Evanston, Wyoming - The temperature bottomed out at ten degrees on the night of Dec. 28th, 2012, though the town was no stranger to harsh winters. The next day a 13 year old boy and his younger sister trudged through a Dollar Store parking lot to their local sledding hill, a modest slope near a railroad spur overpass. Hiking up they noticed a man sleeping between the graffitied pillars. They'd seen people like that here before, but something felt different this time. It was around 1pm, the bright sun reflecting off untouched snow. They called out instinctively to the man several times but heard no response. They approached and gently poked his shoulder but saw no movement. They ran home to tell their single mom that they'd found a dead man.
When police arrived they found him in a few layers of light clothing, carrying only a tattered wallet. Inside were an ID, a crumpled piece of paper with a California phone number, and a cashier's check. The phone number belonged to his brother, who hadn't heard from him since their mother's funeral over twenty years ago. The coroner said all signs pointed to hypothermia. The departed was 60 years old, and his name was Timothy Henry Gray. He was the great-grandson of William A. Clark, Gilded Age copper baron and US Senator, of whom Mark Twain said, "he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs." Headlines the next day on NBC and NY Post would read, "Potential heir to $300 million Clark copper fortune found dead, homeless." The check in his wallet was for $54,000.
A few weeks after reading those headlines I found myself snowed in at a Motel 6 in Evanston, bumbling around the hard up cowboy town looking for clues. The local cops and resource-starved newspaper were dead ends, but inquiries led me to a modest apartment complex named "The Classic Lodge", where Timothy had lived almost ten years. I wanted to understand, how had a man of apparent means ended up on the streets? What was he doing under that bridge on a cold freezing night? Why had he left everything behind one day and never returned? How does someone just...fall through the cracks?
Kaiden, 13 and his sister Amber, 10, look towards the railroad overpass where they found Timothy Gray's body around 1pm on December 29th. Police would later discover an old cashier's check for $54,000 in his wallet and determine that Gray was the adopted great-grandson of copper-magnate and US Senator William A. Clark, who in 1902 partnered with Union-Pacific to transport copper from his mines through what eventually became Las Vegas.
Coroner Bill Crandall at his funeral home office in Evanston, Wyoming. Toxicology results were still pending but Crandall says the apparent cause of death was hypothermia, with no foul play suspected.
A homeless Vietnam vet who met Gray several times described encountering him under the bridge where he was eventually found dead. "I first went up there to see about moving into Suite #3. That's what we call the spaces between the cement pillars. But Tim was already there, and he wasn't very welcoming, so I went elsewhere." He described a handful of encounters, "I never saw him rise from his bedroll; I wasn't sure he could even stand up. I tried to bring him clothes once, and it was like 'he wanted them but...didn't want them,' then on Thanksgiving I tried to get him to come for a hot meal in town, but he wouldn't budge. I eventually asked if he intended to stay under that bridge all winter, and he said to me, 'that wouldn't be practical.' I'd heard rumors he had money so I figured he'd make for California when it got cold. I didn't figure this would happen. There's no excuse for it."
Rick Sathers, owner of an office building in downtown Evanston where Gray rented a commercial unit for 10 years. Sathers had sporadic interactions with Gray, mostly when Gray paid the monthly rent of $110. "He was fastidious. Never missed a payment. I think he mostly used it as a place to have mail sent, but for a time he was doing work. Something with computers and voice recognition, and I remember when he found out someone else had already done it, he was upset, because his plan was to be first in that." Sathers described Gray as paranoid, often whispering in conversations, "He was kinda spooky, and he'd come in at odd hours, but he'd never do anything to hurt anyone...There used to be AA meetings in the basement here, I think that's why he wanted this office. I also know he sponsored some kids in Africa, maybe Sudan."
A rock on which Gray would sometimes be found perched while reading in warmer months. "We'd talk about things sometimes. He was much smarter than me, in a different way…I'm just some damned old cowboy," says George Riker. "But we had similar ideas about America. That society doesn't take care of people enough...I remember we talked about that book, what was it, where the kid from the rich family from the east coast goes off into Alaska, oh yeah, Into The Wild. He liked that one."
A pile of scrap metal in a pickup truck in a nearby junkyard. George says Gray's apartment was filled with similar junk before they cleared it out. "I remember I once helped him take his scrap to the junkyard, and he made $450 bucks." The fate of the Clark estate has been in legal dispute since Huguette Clark passed in 2011 and left $300 million to doctors, nurses and hospital staff. Whether Gray's habit of collecting and recycling scrap metal was related to his family's history with copper mining is impossible to know. "I got the impression Tim resented the family…thought they'd squandered the money. I think he was ashamed," says Riker.
George walks over rocks near Bear River under a bridge where he sometimes found Timothy seeking solace. George recalls fishing here one spring, when the water levels were higher, "I shimmied down the rocks with my fishing pole, and heard a voice behind me from under the bridge. Scared the shit out of me. It was him, and apparently we scared the shit out of each other...I caught a seven pound brown trout that day." George recalls giving Timothy an old fishing pole years ago, but never saw him use it.