Homeless Memorials

"She was no bigger than a whisper," said Debbie D. at a memorial service for RaeAnn Champaco. But RaeAnn's death, a stabbing in broad daylight at Freeway Park, shouted louder than words.

RaeAnn was a small, bright, cheerful, energetic Guamanian woman who had lived at the YWCA for just four months, since leaving her abusive ex-fiance in Port Angeles. She was only 30 years old, she was deaf-and-mute, and she was in the process of reclaiming her life in a new place with new friends.

As news of her murder started to circulate, fear filtered throughout the women's and homeless communities. It took a full week for the identity of the victim to be released; her stabbing is still unsolved. At the weekly Tent City meeting the week of the murder, a woman named Morgan warned, "I went to the bathroom in that park two days earlier. Be careful! Be careful!"

Unsolved crime

The stabbing happened on a sunny Friday morning. A group of women entering the restrooms at the east end of Freeway Park found a woman's body there. "As they ran screaming from the restroom, they saw a white man in a blue trench coat, 40 to 50 years old with brown hair," according to police spokesman Duane Fish. "The man pulled his coat over his head and ran north through the park." He was not found during a search of the park and environs.

The identity of the woman who was killed was not released, so by the following Monday many of us started calling the Medical Examiner's Office for information. The victim had no identification, jewelery, or wallet, and didn't match any missing-persons reports. By Tuesday the ME's Office began leafletting the homeless women's and provider community, seeking help identifying the victim. The ME had no recourse, in struggling to make an ID, but to publish RaeAnn's morgue photo; I don't believe I've seen such a haunting thing in my life. Both WHEEL and the Church of Mary Magdalene also circulated a leaflet describing the victim, hoping to help identify her. By Wednesday, YWCA staff made the identification. Staff there had been worried it might have been one of their own, due to the proximity of the park to their facility.

A week later there were still no suspects in custody. SPD started leafletting the homeless community, this time with a photo of a person of interest: an African-American man named Larry Dorsey, RaeAnn's ex-fiance. Multiple domestic violence complaints against Dorsey are on file in Kitsap County. Last fall, he was charged with stabbing another man five times in Pioneer Square when the man refused to give information about RaeAnn's whereabouts.

On Friday, February 8, the Seattle Times reported that Dorsey had been apprehended in Chicago, but police are not yet calling him a suspect in RaeAnn's murder. The white man fleeing the murder scene hasn't been caught. Word on the street is that the white man who was stabbed by Larry Dorsey last fall was the one seen fleeing the murder scene, and that he might have killed RaeAnn. A homeless man interviewed for this story said he spoke to a friend of a friend who knows this to be true. But then, the streets are paved with rumors....

The spirit of RaeAnn's smile

Women started unfolding their fears as soon as RaeAnn's identity was made known, first at a small memorial at the YWCA, and then as a small group of Y residents started organizing a cleansing ritual and Women in Black vigil with women from WHEEL.

At the YWCA memorial, and later, over endless cups of tea in the YWCA eighth floor lounge, women shared memories of their friend and mapped out their strategy for the public ritual, to take place at the restrooms at Freeway Park.
A couple of the women and RaeAnn had set up a signal system of waves through the windows of their facing rooms at the Y. "Can we close her curtains now? It's painful to have them open and know she's not there to wave back."

Debbie D. wrote a poem:"You could not hear and we never spoke, but now you speak with angels. I saw you walking in silent serenity, yet always with a smile and a wave Hello! We needed no words to share a greeting. My neighbor, I will remember you and thank you for the spirit of your smile."

Amanda spoke of RaeAnn's mother, who'd come to the YWCA to gather her daughter's belongings. She tried to comfort. "Don't be sad; she's in a better place now, with the angels."

We were all rendered speechless by a thought Ann shared: "Can you imagine what it was like for her the first time she could hear (in heaven)?"

Together, the women wrote their RaeAnn manifesto, to leaflet passersby at Freeway Park: "We are doing our ritual/witnessing to point out that the value of one's life is not based on the sum of one's wallet or socio-economic position. We demand that every effort continue toward solving this crime, as though it were still front page news and with the same vigor as if it had happened to the President's own daughter."

Women take back the park

On February 13, the day of the me-morial vigil, fifteen of us made a black-clad procession through the labyrinthine park to the scene of the crime. The women from the eighth floor of the YWCA were ready: Amanda was dressed to the nines in natty black clothing; she had a feather in her hat and a pocketful of multicolored candles. Ann, just returned from the hospital, had her arm in a sling and her black leather jacket draped across her shoulders. Debbie D. brought a Valentine for RaeAnn: a potted pink tulip and greeting card.

Before we started our ritual, a bearded white man walked up to us. With no greeting he announced, "I just want you all to know I'm not the one who killed her." He was a little drunk; he wondered aloud why no one ever stands for homeless men who've died. "We do," we tell him. "We've stood vigil before, many times, for homeless men who have died. Last year we did a Women in Black vigil at the Public Safety Building for Timothy Dewitt, who fell off an embankment at this very park and died on a freeway onramp." Our bearded friend walked away.

There is power in this park, despite its blind spots, hiding places and dead silences. With a rattle, a woman from the YWCA opened the circle and called the four directions. Pastor Pat Simpson of the Church of Mary Magdalene led us in prayer and the sharing of memories, and then an older Makah woman named Grace led us through a cleansing ritual with smoke and sage, blessing and cleansing each of us around the circle.

After each of us had been blessed, Grace stood silently in the center of the circle. The wind blew smoke from the still-burning sage directly toward the women's restroom door, as though the spirit of the wind itself were assisting our cleansing. One by one we lit a candle; even the KIRO radio reporter set down her microphone and lit a candle in honor of RaeAnn.

I talked to women afterwards; almost all of us had the same thought during the silent vigil: She couldn't hear. She couldn't hear him enter the restrooms after her; couldn't hear her own attacker. She couldn't speak. She couldn't scream for help. Perhaps these were just prurient thoughts, or perhaps it was profound empathy. During the final closing prayer all of us, even those who did not know RaeAnn, were in tears.

Pastor Pat went back to the park just after sunset to retrieve the candleholder. Our two dozen candles had melted into a multi-colored pool; the sage we left there had burned itself out. The orange, laminated sign the Parks Department put up had a new explanation. "This restroom is closed because (choose one): RaeAnn Champaco was murdered here."

And the pink tulips were still standing. We made our small mark; the women took back that park.

— Memorial by Michele Marchand


Homeless Memorials