It barely made a blip on the local news: a homeless man found dead on Sunday morning of what Dallas police described cryptically only as "homicidal violence." The news made a bigger splash in Tent City, the sprawling homeless encampment under Interstate 45 — now more than 200 tents strong — that's taken root a few blocks down Hickory Street from where police found the victim, whom they identified as 50-year-old Dana Hunter, face-up in an unpaved alley.
People in Tent City knew Hunter, by sight if not by name. By midday Tuesday, when DPD homicide detectives were passing out flyers with Hunter's picture and a promise of a $5,000 reward for tips leading to his murderer's capture, details about his death had rippled through the homeless community in a game of telephone, becoming somewhat twisted in the process. In the Tent City neighborhood immediately south of Hickory, where Hunter's girlfriend sometimes camped, the word around the campfire was that he'd been killed "execution-style," shot point-blank in the back of the head. That narrative is at odds with the official story from the police report, which says Hunter "died from blunt force trauma to the head," but a Tent City resident said that the unofficial version was confirmed by the distraught girlfriend, who told friends that Hunter had left their Cedars motel room in the middle of the night Saturday. She didn't see him again until the morning, when she glimpsed the body. She disappeared after relating the news and making good, friends assumed, on plans to stay with a family member.
Hunter, though, wasn’t living in Tent City but at a two-tent encampment on a vacant lot a few paces from where his body was found. The Cedars is now dotted with these outcroppings of tents, close enough to tap into the advantages of Tent City (i.e., proximity to shelters, social service agencies and a liquor store; the presence of a thriving black market; frequent visits by suburban church groups delivering food, clothing and sometimes tents) but far enough to escape some of the predators and intermittent violence. Hunter’s camp occupies property owned by Topletz Investments, whose small empire of dilapidated South Dallas rental properties are the target of an ongoing crusade by The Dallas Morning News and the city of Dallas, which recently sued the Topletz family over 190 homes it described in its suit as "unsound" and "crime-ridden." The house that used to occupy the vacant lot might have made the list, but it burned down in 2012 with a woman inside.
A middle-aged man with a close-cropped beard was inside one of the tents on Tuesday afternoon. Sitting upright in his sleeping bag, surrounded by empty bottles of malt liquor and ashing a cigarette in a 24-ounce can of Busch beer, the man, who declined to give his name, said he'd been camping on the lot since he separated from his wife about a year ago. He obtained permission to stay there from the woman living in the house next door, the only one on the street that's still standing, and said that the arrangement had been approved by the landlord, i.e., the Topletzes.
Dennis Topletz, who heads the family business, denies this. He says the company has been working hard to keep the homeless off the property. They put up no-trespassing signs and had the maintenance man chase off the campers every other weekend when he'd arrive to trim the grass and cut back tree limbs. None of it did any good. The signs would be ripped down as soon as they went up and the campers would come back as soon as the maintenance man was gone. "We can't seem to get 'em out of the way," Topletz says. A couple of weeks ago he says was approached by a DPD detective and signed an "authorization letter" allowing the police to clear anyone caught camping or loitering on the property, but the encampment remained. "They can't enforce stuff like that," Topletz says. "They really do a good job," but he figures that DPD has a lot of priorities more urgent than monitoring a vacant lot.
Hunter moved into the encampment several months ago with his girlfriend. The gray-bearded man in the other tent said his campmate was mellow and got along pretty well with everyone. The exception was when he was high on K2, a dirt-cheap "synthetic marijuana" that's ubiquitous in the homeless community. The strain that's currently in circulation appears to be particularly virulent, causing an increase in 911 calls downtown and, more anecdotally, a spike in drug-induced psychosis. The campmate says Hunter smoked K2 on Saturday night and became deranged, threatening to kill the others in the encampment and burn down their tents, at which point he asked the woman living in the house, who didn't answer a knock on her door on Tuesday afternoon, to kick Hunter out of the camp. That was at about 2 or 3 a.m. No one in the camp saw anything else until the body was found later that morning. Here, the story was that the girlfriend was in such distress that she was taken to Green Oaks, the North Dallas psychiatric hospital.
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Nearby, a man who gave his name as Herman sat on a vacant stoop with his girlfriend, drinking from paper bags. A police car had stopped by half an hour earlier. They cursed their luck when they saw it pull up, figuring they were about to get ticketed for public intoxication, but it was a homicide detective who handed them the flyer with Hunter's mug shot. They'd heard about the murder and seen the police cars Sunday morning, but they hadn't realized that they knew the victim until they saw his picture, with the telltale gray patches on his beard. They'd met him at The Bridge maybe six months earlier and crossed paths since then. Once or twice they'd shared a camp site.
Neither of them were surprised that K2 was being blamed for his death. He smoked the stuff constantly. Dealers swarmed the neighborhood selling hand-rolled K2 cigarettes for a dollar each. Hunter would buy 40 or 50 at a time. Typically, Herman and his girlfriend said, the drug would reduce Hunter to a zombie-like catatonia, the telltale sign of a K2 smoker, but the precise effect varied considerably. Dealers market several strains, including "red," "green" and a potent new one called "Brain Freeze," though precisely what chemicals are inside any given cigarette is anyone's guess.
The intensity of his habit often got Hunter into trouble. Once, they said, they saw him get beat up outside of The Bridge by a couple of men who were after the dealer he was tagging along with, a one-eyed Hispanic guy everyone called Cuban who went to jail for stabbing a man he misidentified as one of his attackers. He also owed lots of people money, mostly K2 dealers who had sold to him on credit. Any one of them would have had a motive.
But that's pure speculation, which is all anyone who knew Hunter seems willing or able to offer — if, that is, they're willing to offer anything at all. Broaching the topic of Hunter's murder at a Tent City campfire just north of Hickory turns friendly greetings to icy silence. Finally, presented with the tale told by Hunter's camp mates, of the K2 high gone bad leading to the murder that no one noticed, one of them speaks up. "That's their story," he concedes, but as he's been told, "there's three sides to every story: Your side, my side and the truth."