Police identify homeless men found dead; friends recall one as former carpenter


Law enforcement officers are seen where two bodies where found at Pennsylvania Avenue and Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Andrew Thomas had worked as a carpenter and an attendant at a coin laundry. He had a girlfriend and helped raise her daughter, who recalls him affectionately to this day. He had places to call home.

More than a decade ago, the 62-year-old moved out of his girlfriend’s apartment in Southeast Washington and then rented a room from her sister in Prince George’s County. The sister said she packed up his belongings for charity when he disappeared for months without paying rent.

That was in 2010, and as far as anybody seems to know, Thomas went to live on the streets. He liked wine and shunned shelters, preferring instead to bed down in the woods in Southeast Washington.

Thomas and another man were found dead Wednesday morning under a ramp at I-295 and Pennsylvania Avenue, in a makeshift camp that was not visited by District contractors charged with scouring the streets looking for homeless to help. Authorities believe the men succumbed to hypothermia on a night in which temperatures dropped to near freezing.

Police on Friday identified the men as Thomas and Robert Shafley, 57, whose last known address was in Northeast. Attempts to reach Shafley’s friends or family were not successful. A brother-in-law said Thomas had been at his house days ago to collect mail, but the family did not wish to speak further.

Over the years, Thomas bounced from apartment to apartment, room to room, and when those were not available, he took to the streets, friends said. One of Thomas’s former neighbors, Loyce K. Johnson, who is now 65, described him as fiercely independent. “He didn’t like shelters,” she said. “He liked to stay in the woods.” For more than a decade, she kept a list of names of Thomas’s sisters and brother, and their phone numbers, in case of an emergency.

Many details of how Thomas lived and why he was on the street remain elusive. Some people who knew him had been searching for him over the years, hoping to bring him back to the bungalow-style home he had once lived in, with a green lawn and a mailbox out front, on Sheriff Road in Prince George’s County.

“He didn’t have to die that way,” said 41-year-old Tracey Stewart, who grew up with Thomas when he lived with her mother, JoAnn Stewart, in an apartment on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast in the late 1980s.

“He was a really nice guy,” said Stewart, who works in a student loan department at the U.S. Department of Education and described Thomas as akin to her step-father. “Anything I wanted, he would give me. If I wanted to walk to the corner store to get some candy, he’d give me a dollar or two.”

Thomas had lived for years with JoAnn Stewart. But her sister, Marian Pearson, said JoAnn asked Thomas to leave sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s because of his drinking. Pearson, who is now 69, said she rented a room to Thomas in her house on Sheriff Road. He worked as a carpenter and as an attendant in a laundry in Northeast. But Pearson said he rarely paid his monthly $300 rent and disappeared for weeks or months at a time.

JoAnn Stewart died in 2009, Pearson said. Tracey Stewart said though her mother and Thomas were estranged at the time, she was devastated by the death.

Some months later he abruptly left Pearson’s house and when he didn’t return, Pearson said, she packed up his books and clothes and gave them to charity. In later years, his friends looked for him along Minnesota and Pennsylvania avenues. Pearson said they found him once, in a hospital, but he refused to talk to them.

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