Sandra Lopez, a woman in her mid-50s, lives on the opposite bank and said she doesn't take her medication for manic-depression because she likes to stay alert. "It's like 'Wild Kingdom' out here. . . . I sleep with pepper spray, knives, clubs. I'm ready," she said. "Because of the murders, we don't want strangers down here."
There's no authoritative census of the river, which runs through more than a dozen cities, but Megee estimates the Long Beach portion probably has 150 to 200 people.
"They don't want to be seen, they don't want to be found. If I went down to the river and ran their rap sheets and really looked at their backgrounds, I'd probably pass out," Megee said. "These are the people that have fallen through the cracks, that have nothing going for them. If they had any kind of money, they wouldn't be there."
The isolation is at once the lure and the danger. "There's no pay phone. Nobody's going to hear you scream. It's like breaking down on the way to Las Vegas," he said. "If there's a stabbing out there, we may or may not hear about it."
Dangerous as the river might be, the rumor mill operating along its banks tends to exaggerate the violence. It's widely believed, for instance, that one man recently died there because someone smashed in his head, but Megee said a likelier scenario is that he got drunk and fell on the rocks. "It's not murderers' row. It might be dopers' row."
For its denizens, part of the river's reputation stems from its role as the dumping ground of a vast metropolis. Almost everyone who has lived there for long claims to have seen a body or two in the water.
Earlier this year, it became personal for Megee. He said a childhood friend who fell into a drug habit was slain in his Hawaiian Gardens apartment and thrown into the river. Weeks later, his body was found against a metal grate in north Long Beach.
In the winter, the wind hurts this close to the Pacific. On a chilly morning not long after the killings, Priscilla Gribble, 29, was climbing out of the tent she shared with her boyfriend, Aaron "Droopy" Martinez, 33, under the northernmost pillar of the 7th Street Bridge. "After all that's happened, I don't sleep alone," she said.
Gribble's demeanor goes from welcoming to ferocious "in 2.5 seconds," she conceded, depending on the perceived threat. She described herself as a former Red Lobster cook who was struggling to stay off heroin and has school-age kids living in the city with their father. She had been at the river for more than a year.
"I've been to the ballet. I've seen 'The Nutcracker.' I know that there's more to life than there is out here," she said. "I don't want to die out here."
Her boyfriend described himself as a former gangbanger and longshoreman who does meth -- "but not all the way," taking pains to distinguish himself from the hopeless addicts he believes have ruined the river. The drug gave him energy for his chores, he said, like foraging for spare tent poles and gathering cardboard for campfires -- the better to please Priscilla, his "headstrong, independent woman."
After the killings, it was a comfort to have a Doberman and a chow at the camp. "We grew a lot smarter; we have dogs now," Martinez said. Also, a mirror hung outside their tent so they could see who was approaching from behind. He made it a point, when strangers entered the camp, to give them some marijuana and strong liquor, in the belief that it would reveal their true nature. "I'm trying to make this bridge be a family bridge," he said.
Methamphetamine filled him with big plans. He spoke excitedly of rigging up another layer of security. He would bury plastic bottles under the dirt so he could hear the crunch of approaching footsteps. Piles of debris spoke of a dozen projects, begun in a frenzy and then abandoned.
At the next pillar over, Patrick O'Keefe, 41, who described himself as a former punk rocker and doorman, was flying a pirate flag from his tent. He hated the concept of working all the time "to live in someone's stupid little apartment."
Here, he could do all his laundry for a buck fifty at a local laundromat and get a hot shower at the nearby Multi-Service Center. The "bunkies," or camp mates, all had food stamps, and just last night they barbecued steaks. "One guy had vodka. Someone's got the weed," he said. "That's what I love about this -- a little community feeling."
Gathering planks to undergird his tent, O'Keefe rhapsodized about the romance of life on the river. "I'm building my own home, like I was out on the Oregon Trail," he said. "I'm the alpha male. I live by the river. How many live by the river? Like the Mississippi River. Indian tribes, all the way back."
Still, O'Keefe said, you couldn't let your guard down around so many meth addicts, known as "tweakers." "Don't ever look at me sideways, or I'll snap your neck and throw you down on the rocks," he said. "People know me as a sensitive, intelligent person. An artist. At the same time, I can be somebody who can snap your head in an instant."
Steve Hrenak, an employee of Mental Health America, a nonprofit that helps the homeless mentally ill, was handing out sack lunches. He considered O'Keefe's bluster. "He's the most scared person out here," he said. "He's not used to living this way."
O'Keefe's stay at the camp would be brief. About a week later, by Martinez's account, O'Keefe got drunk and tossed Martinez's trash can onto the rocks, and Martinez, also drunk, retaliated by flinging O'Keefe's tent planks into the river, and O'Keefe, furious, cold-cocked Martinez and screamed, "You stole my home!"
Within weeks, Martinez was gone too, and Gribble was displaying a bruise on her arm. "I still have feelings for him," she said, but "I don't want to be floating in the pier." The notion that she would report the incident was laughable. "Why would I go to the cops?"