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Missoula: Locals remember murdered homeless man
by missoulain (reposted)
Thursday Dec 13th, 2007 10:42 AM
Friends, family remember Navy veteran who chose simple life
By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian

Silk flowers and graffiti left on the California Street bridge pay tribute to Forrest Clayton Salcido, whose murdered body was found near the bridge on the morning of Dec. 6. Salcido, a Navy veteran, was part of Missoula's homeless community and was known by friends and family as a kind and self-reliant man.
Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian
Long ago, Forrest Clayton Salcido abandoned life's workaday moil in favor of a sturdier, Spartan-like survival, away from the clutter.

“Clay” spent even the most frigid nights al fresco, content with his box of Top tobacco, a can of suds and a worn Western paperback - he favored Louis L'Amour and, like the novelist, characterized himself in the simplest terms, “just a storyteller, a guy with a seat by the campfire.”

He was well-known among Missoula's homeless community, and well-liked by a strong support network of friends and local business owners. Loath to accept handouts, Forrest Salcido habituated himself to self-reliance, braving the Hellgate winds and defying Missoula's winters in a heavy coat, walking miles and miles across town, schlepping garbage bags full of aluminum cans to the recycling center in exchange for a few dollars.

A Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War, Salcido worked at the Evans Products mill for years after his military service, and then for Montana Rail Link after the mill closed.

“Then one day he decided he was burned out,” said Salcido's younger brother, Timothy Salcido. “He wasn't down on his luck, he just wanted to drop out of the work force and the eight-hour rat race. He was making a conscious decision to live this way. He never had the attitude that life somehow crapped on him.”

Forrest Salcido resigned consciously and deliberately, but not for any lack of enterprise. He remained an active participant in the community, and was proud of his reputation as a marathon wood-chopper, weed-plucker and gardener, helping those who could not manage themselves, or who just plain enjoyed his company.

“We all sort of looked after him and gave him a little work,” said Rita Axtell, who drank coffee and smoked cigarettes with Salcido most mornings outside a local laundry, calling the man a friend for 20 years.

They shared that ritual a day before his brutal murder.

On the morning of Dec. 6, at first light, passers-by found Salcido's lifeless body near the California Street footbridge, beaten so severely his own brother did not recognize him.

Within 14 hours, two young men - Anthony St. Dennis, 18, a senior at Hellgate High School, and Dustin Strahan, 20 - were charged with deliberate homicide for allegedly stomping Salcido to death, apparently without the slightest provocation or trace of a motive.

In a sad irony, St. Dennis had recently become affiliated with the local homeless shelter that nurtured Salcido on occasion, providing him with meals and hot showers. Having acquired a lengthy criminal record both as an adult and a juvenile, St. Dennis served a court-ordered community service term at the Poverello Center in November.

“Who knows if he ever served Clay a meal?” said Ellie Hill, director of the Poverello Center.

The men have not yet entered pleas, but prosecutors say Strahan confessed to his role in the murder after a sleepless, remorseful night, while St. Dennis admitted taking part in the brutal attack during a recorded telephone call from the Missoula County jail, but has otherwise refused to cooperate with police.

According to court papers filed by County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, the two men were sitting on a bench near the pedestrian bridge at around 10 p.m. Dec. 5, drunk on vodka, when Salcido happened by.

Believing he was on a fast track to jail because of recent run-ins with the law, St. Dennis apparently was in an angry, agitated state, and told Strahan about his urge to go out and find trouble.

Perhaps he saw Salcido as an easy target when he picked a fight with the “old homeless guy,” taunting and chasing him across the bridge before punching him in the face.

Both men continued to follow Salcido to the bridge's south side, near the graffiti wall, punching and pushing the tiny man - he stood 5 feet, 7 inches - as he attempted to run away. Salcido finally fell to the ground after a blow to his face, and the men began stomping mercilessly on his head.

Strahan told detectives that he repeatedly tried to stop St. Dennis, who “booted” and stomped on the man's head “as hard as he could” between 20 and 30 times, even after Salcido was clearly “out cold,” lying unconscious on his back. When police asked Strahan if the men were acting in self-defense, he “pointed out that it is not self-defense if the guy is unconscious,” records state.

For years, the footbridge has served as a thoroughfare to a popular transient campsite along the riverfront. This week, a tobacco offering, a wreath of sweetgrass and a bouquet of silk flowers paid homage to Salcido.

But friends, family and community members wonder how such a brutal, indiscriminate attack could happen to someone as kindhearted and gentle as Salcido, though the answers do not come simply.

“The only thing he feared was being beaten up, and that's what killed him,” said Timothy Salcido. “The last thing he deserved was this.”

Michael Stoops, executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said the fatal attack falls in line with a disturbing national trend among young people.

In 2006, there were 122 attacks and 20 murders against the homeless, the most attacks recorded in nearly a decade, Stoops said.

Between 2005 and 2006, there was a 65 percent increase in the number of both nonlethal and lethal attacks on homeless people, and Stoops expects to find a similar spike in this year's report, which will be released in February.

“We haven't done the final crunch of numbers, but the increase that started last year is definitely continuing,” he said.

According to the annual report, 68 percent of the perpetrators were between the ages of 13 and 19 years old and come from diverse economic backgrounds.

