On the Death of Lee Dell Thomas, the SMU Crane Guy: It Was So Funny Until It Wasn't
Around 1:45 Tuesday morning, Lee Dell Thomas, Jr. climbed out of the vomit-soaked cabin of a crane high above SMU, dangled from the outside of the crane by two arms, then one, and then plummeted 150 feet to his death.
It was a clumsy death, undignified, and quiet. Most of us who had followed the man's actions on television, news blogs and social media were sleeping by then. The 44-year-old's day had been a fleeting gust of whimsy, and for a time, we welcomed him.
We all knew he may die; in a way, he sealed his fate when he told police he had a gun, even though he didn't. Still, the lubricant that he sprayed on the platform just before he fell -- jumped? -- to his death was, at the time, almost adorable, like the banana peels or marbles in our favorite cartoon growing up. Even questions like, Will he be shot, or Will he jump? and Is he on crack or PCP? were somehow funny.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dallas PD Assistant Chief Tom Lawrence and SMU's vice president of external affairs, Brad E. Cheves, did their best "I don't know nothin' about nothin'" impression, both only speaking about the 15-hour ordeal for about five minutes, each without providing information that hadn't already been reported. But the details about Thomas were starting to emerge:
According to WFAA, Thomas went to prison in 1991 for shooting his girlfriend's mother in the face. The Dallas Morning News reported that while in prison, he was sentenced to four more years for epically assaulting another inmate with two beef stew cans stuffed into a sock.
But his mother, Ollie May Thomas, confirmed what many of us already suspected. "He had a hard life," she said.
He was homeless, and though Dallas PD said they couldn't comment on his mental health, WFAA reports Thomas was a paranoid schizophrenic, off his meds and hooked on crack. In this, he's no different than millions who have died outside, on the ground, under bridges. It's how he died that captured our attention, that made us chuckle and start fake Twitter feeds and follow them gleefully. In this, he's no different than Rudy Eugene, the 31-year-old from Miami who caught our attention when he was shot dead last week chewing another homeless man's face. He had a Twitter account, too.
The more we learn about Thomas, though, the more normal he becomes. Men like him die every day, all around us, and then someone comes along and dies in particularly peculiar or epic fashion, and we take to Twitter and smile. A reporter asked Ollie May Thomas why she thought her son took his own life. "I think he gave up," she said, but we'd all stopped paying attention by then.