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Homeless but not alone

Times Staff Writer

After he sank into depression in the early 1980s and lost his job at the old Ambassador Hotel, his sisters got him to see a therapist. But it didn’t work. In desperation, they tried to get him committed, but he skipped out.

And so John Robert McGraham’s sisters settled into a pattern: visiting their brother on the streets of Mid-Wilshire whenever they could. They brought him food, money and clothing. They brought their children to see their “Uncle Johnny.” The sisters were pleasantly surprised to learn that the neighborhood -- with poor immigrants and merchants -- also looked out for him.

Then last week, someone threw gasoline from a red canister on the homeless man who seemed rooted to the corner of 3rd and Berendo streets, in a densely populated, diverse neighborhood west of downtown. Neighbors rushed to save him in the Thursday night darkness. But his body had been charred, and he died.

On Sunday evening, more than 200 people crowded the sidewalk and spilled over into 3rd Street for a memorial to McGraham. Many of them wept as dozens of votive candles glowed on the concrete. McGraham’s sister Susanne McGraham-Paisley brought pictures of her brother.

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One showed him in front of a slot machine at the Lady Luck in Las Vegas. With his curly top and clean-shaven looks, he was a looker, said an elderly Central American immigrant woman.

“Ay, how handsome he looks,” said Mari Umana, with a note of awe and sadness.

“He was loved here, seriously,” a woman told another bystander in the throng.

“Remember his eyes?” a young woman asked. “I really hope they get whoever did this.”

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But police Sunday had no new information about who might have killed the 55-year-old man, LAPD Officer Karen Smith said.

As the outrage over his gruesome death settled in, so did testimonials about the disheveled homeless man with a Buddha-like frame known in the neighborhood as “John,” “Mr. John” or “Grimley.” People spoke about his piercing blue eyes and his kind, quiet manner. The owners of the local convenience store spoke about how conscientious he was.

“He never paid a penny less,” said Anjana Bhowmick, owner of Bengal Liquor store.

McGraham’s place in his neighborhood gave some relief to his family.

“I feel that it has been a great comfort to myself and my brothers and sisters to know that he was not alone, unnoticed, untouched by other humans -- because that is what we had imagined,” McGraham-Paisley said in an e-mail to The Times.

But in interviews Sunday, relatives also said they struggled for answers that seemed hidden within the clutter of half a century, and they were asking questions that would seem familiar to loved ones of many of the thousands of people who live on Los Angeles streets. Why did their brother end up on the street in the first place? Could they have done more?

McGraham rebuffed the family’s offers to take him in. And over the decades that he lived on the streets, his family tried to keep in touch.

He was the second-youngest of six children, growing up in working-class Cypress Park. As a boy, he devoured superhero comic books and clasped a towel around his neck to channel Superman. He was a Star Trek fan who looked up to the dashing James T. Kirk.

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His father was an alcoholic and abusive, and sister Sharon McGraham, 58, said her younger brother seemed to be the proverbial “lost child” of the large family. But their mother “used to say he was the good-hearted one,” Sharon said.

In a strange way, McGraham’s sensitivity seemed to bespeak of inner turmoil, his sisters said. Troubles that others could shake had a way of embedding themselves into his soul.

In the 1970s, when McGraham was in his early 20s, Sharon McGraham helped him get a job at the Biltmore Hotel; McGraham later took a job as a bellhop at the Ambassador Hotel, where he was a well-regarded employee.

He fell in love, but the romance did not work out, and McGraham became depressed and lost his job. Sharon got him to see a therapist, which helped at first, but when the therapist took a monthlong vacation, her brother became utterly lost, she said.

One day, when Sharon refused his request for money, he hit her, she said. She was not badly hurt but pressed charges in a futile effort to get him help.

He was never diagnosed, the sisters said, and they couldn’t have him committed. McGraham began to spend time on the streets, disappearing for long periods. He eventually moved in with his mother, but they didn’t get along and she eventually asked him to leave.

A few years later, in 1987, his mother was dying of cancer. A Good Samaritan cleaned McGraham up, dressed him in a suit and took him to the hospital.

“I love you Mom,” he told her, according to Susanne.

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“John, please take care of yourself,” his mother told him tenderly. “You look good.”

At first, McGraham seemed to settle on the streets near 6th Street and Vermont Avenue, not far from the insurance company where Sharon and Susanne had worked. But sometime in the mid-1990s he was taken to L.A. County-USC Medical Center with stab wounds, including a punctured lung, Susanne said.

“My husband and I went to visit him. We went to the thrift store to get him some things, then went to the hospital the next day,” Susanne recalled. “But he had checked out. The doctor told him he wasn’t healed, that he had an open wound. But he just walked out of the hospital.”

For weeks, they could not find him. They eventually found him on 3rd Street, not far from the shuttered dental office that would become his regular hangout until he was killed.

Susanne, the only sibling still living in Southern California, would buy him batteries for his radio, and a new radio when his wore out. He liked jazz and talk radio, and he loved Johnny Cash. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, other relatives would pile into a van to visit McGraham.

Sharon, believing her brother was finally willing to accept help, was researching programs that could take him in.

But he never got the chance.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sister: ‘Homeless people are human’

John McGraham’s sister Susanne McGraham-Paisley sent the following e-mail to a Times reporter. It has been abridged for space reasons.

“I saw your article this morning about my brother; he has been identified as of late yesterday. He was neither a businessman or a Vietnam veteran and our family is not wealthy. But he was kind and caring and harmless and it is simply heart-breaking and enraging that someone could treat him this way; a tragic end to his tragic life. He is survived by myself, two brothers and a sister. . . .

“I wish people better understood the mental turmoil a human being can go through that puts and keeps them in such a place that they can’t seem to get out. Our family has tried for many, many years to help him but it seemed beyond our reach. My siblings no longer live in the LA area but we always came each Christmas with food, clothing, money, treats. I brought my two children and my then-husband by each Thanksgiving as well. I came more frequently, as my business demands allowed, and saw him last about three weeks ago when I brought my cousin to see him, bring him food, give him money.

. . . “Though I can’t explain the intense sadness and anger I feel, it has been a great comfort to myself and my brothers and sisters to know that he was not completely alone, unnoticed, untouched by other humans -- because that was what we had imagined. The people who did this need to be identified and brought to justice. If they could perform such a cruel act on our brother, they will do it to someone else and we shouldn’t sit by and let that happen.

“I hope the horrific crime against our brother will make people realize that homeless people are human, they do have family, they are cared for. Several people, when they had learned my brother was homeless for more than two decades would say, ‘He chooses to live this way then.’

“I find that comment so offensive and so lacking compassion. Some might say we all choose to be where we are, but we don’t all start on an even playing field, and we aren’t all dealt the same cards. My brother didn’t consciously choose to live out on the streets, he just didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He was a star employee as a bellman when the old Ambassador Hotel was open. He was never late, didn’t miss a day of work, made good tips through his kind and helpful ways.

“Families of homeless are often helpless to make diagnoses, correct problems without intervention. Both my sister and my ex-husband contacted various agencies, but never with any success. . . .

“Since the incident, I can’t help but wonder what his last thoughts were . . . baffled by the liquid being poured on him, shock of the fire on his body, reaction and then they say, the man CHASED him! It bothers me at such a deep level to think of my brother running from his perpetrator, trying to get away, and this cruel human being kept after him until he was satisfied my brother was sufficiently tortured by fire. . . .


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