Video: Watch as John Russelman, homeless veteran, receives court record showing felony charge holding him back was dismissed
GULFPORT -- Rain forced John Russelman from his tent in one of few remaining slivers of woods where the Coast's homeless set up camp.
The tent practically floated, water seeping through the tiny holes ants had chewed in the floor. His clothes were wet. His sleeping bags were soaked.
The 49-year-old Marine veteran and former Army National Guardsman found dry clothes at Goodwill, retreating for the night to the Salvation Army's homeless shelter in Gulfport.
Even after two years in the woods, he rarely stayed at the shelter, preferring the insulation of a small tent inside his larger tent to ward off the cold. But he had a mild fever and a sore throat.
He needed a dry cot in a warm chapel.
Since his release, Russelman has shuffled through a netherworld the homeless occupy on the fringes of downtown Gulfport, moving like wraiths among fast-food restaurants, the public library and a soup kitchen, all on or near U.S. 49. But his story has a twist, one that compounded his difficulty with finding a steady job and escape from the streets. Several months into his odyssey, Russelman twice landed in jail for crimes he said he did not commit. While he was jailed, his driver's license, birth certificate and passport disappeared from his tent. In the end, the charges failed to stick but plenty of damage was done.
While federal agencies trumpet their success at ending homelessness for Coast veterans, Russelman is one veteran who has fended for himself.
For privacy reasons, the Department of Veterans Affairs would not discuss Russelman's situation or any interactions with him. His own records, rumpled and faded by the weather, show his military history and a downward spiral that began with a medical emergency while he served in Iraq with the Mississippi Army National Guard.
"I've been to the VA many times and I've never seen a program the VA has for me," Russelman said. "They might have a program for alcoholics and drug addicts, but I've never had anybody at the VA say to me, 'This is a great program and you've got to get into it.'
" Once I have a job, I can find my own place to live. I really don't like people that need handouts, or need someone to come rescue or save them, especially when it's a bureaucratic nightmare to make that happen."
Beyond the Bronx
Russelman's beard, worn out of necessity, overwhelms his thin face. A knit cap is pulled over his forehead, framing blue eyes and the dark circles under them. He dresses in layers against the cold. Grime coats his sneakers and is embedded under his fingernails.
He spends most of his time alone, leaving his tent each morning and returning in the evenings to sleep after a routine that varies depending on whether he has money. When he can afford it, he eats the breakfast special at Burger King and walks to Island View Casino, where he tries to parlay a few dollars into a few more. He also collects box turtles he finds near the railroad tracks and moves them to safer areas.
One of his brothers occasionally sends money, but his family in New Jersey hardly knows what to make of his legal troubles.
Russelman spends a good bit of time on a computer at the downtown library, connecting on Facebook with family and friends. He also contemplates the circumstances that left him homeless and how things might have gone differently.
He regrets he will be the first in his family who has not bettered his life compared with his parents, who owned their own home. His father was a conductor for the New York subway, his mother a housewife who cleaned other houses on the side.
Defending his country
As an 8-year-old, Russelman discovered life beyond a Bronx apartment when his parents moved the family to the New Jersey suburbs in 1974. There, he developed a lifelong love of nature and an appreciation for his country.
Russelman joined the Marines at 19, serving four years on active duty. Two of those years were aboard the USS Iowa, a World War II battleship recommissioned at Ingalls Shipbuilding in 1984. He was on the Iowa in 1986 for Liberty Weekend in New York, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan came aboard to commemorate the Statue of Liberty's restoration and centennial.
He remembers a meteor shower against the pitch-black Suez Canal, blue algae in the Persian Gulf and escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. Russelman returned to active duty, briefly, in 1991 to help secure the airport in Kuwait at the end of Operation Desert Storm.
Today, he wishes he had stayed in the service long enough to earn a retirement. But he attained only the rank of corporal and said he wasn't offered advancement to continue active duty.
"If you are real good at what you do, but there's 10 guys better than you are, then you're not going to stand out," he said. "I got through it all with some of the best in the Marines."
Move to the Coast
Russelman married, had two children and found work as a security guard, but the marriage failed. In 2003, he moved to Florida to work for friends in the electrical business. He came to the Coast in 2006 looking for work during the post-Katrina building boom.
He found a job with Bruce's Electric Co. in Long Beach, where he lived above the shop.