“In our eight years of study, the victims are generally middle-age men and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly teenagers and young adults,” Stoops said.

Earlier this year, two 10-year-old boys, egged on by a 17-year-old, brutally beat a homeless man with a piece of concrete in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“Why do they single out homeless people?” asked Stoops. “Because they think society doesn't care about the homeless population, and that homeless people won't fight back and won't report it.”

Stoops attributed the increase in attacks to the popularity of violent Internet videos, including a particularly disturbing series called “Bum Fights,” in which homeless people attack one another for the promise of money or alcohol.

He also pointed out that 44 percent of the nation's homeless are unsheltered, a hazard in itself.

“Living outside is both unhealthy and dangerous,” Stoops said. “It makes you prone to being attacked by anyone.”

This week, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a law prohibiting “the malicious harassment” of homeless people. The ordinance adds the homeless population to a list of social groups protected by the city's hate crime law, which already bars harassment based upon gender identity, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status. The law also makes it illegal to damage the belongings of a homeless person.

Although the move was considered largely symbolic because the city rarely charges people with malicious harassment, Stoops called it a positive step toward building change.

“Maybe the city of Missoula should follow the example of Seattle, to make a symbolic and practical statement that attacks on homeless people will not be tolerated in your city,” Stoops said.

After the attack on Salcido, the young men walked back to St. Dennis' house, where he washed blood off his tennis shoes in the bathroom and talked to some girls on the phone. Strahan told police his friend was “talking like nothing happened.”

They had been drinking vodka throughout the day, and detectives asked Strahan to rate his drunkenness on a scale between zero and 10 - zero being sober and 10 being passed-out drunk. Strahan said he was around a three or four, but said St. Dennis was a seven or eight, and may have been “kinda blacked out,” according to court records.

Strahan said he was disturbed by the experience and told his mother what had happened later on in the evening, then went to police the following day after seeing news reports on the Internet about the man's death.

Strahan initially told investigators he and St. Dennis attacked Salcido because they caught him raping a woman, but later admitted the attack was unprovoked. Strahan says he joined in the attack after Salcido landed a punch on St. Dennis. He acknowledged Salcido was scared and only attempted to fight back after pleading with the men to leave him alone.

Later in the evening, police officers found St. Dennis hiding in a closet at his grandmother's house in Missoula. They recovered a pair of tennis shoes covered with splotches of dried blood. Once at the jail, St. Dennis called a woman on the phone and “made several admissions that he had killed the man on the California Street bridge,” records state.

Melody Shoop, Strahan's mother, declined to comment for this article.

Salcido spent his final hours in warm company, among family and friends.

On the night of the attack, Tina Zawada, Salcido's cousin, and her husband, Loren Sandy, found him at Flipper's Casino, where he was well-known, and often went to read and sip coffee or beer.

Around 9 p.m., Zawada and Sandy gave Clay a few dollars and offered him a ride, which he accepted, asking them to drop him at a convenience store near the California Street bridge.

“We watched him walk away,” Sandy recalls. “He went and bought his last beer and walked across that bridge. I feel partly responsible for this happening.”

“He hugged us, and he acted like he didn't want to let us go,” Zawada said.

Salcido graduated in 1971 from Sentinel High School, where he played basketball and baseball. After graduation, he immediately joined the U.S. Navy, following in his father's footsteps.

He married twice with similar results, and eventually joined one of Missoula's most vulnerable populations - a January 2007 canvass by the state Department of Health and Human Services found and identified 551 homeless people in Missoula on one given day - due in part to alcoholism and trauma from the war.

“He never talked about the military, other than to say there were negative aspects,” said Timothy Salcido. “Something happened, and he made a pact never to leave Missoula again.”

Salcido was a creature of habit, and would visit his mother every Sunday, sitting at the kitchen table all day, poring over a book or the newspaper.

As his mother's lung cancer worsened, Salcido helped out with odd jobs, and after she broke her hip, he spent nearly every day at the house.

“He just made it a practice to be there every Sunday,” Timothy said.

He could have been buried in Helena for free by the military, but it's not what he wanted. He made that pact, after all, never to leave Missoula.

On Wednesday, Rita Axtell, Patty Richards and Valinda Goodsell sat around a coffee pot inside Grime Busters Laundry, carrying on the morning ritual in Salcido's absence.

Richards has known Salcido since they were teenagers, and the couple lived together in a relationship for years.

“He helped raise my daughter,” she said tearfully. “She called him the best dad she ever had.”

For two decades, Monte Thomas saved his cans for Salcido, and on Wednesday afternoon he strolled across the footbridge and set a pouch of Top tobacco in a snowdrift beneath the bouquet of flowers.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott [at]

Funeral rides

To ensure that Forrest Clayton Salcido's friends have transportation to his funeral, the Poverello Center has offered to drive members of the homeless community to the services. The Pov has also asked members of the community to help provide transportation.

Meet at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Poverello Center, 535 Ryman St. The service begins at 1 p.m. at Sunset Memorial, 7405 Mullan Way.

Also, at the family's request, the Poverello Center has started an endowment in the name of Salcido to provide outreach and additional services for our homeless veterans. Specify donations to the Forrest Clayton Salcido Endowment, Care of the Poverello Center Inc. at P.O. Box 7644, Missoula, MT 59807, or at
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