye. And, on a good day, the aroma from a nearby pizzeria almost overtook the funk of rotting produce and sour dairy.
All in all, it was an ideal hideaway.
About an hour and a half after Stevie turned in for the night, at a bus stop near Ohio and Meridian streets, a young man got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend. He became increasingly agitated.
I’m gonna knock a nigga out! he told her.
The young man repeated the boast, but the woman said nothing. She had broken up with him, and she rebuffed his attempts to get back together with silence. When that didn’t work, she began to make fun of him.
He had been in prison months earlier for stealing a pickup truck and resisting arrest during an ensuing chase through downtown. Now he was back on the street, surrounded by friends from the street gang “All In.”
As the ex-girlfriend’s taunts continued, the young man’s anger grew. He went up the street, turned a corner, and then disappeared down the alley behind the Sheraton.
A short time later, the young man returned to the bus stop and approached the girl.
I can knock a nigga out! he said.
Blood covered his knuckles.
The following morning, when the hotel security guard stumbled upon Stevie’s lifeless body, the homeless man looked as if he were sleeping. Stevie was on his back, head propped on a sloped concrete curb that ran the length of the loading-dock wall behind the hotel.
Dried blood ran along the curb from Stevie’s head. The security guard, who had come to the loading dock to clear the alley for deliveries, shook Stevie, but he remained still. The security guard called the police.
A pair of IMPD officers arrived at about 5:30 a.m. and examined the crime scene. Several bags of Stevie’s personal belongings were scattered about the alley. One had spilled onto the cold ground where hotel workers tossed cigarette butts on breaks.
Officers also noticed several security cameras. According to court documents, they later discovered that, on April 20, 2011, at about 7:30 p.m., the cameras had captured Stevie, 61, carrying his bags into the loading dock of the downtown Sheraton.
Approximately 90 minutes later, at 8:59, a group of seven individuals entered the loading-dock area. After a few moments, they ran back out, kicking Stevie’s belongings as they fled. One lagged behind, digging through Stevie’s bags.
Five minutes after the attack, five of the onlookers returned to the loading dock. They laughed and joked. One of them sha-
dowboxed and pointed at the victim.
At 9:30 p.m., approximately 30 minutes after the attack, the group of five, along with three other individuals, returned to the alley one last time. It appeared that they realized Stevie was dead, thought they heard a police siren, and then fled. This final trip provided police with their best look at the suspects.
A week after the attack, police identified 26-year-old Anthony Ober, a homeless man, as one of the individuals from the security footage. His questioning led to the arrest of Jordan Strickland, 20. Police located a Facebook page for Strickland where gang members left messages of support indicating Strickland had been wrongly charged.
In early May, a woman told police that a James Crombaugh had expressed guilt that Strickland was going to jail for something he had done, and admitted to killing the homeless man in the alley. She also identified several of the others caught on camera.
According to other witness statements, Crombaugh had left his ex-girlfriend at the bus stop, entered the alley, and then removed his coat, handing it to a woman at the scene. He approached Stevie and, without saying a word, kicked his head into the curb and then beat him with his fists as the
onlookers watched and jeered.
On May 19, investigators questioned Crombaugh, 22, and his 19-year-old nephew, Devon Valentine, who was with Crombaugh at the bus stop that night. Valentine said he asked his uncle to stop beating the homeless man in the alley, and that eventually the others tried to restrain him.
In his statement, Crombaugh admitted to attacking the homeless man. But he could not recall how many times he had hit him, only that, at some point, the man had fallen to the ground.
After Stevie was murdered, Jake Query, the radio host, joined about 40 others in the cramped alley behind the Sheraton for a candlelight vigil. The numbers surprised him, and he felt ashamed for assuming Stevie had no one.
Now Query mourned alongside Stevie’s kin, struck by the notion that the homeless man’s real family was finally meeting his downtown one. As Query looked around at the people holding candles, he introduced himself to Reggie.
“I always asked Stevie to come home with me,” he told Query. Then he slumped to the ground in the very spot where his big brother was beaten to death.
Dried blood still covered the concrete.
The murder trial of James Crombaugh was scheduled for this month as of press time. Both he and Devon Valentine, his nephew, face an additional felony charge of criminal gang activity. Prosecutors have also charged Jordan Strickland with murder and robbery, and Anthony Ober with assisting a criminal.
Things Stevie carried, flecked with blood, are now evidence. Health records. Car keys. Hotel-room keycards. A credit card. Three wallets, each holding three one-dollar bills.
Among the items that were found on Stevie, folded neatly and tucked into his pocket, was a scrap of brown paper torn from a grocery bag, with a name and phone number—the note his baby sister, Karen, gave him the last time she pleaded with him to come home.
Illustration by Rohan Eason.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.