Couple found in tent died of CO poisoning

  • Tents pitched behind the fast food restaurants on the Mohawk Trail near the rotary in Greenfield in this photo taken Jan. 23. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2019 12:18:34 AM
Modified: 4/27/2019 12:18:24 AM

GREENFIELD — The brutal winter night back in January led to, in part, the death of the couple who were found in a tent behind the McDonald’s on the Mohawk Trail, according to their death certificates which were completed this week.

Kathleen Grady, 50, died of carbon monoxide poisoning and possible hypothermia.

Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler Jr., 51, died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The couple, like others who were sleeping in tents in the wooded area, used a space heater to keep warm. That night, Jan. 21 temperatures hovered in the single digits. Real-feel readings brought the temperature into the negatives with the wind chill.

“To think in 2019 in the richest country of the world that people can freeze to death is just a tragedy,” Director of Community Action Pioneer Valley Clare Higgins said. “It’s a tragedy and it’s a shame and it’s a thing to be ashamed of in our country.”

The cause of death was released this week by the state medical examiner’s office and provided to the City Clerk’s Office, which holds the death certificates of the two Greenfield residents. The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office declined to release the information, citing in-house protocol despite for months stating it would provide the press the cause.

The death of the two individuals ushered in a community outpouring of support for people in need of a place to sleep and how the affordable housing crisis, with high rents and low wages, has heightened concerns over how people can live in the community. 

It also led to a reckoning of what can be done to help people who may not want to be helped. 

Circumstances

Grady lived in the Winslow Building, which rents single-room occupancy units run by the Greenfield Housing Authority. Friends of Grady recalled she wanted to have her boyfriend, Wheeler, come over that night. They said she asked for a waiver but was declined by the property manager because local housing authority rules that state it’s a violation of the lease to have people over.

The state law the local lease cites may not be applicable, a state Department of Public Health spokesperson said in January.

The law the authority created to prevent guests from coming over by any means may not stand on sturdy grounds.

Without being able to invite her boyfriend over for the cold night, Grady chose to sleep outside with Wheeler, based on conversations with her close friends in the days that followed the death. Friends and family said they had plans to marry someday.

Wheeler, though, was homeless and a registered level 3 sex offender.

In the wake of the death, local and regional officials acknowledged the difficulty for a registered sex offender to find housing. In January, 27 percent of level 3 sex offenders in Greenfield listed their address, “homeless.”

“No one wants them around, but everyone wants them supervised,” Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan said at the time, noting the challenge of policing sex offenders and keeping the community safe without knowing where they live.

Social workers and ServiceNet employees, with the organization that runs the Greenfield homeless shelter, had reached out to Wheeler as recently as the day or two before his death. They told him multiple times, they have said, that he was welcomed at the Wells Street shelter even though it was commonly known as at capacity.

Several people lived in tents behind the McDonald’s on the trail. Some still do. Many folks live in tents in tucked-away corners of town. Based on his sex offender register, police knew Wheeler had often stayed around the ridge by Stop & Shop along the French King Highway corridor.

Raising an alarm

The deaths raised alarm among many in town.

City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud and Vice President Penny Ricketts helped organize a vigil to honor the lives in the couple days that followed.

“He was the best father. He was always there. He was always there no matter what,” his son Zachary Wheeler said at the vigil. Choking back tears, he paused. “It’s a shame my father has to be used as an example for this.”

One of Clayton Wheeler’s sons, Garrick Choquette, said he had invited his father to live with him in his condo in Haverhill. He said his father didn’t want to because he was focused on taking care of his children who were in Greenfield; Zachary had recently gotten out of the Franklin County House of Corrections.

“He just wanted to grow old and be an old man and be a grandpa,” Choquette said.

His ex-wife, Holly Wheeler, who had six children with Clayton Wheeler, said she had told him recently to not sleep outside. She received a call from the man who first found Wheeler dead, their son Zachary. “He said, ‘Mom, I love you. Dad is dead.’”

The story took a turn in town when some residents wrestled with the discovery the man the community was memorializing was a level 3 sex offender.

Some residents were appalled by the idea of showing compassion to a man who was twice convicted as a sexual offender. Others were appalled by this reaction.

Friend and advocate for the homeless, George Ballentine, said, “They get a label and people lose compassion for the person’s humanity.”

Ballentine, members of the faith community, community activists, local police and some city officials rallied for ways to make sure this problem didn’t happen again.

Renaud held a public forum at Greenfield High School the following week, where Bobby Campbell and others helped collect money to put up folks in a hotel until the cold snap passed.

Local legislators, including state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, offered their support at the meeting. Additional earmarks in the budget or legislative proposals have not been made by the delegation in the time since.

Response

In Greenfield, with already a couple who fell victim to the weather, residents pushed to open up more shelter beds. Community members donated countless blankets, pillows and warm clothing.

“The situation was highlighted by the story of the death of two folks and the community responded and a lot of people started talking more about the need,” said Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet.

ServiceNet was able to employ an additional person with funding from the state, with the help of Jane Banks, assistant undersecretary at the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development and a Greenfield resident.

“That outpouring of support from the community made it more feasible that everyone was accommodated and can be as warm as they could be given the circumstances,” Timmins said.

During the winter months this year, the 20-bed Wells Street shelter generally accommodated 30 people and surged to 40 people, Timmins said. Statewide statistics show homelessness has increased by 17 percent, she added.

What remains is a question of whether ServiceNet, with the help of city officials like Director of Community and Economic Development MJ Adams, can secure enough funding to bring up to code and adequately staff the second floor of its shelter.

ServiceNet remains in preliminary discussions with DHCD, the state agency that would likely fund the shelter, Timmins said.

In January, based on a $144,000 cost for the second floor, the shelter remained $94,000 short; the city said it would commit $50,000 of Community Development grant money. In October the state made a $51,000 pledge toward operational costs of a three-month emergency shelter. The state has been looking for ServiceNet to come up with its own construction costs.

Trying to find a solution

Following rising concerns over the affordable housing crisis, and its connection to homelessness, Renaud helped form an ad-hoc committee to specifically examine the issue.

Now, Renaud said she plans to form a similar group to look at shelter beds and filling the need in the coming weeks.

“We were trying to find a solution in the middle of a crisis, and now we have a chance to try to do it better and do it different,” Renaud said.

“We cannot be in the same situation next winter that we were in this winter.”

Higgins said she and Community Action continue to work toward getting the federal Continuum of Care off the ground. Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program looks to end homelessness.

It brings folks in the nonprofit world or bureaucrats together to solve a problem, but also seeks community input from anyone who is involved in working to mitigate homelessness.

In the interim, Higgins said people can help in other ways. They can donate to or volunteer at food pantries and the Franklin County community meals program. “Those things, people can do today,” the former Northampton mayor said.

The Franklin County Interfaith Council has also worked on the issue of homelessness and affordable housing in recent months.

Now three months after the deaths of Grady and Wheeler, with the winter officially behind us, community leaders remain troubled by what happened in Greenfield.

“Nobody should have to die that way,” Renaud said. “We still need to do more. There are still people all winter behind McDonald’s. There are still people outside all over town. I’m in touch with some of them.”

Renaud said she is working with the people she knows to help them out to the extent she and her friends can.

Reach Joshua Solomon at: jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264




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