"He was a good hand," said the owner, Bruce Walker. "He tried hard. He proved himself. He was a quiet person who kept to himself.
"He wasn't an electrician. We used him as an extra pair of hands. He was always willing. He was learning. We were teaching him things."
Walker said he had to let Russelman go when work slowed down.
"I've thought about him a lot of times," Walker said. "I hope he can get on his feet and get rolling."
Russelman joined the Mississippi Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq for almost a year, through March 2010. His platoon was headquartered at a base in Balad, north of Baghdad.
He squirreled away money during his deployment, but work was sporadic when he returned home. He picked up tar balls after the BP catastrophe, both on the beach and in the water.
Trouble finds him
In November 2011, during infantry training at Camp Shelby, he went down in the woods. He had a blood clot in the femoral artery of his left leg that required bypass surgery at the VA in early 2012, medical records show. A bacterial infection in his leg flares up from time to time, complicating his recovery.
Russelman was honorably discharged from the National Guard in October 2013. By then, he knew he was in trouble. He had worked only sporadically while recuperating from surgery and was running out of money.
He was evicted from his apartment in January 2014. His car had already broken down, so he had no transportation.
Any hope Russelman had of getting back on his feet quickly ended April 7, 2014, when a woman accused him of threatening to kill her while they talked during hot dog night at Feed My Sheep, a soup kitchen.
The woman said she was a witness to an aggravated assault the Gulfport Police Department was investigating.
"I told her she shouldn't be bragging about being a witness because the state's case hadn't been resolved yet," he said, "and a state witness shouldn't be speaking about the case."
The woman, however, signed a sworn statement at the Police Department saying Russelman had threatened to kill her if she continued to give police evidence in the case, according to the sworn statement. A witness told the Sun Herald he heard the threat.
Russelman, who had nothing to do with the aggravated assault, was arrested and jailed April 8, 2014, on a felony charge of intimidating a witness. He was able to bail out of jail 50 days later with money his family sent after his bond was reduced. As a condition of his release, he had to stay away from the woman.
He had been out of jail about two weeks when the woman told Gulfport police he had threatened her again, this time on two occasions in Biloxi. Back in jail, Russelman was ineligible for a bond on the misdemeanor contempt of court charge. He sat there four months.
Good news arrives
His court-appointed attorney secured a sworn statement from Biloxi's assistant police chief, Rodney McGilvary, who said there was no record the woman had reported the threats to his department as she claimed. McGilvary's statement also said there was no indication Russelman was in Biloxi during the time in question.
The woman had a criminal record and, McGilvary told the Sun Herald, a history of reporting crimes to Biloxi police that did not check out.
McGilvary's sworn statement was presented at trial. Judge Melvin Ray put a hold on the case, releasing Russelman in October 2014.
With the felony intimidation charge still pending, he had trouble finding work. A fellow veteran hired him over the summer to clear beach lots for $7 an hour. Russelman said people sometimes come to Feed My Sheep, looking for labor to move furniture and such.
But mostly, Russelman has lived in limbo. His understanding was a grand jury could indict him at any time on the felony charge. The Sun Herald checked Russelman's court file, finding his case had already gone to a grand jury. Grand jury proceedings are secret, but records showed the jurors failed to find enough evidence to indict Russelman and dismissed the charge in May.
'I'm going to be OK'
Essentially, Russelman had been cleared without realizing it. A reporter recently accompanied him to the courthouse to pick up a certified copy of the grand jury findings, which could be released only to him and only with photo identification. He presented his VA ID at the Circuit Court desk and was given a copy of the findings.
He sat down outside the court office and studied the paper in silence.
"Excellent," he finally said.
The more he thought about it afterward, the more agitated he became over the time he spent in jail and the complications piled onto his already challenging circumstances.
Ted Hearn, a volunteer and advocate for the homeless in Gulfport, is helping Russelman get a new license and other ID, a time-consuming process.
Meanwhile, Russelman is trying to stay dry and warm, which has proven a challenge as rain, wind and cold fronts cycle through the Coast.
His 50th birthday is in March.
"At 50 years old, it's terrible to have failed so much so recently, although all of it wasn't my fault," he said. "My options are limited because of my health and my age, but I think there are jobs out there. At this point, I know I'm going to be OK."