The death of Nevada City native William Kelly — whose frozen body was discovered on Miners Trail under the Broad Street bridge Sunday night — is raising concerns about the treatment of the homeless in Nevada City.
It is not clear whether Kelly died from exposure — or even exactly when he died. But according to several people in the community, Kelly had complained that his gear, including his bedding, had been taken by Nevada City Police.
This is the second recent incident in which a homeless man was found dead on a freezing-cold night; Mark Rye was found in his sleeping bag outside a Grass Valley business Jan. 10.
Kelly, 51, was a descendant of the last Maidu chief, Chief Kelly, for whom Chief Kelly Road in Nevada City is named, said John Fletcher, who got to know Kelly during his volunteer work at the lunch program for the homeless organized by Divine Spark. The Maidu are a local indigenous tribe.
“He grew up here, went to school here from kindergarten to high school, and lived here all his life, as far as we know,” Fletcher said. “He was a sweet, kind man who had a problem with alcohol.”
John Fletcher and his wife, Irene, hosted a discussion with several of Kelly's friends on KVMR Tuesday afternoon.
“The last time we saw him was a week ago Monday when he came in for lunch,” Irene Fletcher said. “As he was leaving, I insisted that he take a couple of sandwiches with him, as there was no lunch on Tuesday. He put his arms around me and hugged me.”
“I lost my brother,” said longtime friend Dave Figge.
Several of Nevada City's homeless — who did not want to be named because they fear retaliation — said Kelly had complained several weeks prior to his death that his bedroll had been taken, and that it wasn't the first time.
“He had been (griping) his stuff had been stolen, and he was going to freeze his butt off,” said one man, who added that Kelly often would give him a blanket or even his own coat when he had none.
“To take his blankets away, you might as well have held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” a woman said.
According to KVMR News Director Paul Emery, Nevada City Lt. Lorin Gage said the last time anyone from his department had seized anything belonging to the homeless was on Jan. 25, and that no one had come to the department to claim their belongings. Gage could not be reached for comment as of presstime.
Kelly — who had not been seen by any of his friends since Thursday — was found after temperatures bottomed into the low-20s following a massive winter storm that dropped up to three feet of snow in some parts of Nevada City. His cause of death was pending toxicology results, said Nevada County Coroner Paul Schmidt.
Divine Spark founder Thomas Streicher said he had known Kelly for about five years, since he began the homeless lunch program.
“He did come to me about two weeks ago, and complain his gear was taken by Nevada City police,” Streicher said. “His gear was repeatedly being taken from him — that's what he reported to us.”
Nevada County desperately needs more emergency assistance, and not just for the homeless, Streicher said.
“That's what needs to change,” he added.
Tuesday afternoon, several of Kelly's friends toasted his memory with a beer and a mini-bottle of whiskey, recalling as many funny stories about him as they could. A memorial is being planned for 5 p.m. Friday at the “bark house” on Broad and Union streets, Streicher said.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.