From the archives: Frozen in indifference
Harsh reality: Life goes on around body found in vacant warehouse
Editor's note: The Roosevelt Warehouse, also known as former Detroit Public Schools book repository, has been bought by Ford Motor Co. along with the abandoned Michigan Central Depot. The building's history reached a low point in 2009, when a dead body was found in it, and nobody seemed to care. This story was published on January 29, 2009.
Detroit — This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown.
It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building on the city's west side.
"He's encased in ice, except his legs, which are sticking out like Popsicle sticks," the caller phoned to tell this reporter.
"Why didn't your friend call the police?"
"He was trespassing and didn't want to get in trouble," the caller replied. As it happens, the caller's friend is an urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit. It turns out that this explorer last week was playing hockey with a group of other explorers on the frozen waters that had collected in the basement of the building. None of the men called the police, the explorer said. They, in fact, continued their hockey game.
Before calling the police, this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax. Sure enough, in the well of the cargo elevator, two feet jutted out above the ice. Closer inspection revealed that the rest of the body was encased in 2-3 feet of ice, the body prostrate, suspended into the ice like a porpoising walrus.
The hem of a beige jacket could be made out, as could the cuffs of blue jeans. The socks were relatively clean and white. The left shoe was worn at the heel but carried fresh laces. Adding to the macabre and incongruous scene was a pillow that gently propped up the left foot of the corpse. It looked almost peaceful.
What happened to this person, one wonders? Murder in Motown is a definite possibility. Perhaps it was death by alcoholic stupor. Perhaps the person was crawling around in the elevator shaft trying to retrieve some metal that he could sell at a scrap yard. In any event, there the person was. Stone-cold dead.
A symbol of decay
The building is known as the Roosevelt Warehouse, once belonging to the Detroit Public Schools as a book repository. Located near 14th Street and Michigan Avenue, the warehouse burned in 1987 and caused something of a scandal as thousands of books, scissors, footballs and crayons were left to rot while Detroit schoolchildren — some of the poorest children in the country — went without supplies.
The building was eventually sold to Matty Moroun, the trucking and real estate mogul who is worth billions of dollars and is the largest private property owner in the state of Michigan. Among other properties, Moroun owns the decrepit Michigan Central Rail Depot that squats directly next to the warehouse. The train station has become the symbol of Detroit's decay. Like much of his property in southwestern Detroit, Moroun's warehouse and the train station are gaping sores.
The warehouse is so easily accessible, a person in a wheelchair could get in with little effort. There are holes in the fence and in the side entrance. The elevator shaft is wide open. It appears no one has ever tried to close the bay doors.
A colony of homeless men live in the warehouse. Wednesday morning a few fires were burning inside oil drums. Scott Ruben, 38, huddled under filthy blankets not 20 paces from the elevator shaft.
"Yeah, I seen him," Ruben said. The snow outside howled. The heat from the can warped the landscape of rotting buildings and razor wire.
Did he know who the dead person was?
"I don't recognize him from his shoes."
Did he call the police?
"No, I figured someone else did," he said.
"There's lots of people coming through here with cameras and cell phones. I don't got no phone. I don't got no quarter. Things is tight around here."
His shack mate, Kenneth Williams, 47, returned at that point with an armload of wood.
"Yeah, he's been down there since last month at least."
He was asked if he called the police.
"No, I thought it was a dummy myself," he said unconvincingly. Besides, Williams said, there were more pressing issues like keeping warm and finding something to eat.
"You got a couple bucks?" he asked.
Waiting for a response
There are at least 19,000 homeless people in Detroit, by some estimates. Put another way, more than 1 in 50 people here are homeless.
The human problem is so bad, and the beds so few, that some shelters in the city provide only a chair. The chair is yours as long as you sit in it. Once you leave, the chair is reassigned.
Thousands of down-on-their-luck adults do nothing more with their day than clutch onto a chair. This passes for normal in some quarters of the city.
"I hate that musical chair game," Ruben said. He said he'd rather live next to a corpse.
Convinced that it was indeed a body, this reporter made a discreet call to a police officer.
"Aw, just give 911 a call," the cop said. "We'll be called eventually."
A call was placed to 911. A woman answered. She was told it was a reporter calling. The operator tried to follow, but seemed confused. "Where is this building?"
She promised to contact the appropriate authorities.
Twenty minutes or so went by when 911 called the newsroom. This time it was a man.
"Where's this building?"
It was explained to him, as was the elevator shaft and the tomb of ice.
"Bring a jack-hammer," this reporter suggested.
"That's what we do," he said.
Nearly 24 hours went by. The elevator shaft was still a gaping wound. There was no crime scene tape. The homeless continued to burn their fires. City schoolchildren still do not have the necessary books to learn. The train station continues to crumble. Too many homicides still go unsolved.
After another two calls to 911 on Wednesday afternoon (one of which was disconnected), the Detroit Fire Department called and agreed to meet nearby.
Capt. Emma McDonald was on the scene.
"Every time I think I've seen it all, I see this," she said.
And with that they went about the work of recovering a person who might otherwise be waiting for the warm winds of spring.
Contacts with authorities
When reporter Charlie LeDuff got a call about a body lying frozen in an abandoned building, he told police officers, who referred him to 911.
About 5 p.m.: Reporter calls 911 and describes the body's whereabouts.
20 minutes later: Operator calls back asking for more specific directions.
4:43 p.m.: Reporter calls 911, waits and is disconnected.
4:46 p.m.: Calls again and explains that he called yesterday but body is still there.
4:55 p.m.: Fire Department calls back for specific directions and reporter offers to meet at the site.
5 p.m.: Fire Department arrives and the homicide department is called; recovery begins.