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Grocery Clerk Refuses to Look the Other Way

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people ignored Eric Schimmel during the four days he lingered outside a Fillmore grocery store.

Some walked past the 19-year-old mentally retarded man. Others said they were afraid that the disheveled teen-ager was dangerous.

But 22-year-old Manny Beltran said he couldn’t turn his back on Schimmel, who was stranded in Fillmore after being released from the Ventura County Jail without his parents’ knowledge Friday night.

Schimmel was taken by the Vons grocery store clerk to his Fillmore home twice. Beltran offered the hungry teen-ager a meal and shower, and called a local agency that makes social service referrals to seek help for Schimmel.

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And when the teen-ager said he wanted to return to the street, Beltran gave Schimmel $10 for food and stuffed his phone number in his pocket in case he ran into trouble.

“I feel like everybody has the responsibility to help everybody,” Beltran said Tuesday. “I don’t mind putting up what I have for other people because I know sooner or later it will come back.”

Beltran said he was cleaning the recycling machines outside the Vons supermarket on Ventura Street on Monday morning when he first noticed Schimmel.

He said Schimmel was walking in a confused fashion between Vons and another store. The lanky teen-ager was wearing dirty clothes, and his gray jeans were ripped in the knees.

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“As soon as I saw him, I go, ‘I have to help this guy somehow,’ ” Beltran said. “He needed some kind of help.”

Beltran, who left the seminary three years ago to care for his younger brother, said he greeted Schimmel, who looked up at him then quickly glanced away.

In order to coax the shy Schimmel into conversation, Beltran said he started talking about the weather and how humid it was. But Schimmel refused to talk, Beltran said.

When Beltran finished his shift at 9 a.m., he offered to take Schimmel home to shower and have breakfast.

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“He opened the car, got inside, and said, ‘My name is Eric,’ ” Beltran said. “Those were the first words he spoke.”

During the next hour, Beltran learned that Eric’s last name was Schimmel, that he lived in Frazier Park and that he didn’t like country music.

But when they arrived at the house Beltran shares with his brother and another family, Schimmel again became shy and refused to eat or take a shower.

“I said, ‘Do you want me to help you?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’ ” Beltran recounted. “I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and he shrugged his shoulders.”

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Beltran said he called a nonprofit agency that makes referrals to social services in the county.

After he described bruises on Schimmel’s left arm and right hand, the person at the agency told him to get more information from Schimmel and try to contact the police, Beltran said.

But when Eric told Beltran he was in trouble with the police, Beltran said he became worried about turning to them.

After a while at the house, Schimmel told Beltran that he wanted to return to Vons. Before they left the house, Beltran said, he bent to catch Schimmel’s downcast gaze and tried to tell him he wasn’t alone.

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“I said I really cared for him and didn’t want to pick up the paper and see a description of him dead,” Beltran said. “I said I didn’t care whether he was in trouble with the police or not.”

Beltran said he gave Schimmel money and his phone number and dropped the teen-ager off at the store.

At 6:45 p.m., he received a call from Schimmel. “He goes, ‘I’m getting hungry,’ ” Beltran said.

Beltran reminded Schimmel of the money and arranged to meet him at a nearby church, where Beltran was attending a meeting. But Beltran did not find Schimmel until the next morning, when the teen-ager appeared at the recycling machine.

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Again, Beltran took Schimmel home with him, and again Schimmel refused to eat or shower and asked to return to the streets. Beltran gave him more money but said he could not stop worrying.

“I felt like crying many times,” Beltran said. “I felt like my hands were tied.”

Beltran said he was planning to call the police sometime this week. But a sheriff’s deputy found Schimmel on Wednesday morning as he and Beltran were talking outside the grocery store.

Beltran said he has not talked with Schimmel or his parents since they were reunited. But Schimmel’s mother had warm words for Beltran.

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“I think he almost saved his life,” Linda Smith said. “I don’t know what would have happened if no one helped him and kept an eye on him and just let him go his way.”


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