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How 2 women, homeless for years, walked different paths to similar deaths in the streets of Orange County

Rita Ann Wilde appears on Row 159 of the spreadsheet where the Orange County coroner’s office tracks the deaths in 2018 of people who have “no fixed abode.” Homeless.

More than one car hit Wilde on Sept. 20 as she stepped off the sidewalk late at night near the corner of Harbor Boulevard and La Palma Avenue in Anaheim. She had lived on the streets in that area for years, panhandling, eating meals served by faith groups, sleeping.

Wilde became one of more than a dozen homeless people so far this year denoted by the coroner as a pedestrian vs. auto fatality.

Less than 10 miles away in Santa Ana, Laura Sager died in the late night darkness on Sept. 22.

A motorist struck Sager as she stood halfway across the six lanes of West First Street.

Sager was crossing the road to join two friends already on the sidewalk. They were returning from a trip to the 7-Eleven at the corner of Euclid Street.

Sager’s name is not on the coroner’s spreadsheet with Wilde.

She had been homeless for years too, but six months before her death, Sager got housing. A nonprofit organization placed her in a six-bedroom home shared by seven people on Cooper Street, a short walk from the 7-Eleven.

Wilde and Sager did not know each other.



Both their deaths were accidents. Neither was a hit and run; neither involved motorists driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

But dying the way they did, so close in proximity, Wilde and Sager illustrate the precarious existence of people who spend years living on the streets — even, in Sager’s case, once they find shelter.

Homeless people die at an average age of 50, some 30 years younger than the general population. Wilde was 55; Sager was 49.

Those who knew and loved them have memories they cherish.

“It’s such a complicated issue but this I know — every one of those dear souls has people who adore them and whose hearts are broken,” said Wes Wilde, Rita Wilde’s second husband. “In earlier times, they were beautiful and kind and vital people whose lives were led with great purpose and hope.

“Maybe that’s the story.”

What happened to Laura

Larry “Smitty” Smith remembers the first words Laura Sager said to him.

“I don’t talk to strangers.”

He was bringing her a plate of food at the Civic Center plaza in Santa Ana, a place that until earlier this year was populated by the tents and sleeping bags of hundreds of homeless people. Sager was one of them.

Smith was too, in those days. Then he got housing and a job doing outreach to homeless people with the nonprofit services organization Illumination Foundation.

He became friends with Sager and tried to help her. Still, she didn’t tell him much about her life.

From what Smith could piece together, she had been homeless for about 11 years; about five of those were spent at the Civic Center. For most of 2012, she lived at the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana.

Sager had a daughter that she was estranged from and a granddaughter she’d never seen.

Laura Sager, left, poses with her daughter in this undated photo. Sager, who was homeless for years, became estranged from her family. Housemates at the home in Santa Ana run by the nonprofit Illuminaton Foundation where she lived the last five months of her life say she hoped to reconcile with her daughter.

She would talk about her daughter a lot, Smith said, but not about why or how they stopped having a relationship.

Leia Smith, who with her husband Dwight runs the Orange County Catholic Worker’s Isaiah House home for women, said Sager also had been in a transitional shelter in Huntington Beach with her daughter, back in 2007. She did not know what had happened between them.

“She was a very pretty girl and very sweet,” Leia Smith recalled. “That’s really hard when you’re a sweet, nice young woman out there. You get preyed upon.”

Sager also had a serious medical condition that Larry Smith would not disclose because of medical privacy laws. But, he said, it made her life more and more difficult.

“She was always afraid of falling down.”

Sager teetered when she stood up. She had trouble walking and moved slowly. Talking and swallowing took a lot of effort.

Her housemates said her health problems had something to do with her nervous system and that the crippling pain in her hands disrupted her ability to work, making her depressed.

They said she fled a violent relationship before she came to the Civic Center, and increasingly self-medicated with pot and methamphetamine because of another man she met there.

“Laura tried to get help,” said Tina Gomez, who met Sager in 2016 at the Courtyard and later lived with her at the Cooper Street house. “She tried to get inside somewhere.”

At one point years ago, someone from the Orange County Health Care Agency did an assessment on Sager. Nothing came of it.

“One of the reasons she was my favorite person was even though she knew the ball was dropped, she didn’t let it get her down,” Larry Smith said. “She still remained optimistic.”

He made it his mission to get Sager back in the system, so she could get the medical help she needed.

Brian Peterson, the faith-driven artist who paints portraits of homeless people through his Faces of Santa Ana nonprofit, also befriended her.

He remembers how she would sit for hours reading under a tree at the Ross Street entrance to the plaza. She loved romance novels and other fiction, said Peterson, who would paint a Faces of Santa Ana portrait of Sager in 2015.

Laura Sager, right, stands next to artist Brian Peterson, who painted a portrait of Sager in 2015 for the Faces of Santa Ana nonprofit that helps homeless people. (Courtesy of Faces of Santa Ana)

She was tall and slim, with sandy brown hair and piercing green eyes.

To Peterson, Sager was witty, gentle and brokenhearted. She told him she once worked in internet technology; the trouble with her hands ended that.

He sold Sager’s portrait for $2,500 to a woman from Arizona who remarked, “Something about her strikes my heart.”

Peterson uses part of the money from sale of the portraits to continue his work, but puts most of it in what he calls a “love account” for the homeless subjects.

Sager spent much of what she got to book a hotel room for a few weeks.

She moved into the Courtyard shelter when it began operating in late 2016 out of an old bus terminal across the street from the Civic Center plaza. She stayed for about a year.

During her time there, Sager loved to sit and watch the big screen TV. All day, Smith said.

But she was afraid to shower because of her disability — and because of unsanitary conditions in the Courtyard facilities.

Her friends say staff bullied her. Complaints about her hygiene sent her back to the streets, Smith said.

When the homeless tent camps at the Civic Center were dismantled in April, Sager had to leave.

She got subsidized housing at the Cooper Street home run by Illumination Foundation through the efforts of Larry Smith and an Illumination Foundation case manager, Rachel Levine. They worked with Santa Ana city staff, and outreach from the police department and county health care.

“Smitty felt like she deserved this opportunity and he really advocated for her,” said Yvette Ahlstrom, Illumination Foundation’s director of housing services.

The opportunity made Sager ecstatic, said Mitchell Jackley, another Cooper Street resident: “She wanted to move here very badly.”

Sager was growing more comfortable in the house, including bathing every day. Her drug use had tapered. Gomez can’t forget the way she laughed: “ha,ha, HA!”

“Something about her strikes my heart.”

Always conscious of the deterioration in her looks, Sager was feeling good enough about herself to venture out more in public. She seemed ready to make the appointments she needed with Social Services and doctors, Gomez said. They planned to get matching walkers.

“She was ready to be who she was within her limitations,” Gomez said.

Jackley and Gomez were coming back with Sager from the 7-Eleven the night she died.

Jackley had taken the drink she loved to buy — Fuze Raspberry Tea mixed with Diet Coke — from Sager and crossed ahead of her at First Street and Cooper with Gomez.

For some reason, they didn’t cross at the corner of First and Euclid where there is a marked crosswalk.

Sager was halfway to the opposite sidewalk, standing still, when the car hit her.

Later, Gomez and Jackley managed to track down her daughter, whose picture Sager kept in her room.

She claimed Sager’s body. They never heard anything else and held their own memorial.

Peterson called Sager’s death an eye-opener: “It was like, wow, Laura made it off the streets and was working to get herself integrated back into society and then something like this happens out of the blue.”

What happened to Rita

If Sager had been luckier than Wilde to finally get off the streets, it’s not because people hadn’t tried for years to help Wilde.

They were still trying around the time she died.

The homeless people who were her friends, along with advocates and others who encountered her daily near Anaheim’s La Palma Park, say Wilde had a kind nature that her circumstances had not trampled.

“She was the sweetest person out here,” said Jennifer Kelly, who spent more than a year sleeping near a liquor store on La Palma Avenue where Wilde bedded down. “She was always concerned about people and wanted to know how they were.

“If you were hungry and she had food, she would give it to you.”

Rita Ann Wilde is shown here with her belongings in the area of La Palma Avenue and Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim that she frequented for years. (Courtesy of Lou Noble)

Jack Mejia, a member of a faith group that feeds the homeless people in that area, recalled how Wilde always had a smile:  “She had good manners. She never treated anyone mean.”

But Wilde had a drinking problem. That’s what kept her on the streets.

She tried and failed at rehab multiple times. Whether she was drunk or high when she died is unclear.

Police, waiting on blood test results to come back, released only a few details on how she died. Sgt. Daron Wyatt, spokesman for Anaheim Police Department, said Wilde was found at fault.

Wilde was struck at 10:16 p.m. on that Thursday by more than one vehicle heading east on La Palma Avenue toward Harbor Boulevard, Wyatt said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police contacted her ex-husband, Wes Wilde, a hospice chaplain in Utah, because his was the last address on record for her. They had divorced in 2009 and he hadn’t had contact with her since 2013.

From what he could piece together between the police and the coroner, Wes Wilde said Rita had been sitting at the bus bench near the Del Taco at the corner of La Palma and Harbor. She jumped up for unknown reasons.

“She just darted out in front of traffic,” Wes Wilde said witnesses reported. “There was no way anybody could stop.”

She didn’t have her glasses, he added, and without them she couldn’t see much beyond 6 feet.

Kelly said her friend got up that night from where they slept and said she was going to fetch her white bag with her blankets in it from around the corner.

“I was like, ‘You’re going to be right back, right? She said yes … She just never came back.”

Her family claimed her body; friends held a memorial at a bus stop she frequented.

Rita Ann Wilde is healthy, smiling and happy in this family photo taken in the 1990s before alcohol took over her life and she became homeless. (Courtesy of Wes Wilde)

In a different way, Rita Wilde had been gone for a long time.

The woman who was plump and happy in a photograph from 18 years ago had wasted away to less than 100 pounds at the time of her death. She walked slowly, leaning on a cane in her right hand.

She often would get clothes when she came to the church breakfast because her things were constantly being confiscated by code enforcement officers, Mejia said.

Staff at the Del Taco would shoo her from the restaurant when she came to panhandle or ask her to eat outside because she smelled so badly.

That Rita was not the same woman Wes Wilde had married in 1993 when he worked at the Orange County Register.

“She was everything to me.”

He describes her as gregarious and attractive, and a wonderful cook. She had a well-paying job as a payroll processor and lived in a condo with her daughter.

Later, she worked for C.J. Segerstrom & Sons; she loved attending Segerstrom get-togethers.

But every night, Wilde drank two or three glasses of wine. That increased over time and led to harder drink and drugs.

She had her demons.

Half-native American, from the Menominee Indian tribe, Wilde survived a dysfunctional and violent childhood.

Both her parents were alcoholics. Her first marriage was to an abusive man who years later shot himself to death in his bathroom.

She needed surgery on her wrists and quit working, ostensibly to spend more time with her two grandchildren, cook for her church, and rock babies at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

Instead, Wes Wilde says, her drinking “went off the rails.”

She suffered from depression and spent time hospitalized. She had seizures. There was a suicide attempt. A stint in rehab cost $30,000 out of pocket.

By 2008, Wes Wilde had reached the end of his ability to fool himself. He told Rita she needed to make a choice.

The toll of alcoholism and living on the streets for more than a decade is clear in this photo taken in early 2018 of Rita Ann Wilde. (Courtesy of Scott Olson)

“She went off for a walk for an hour, came back, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t want to be sober.’ I was gobsmacked.”

On the streets of Anaheim, she also began using meth and heroin.

Then the worst thing for her happened in 2015: Her daughter hung herself.

She often came looking for her mother and once futilely arranged for Wilde to enter the Salvation Army’s treatment program.

But she too developed a drug habit. She died at 37 in a Los Angeles motel.

“Rita, I’m sure, had a ton of guilt over that,” Wes Wilde said. “I’m sure she also had a ton of denial.”

Rita Wilde had a boyfriend who had gone missing a few months ago. Were he still around, perhaps she would be too, friends speculate.

“She needed someone there with her all the time,” said Belinda Honma, a volunteer crossing guard at La Palma and Harbor who knows many of the homeless people who hang out near there.

Other street people would get jealous, said Honma, who took Wilde and her boyfriend to the Honda Center at Thanksgiving for the annual free dinner. People brought Wilde pizzas from Costco; a nearby Mexican restaurant delivered soup to her in the rain.

“Rita was so nice that people just had to give her stuff … Other homeless people don’t say ‘Thank You’ but she would say ‘Thank You’ all the time.”

For the past seven years, Yung Shin has fed hot meals daily with other volunteers to homeless people at La Palma Park. Wilde was one of them.

Shin shook her head in sadness: “I tried to arrange for her to go into rehab so many times and failed. She always had some excuse.”

Related: The homeless Disney worker who died alone in her car became the face of a public debate, but all she wanted was privacy

Shin said she knew of four other homeless people who had been hit by cars over a period of a few weeks around the time Wilde died.

“The thing is, I hope people recognize to be merciful. Homeless people die left and right.”

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Source: Orange County Register

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