A spirit wandering, then a life lost

The Philadelphia Inquirer


On Father’s Day 2007, Tim Bradly called his dad in West Deptford to cancel their plans for an afternoon’s walk around Penn’s Landing, maybe dinner. Some friends were visiting, Tim said.

“Are you sure?” his father asked, unable to hide his disappointment and worry.

For a decade his son, once a star athlete, witty and playful, had plummeted into the darkest quarters of a modern hobo culture, where he hopped trains, squatted in abandoned houses, abused drugs, and begged for money.

In recent months, though, Tim had seemed to be reemerging, planning his future. Even happy.

“I’m all right, Dad. It’s cool,” the 28-year-old said, and promised to call later. “Tell Mom I love her.”

Tim also phoned his best friend, Crystal Bonner, who traveled with him under his maxim, “Live free. ” Tim begged her to hang out with him and his friends. Feeling ill, she said no.

The next day, as the sun rose over the shuttered Croydon apartments on 49th Street near Locust in West Philadelphia, police found Tim’s body on the roof of the rambling eight-story building, which squatters called “Paradise City.”

He had been bludgeoned, his face smashed in.

Two other young wanderers – Conor McCarthy, 25, the son of devout Christians who settled in western Pennsylvania, and his girlfriend, Echo Ward, 25, of California – were charged with Tim’s death. On Friday, Echo pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. Conor’s first-degree murder trial is slated to begin tomorrow.

With the trial imminent, those closest to Tim remain haunted.

Crystal is disturbed at the possibility that her friend was betrayed by someone within their free-spirited fraternity, which she says hinges so much on trust.

Tom and Peg Bradly long to know what happened on that roof to cost Tim his life.

And in their anxious days and sleepless nights, they replay the last 10 years, trying to understand why Tim chose to wander aimlessly and abandon what Peg calls their “Ozzie and Harriet” family.

“What causes a kid to give this up? ” Peg asks, her eyes filling with tears. “That’s what I, for the life of me, won’t ever understand.”

Tim’s other side

Sitting at the kitchen counter of their two-story Cape Cod-style home, Tom and Peg, high school sweethearts married 39 years, are surrounded by mementos that document the milestones of their son’s life:

A photo of a wide-eyed, blue-eyed toddler wearing too-big roller skates; a stack of Cub Scout badges; a photo of a teenager grinning with his teammates at an Olympic training center in Canada; a line of gold-plated, first-place roller-hockey trophies, including for the Junior Olympics and the Garden State’s Governor’s Cup; a photo of Tim, 17, as a punk-band drummer with a green-and-purple Mohawk.

Also on the counter are a photo of a gaunt, dreadlocked man with nose rings, a goat tattoo and a haunting stare; drug-rehab admission forms and get-well cards; and a stack of printouts from the Internet on the traveling culture.

“Tim just gave up on his normal life to hang with these kids,” says Peg, her voice quaking. “I don’t know the answer. I wish I knew. . . . I wish I knew.”

Tom and Peg Bradly moved from South Philadelphia to middle-class West Deptford when their two sons were small.

Tom, 60, is a retired SEPTA driver. Peg, 58, works as a paralegal, and often worries about her husband home alone, thinking how Tim was supposed to meet with him that day.

Peg describes their boys, six years apart, as “complete ends of the spectrum.”

The older, Tommy, lives next door with his wife and newborn son and owns two businesses – heating/air conditioning and auto restoration.

Tim abandoned any semblance of a conventional life.

“How do you do that? ” Peg asks. “How do you live together for all of these years and raise two kids in the same house with the same ideals and . . .. ” Her voice trails off.

Peg searches the boys’ childhood, filled with sleepovers, pool parties and “waffle Fridays,” for answers.

Tommy played saxophone. Tim wrote poetry, played piano and drums.

Tommy never liked sports. Tim was a natural athlete: track, softball, soccer and roller hockey – “his life,” his father says.

For a fifth-grade writing assignment, under future goals, Tim wrote: “To be a professional roller hockey player in Spain.”

He competed in the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating and traveled the country with his parents, who acted as coaches.

“It was our life for 10 years,” says Tom.

Peg chuckles. “We slept on roller-rink floors, hotel floors, the van – while the kids [on the team] had the beds.”

Besides his many MVP awards and gold medals, Tim stood out for another reason.

“He was always the tiniest little thing wherever he was,” says Peg, showing pictures of a young Tim sitting on a shovel in one, peeking out from inside a duffel bag in another.

“He played to his size,” says his father, remembering the teenager playing on a men’s team in West Virginia against players six feet tall, turning his small stature to an advantage. “These guys were mountain men, but Tim took that as a challenge.”

When he died, Tim was 5-foot-3 and 127 pounds.

“Tim lived this wonderful life,” Peg says. At the same time, “there was the other side where he struggled, and I don’t think he knew how to handle it.”

Tim had problems in school, a learning issue that his mother says was never identified. His parents hired tutors and sought alternative learning programs, but in eighth grade he was left back.

Peg recently found a note in his autograph book that read: “Stupid, I hope you catch up.”

“I think he was just devastated by that,” she says.

The next year, three boys jumped Tim after school, knocking him out.

“He just hated school after that,” Peg says.

When Tim was 16, his parents pulled him out of hockey to concentrate on academics. Shortly after, Peg found a marijuana cigarette in his backpack.

“I knew the first time he did it,” she says. “You suddenly see this change from this happy, smiling boy to not wanting your mother to come into your room. ”

The Bradlys addressed the drug use immediately.

“When we went to the police, they said, ‘Well, it’s too little for us to concern ourselves with,’ literally,” Peg recalls. “Everyone looked at this as a simple thing that a kid would out grow of. ”

At 17, Tim was arrested for underage drinking.

After 11th grade, he quit school – then hit the road, traveling to San Francisco, Colorado, Missouri, wherever the train took him, Peg says. “He saw life as an adventure.”

Tim always promised to call home soon. Sometimes soon would be months.

Squatting, scrounging

Crystal Bonner first met Tim in September 1998 at a friend’s house in South Philadelphia. By then, he’d been traveling for nearly a year.

“He glowed,” Crystal remembers. “He was a genuinely beautiful person. I was instantly drawn to him. We were just instant friends.”

Crystal was 23. Tim was 19. They quickly realized they had grown up in similar households a few miles apart. They also shared a worldview.

“We all congregate in a circle of friends that in some way or another has felt alienated by the world,” explained Crystal, who left home at 17. “We don’t talk about it. We exist in it. It has nothing to do with how your parents treated you. It doesn’t mean you came from a broken family or were abused, but some way or another, somehow you feel you just don’t fit in this corporate structure.”

When Tim needed a place to stay, Crystal offered hers, a squat in South Philly that she shared with three guys – from New York, Michigan and Oregon, all travelers.

The tenant had moved out, giving them what Crystal calls “90 legal days” before they could be evicted.

Squatting, she says, is relatively easy. There’s usually running water, and you can hook up the electricity, buy a space heater, and have all the basic functions of a normal house.

“They will eventually kick you out,” she says, “but you have a few good years before they do it.”
And you can always find food, she says. “It was mostly your alcohol content” you had to worry about.

The typical routine was get up, split a 40-ounce bottle of beer, go to Center City and rummage for food and furniture, and later maybe check out a band.

“It’s not the most productive life,” Crystal admits with an easy laugh. “Basically, just a typical day, except we weren’t working, unless we were begging.”

Tim had a job washing dishes in a bar, she remembers, but “he didn’t really go very much, so it didn’t last very long.”

“For some people, it’s hard to sit down, shut up, and toe the line. Like working your ass off, like we see our parents do, blue-collar jobs, 40 hours a week, just to get screwed over. It’s depressing. ”

For money, she says, she and Tim mostly panhandled outside the 7-Eleven at 22d and Lombard. On a good day, they made about $30 an hour. On the Main Line, it could reach $100.

“I had a dog,” she explains. “Dogs make you money.”

Crystal remembers how Tim would tell stories about his family.

“He’d always talk about his dad’s singing and his mom’s cooking, how cool his brother is,” she says. “He absolutely adored his family.”

Then, she says, his only vices were beer and pot.

“He always had a skip in his step,” she remembers. He’d dance on the sidewalk to the music from passing cars, and would always stop to talk to homeless people.

Police took notice, Crystal says. “Cops liked to mess with him. ” They’d ask for identification, which Tim didn’t have, and then search his pockets.

At the end of 1998, evicted from the South Philly squat, the five travelers scattered. