By Vera Sanchez and Sunny Rey / OB Rag
Most people celebrate Christmas by unwrapping surprises, with the smell of coffee, the sound of giggles, and the warmth of a crowded house. But Dec. 25, 2015, is the day we found Craig Miller dead.
We were just two volunteers wanting to pass out sleeping bags; the season slump was to be uplifted in the streets of Ocean Beach. The organization, 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 As fate would have it, we received an outdated flyer with an old starting time, and consequently arrived well after the event was over.
Disappointed and left with little options on how to fill up time on a deserted street crammed with closed businesses, we sat in our car looking for a cheap distraction. It wasn’t long before we saw a German Shepard frantically running around, attempting to flag down the attention of passersby.
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 had in mind. We whizzed by antique shops, stores with shells, propped up San Diego sweaters on window sills, handmade beads, and glass bongs, but then our canine vanished.
Appearing in its place was Mama’s Mug, a small coffee shop and the only thing that seemed to be open. We indulged in their unique elixirs and paid homage to the town by purchasing an iconic OB sticker sporting a seagull stretching its wings. As we left, 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, a figure emerged flapping his arms to the beat of his sobs. Just as he was close enough to come into focus he lunged into our path.
“Help! Do you have a cell phone? Do you have a cell phone?” he repeated frantically. “I think my friend is dead. He has no pulse. I checked it. He has no pulse. He’s dead. 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 he continued on with his hysterical dialogue, we look at each other, following him to a slumped over figure. No words needed to be said. We split up duties, one calling 911, the other crouching down to see if what the man was saying was true.
From an aerial view, one would see a flood of cop cars with a caravan of firetrucks and hear the roaring sirens of paramedics on their way. You would see Skip, the frantic friend, sticking a fifth of vodka deep into a dimly lit bush. One of us would still be on the phone with emergency responders, coordinating what moves to make next, one shouting out to the other: “They said to lay him down!”
Orders were followed as the body was pulled out of its half-slumped sitting state and dragged down flat on the cement. A cold body on cold cement.
While laid out, we notice something around the man’s lifeless wrist — a medical tag such as one that is dispensed during a hospital stay. Etched in bold ink was the name CRAIG WILLIAM MILLER. Things seemed to freeze for a moment.
The stillness is interrupted by the skilled movements of trained professionals, fluidly moving to what appeared to be a well-practiced routine while we collected uselessly off to the side along with Skip. Disturbing images flashing off an artificially pumped body, moving more lifelike than one would expect from someone dead, with a medical IV dripping into a stiff vein. Standing out among the darkness of the moment was the irony of squeaky new white tennis shoes pointing up to the sky.
We stood there trying our damnedest to keep Skip together as he slobbered on our shoulders, the smell of booze and other various odors leaking out with every sob. Eventually, the lead sergeant emerged and spoke the words we had assumed from the beginning as the medics removed the catheters and patches and covered the body with a blanket.
As the sheet was straightened out, Skip simultaneously collapsed to the ground. The cop casually interviewed us with standard questions. As we went through the motions, our eyes drifted to the three stars on the gold-plated badge pinned to his chest which read, “S. Hurtado Jr.” and the embroidered stripes on both sides of his sleeves.
“Look, motherfucker,” was vomited out of the mouth of a local transient who had appeared at the scene during the commotion. He stood at 5-foot-6, his head crowned with long gray stringy hair that was bound together by a torn cloth from an old t-shirt, and was stretched out over his forehead in a Rambo-like fashion to match his aggression. Charging at Skip now, nose to nose, he declared: “This is all your fault, motherfucker. I’ll bury you outback.”
Skip shape-shifted from victim to shame, crouching backwards like a guilty dog, his tail dangling between his legs. The cops positioned themselves around the belligerent man, curious as to how far his passion would take him. The presence of the sergeant and his crew was enough to defuse the situation. Skip and his foe walked off in opposite directions.
“You are free to leave,” Sergeant Hurtado instructed us. We walked slowly, thick in a daze, no sense of what to do next. Cutting across Cable Street, we found our bodies back on Newport Avenue 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 teens, he preached to a choir of deaf ears, a sort of Robin Hood of the streets. We hear snippets 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.'”
We debated our involvement and choose once again to get entangled. We started with a casual 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 Skip 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 two more back. “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, recalling how just a week prior he and his wife 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 Skip 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 a 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 cred with our response. “Fuck that guy, Skip, 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 shielding his body. We parked and headed back towards the scene. We silently stand next to the sergeant, who hovered over Craig Miller for some time.
Without all the clutter of first responders and a sobbing Skip, we were able to digest the lonely scene. 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 begging for a phone to confirm a second opinion.
Sergeant Hurtado reminisced, “I knew him for three years. He is the sixth death by noon today.”
His eyes glazed over with tears. 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 princes and princesses 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 had 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 Sal 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 an hour 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?” or by asking a bouncer if he needed any extra coverage that weekend. We were 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 conceive 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, give him the priceless gift of time to be heard, and time off the street.
Inside their private conversation, Sal learned of Craig’s love for hockey, 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 roughed him up, and spoke of his final back injury that left him benched for his final two years in the game.
It was that injury that led to a devastating turn of events. What started as a need for pain medication turned into a life-stealing addiction, the sport of hockey replaced with a new sport of drinking, and the ensuing depression, loss of family and friends. Eventually, he was alone in the world.
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 Efren. We met up with him after we got word that he was only down the street on a lunch break.
Efren certainly lived up to his nickname. From him, we learned that Craig was divorced with kids. His family lived on the east coast, and Craig had left his house 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,” was always what Craig would say when asked to leave the sidewalk because he was too close to the entrance of a Mom-and-Pop store and the customers were too 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 Skip or Davis. When I got the call that Ce-Ce passed, I knew immediately that Skip was responsible. Transients partner up in the streets. They are to look out for each other.”
We thanked the police officers for their 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 and patriotic signs. Centered in the middle of the deck was Willie himself, a gentle-looking man who clearly lived on the borderline of poverty. He spoke similarly of Craig’s character: respectful, low-key, and that he didn’t fit into the typical homeless population.
Inside Willie’s shack were mountains of wooden boxes, horsehair brushes, tins of shoe polish, sponges, and buffing cloths. We asked when was the last time he saw Craig.
“Christmas Eve,” he said in a gut-wrenching voice. “The man had no shoes. Not right for a man to be barefoot in the winter, so I gave him a pair. Never did I figure that would be his last pair.”
It was beginning to sprinkle, so we said our goodbyes to Willie. Despite the rain, before leaving Ocean Beach, we decided to pay our respect back to where the story started.
As we stood there looking at the remnants of Craig Miller’s life — a bike, several backpacks, a can of unopened soup, a torn gift bag stuffed with crumpled papers, and a pair of white sunglasses with green tips, a purple stuffed dinosaur endearingly covered with a dirty blankie. And there it was, a brand new sleeping bag, that matched the sleeping bags that had been piling up for weeks by the Urban Street Angels Ministry. We knew then that it was no mistake we received the wrong flier. We were not late that day. 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 Sunset Cliffs and Landera Street on January 31, 2016 at 4:00 p.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:
Update: The time and location for the informal memorial have changed since this article was published. Informal memorial at Sunset Cliffs and Landera Street on January 31, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. The authors have also provided the picture below of Craig and his buddies.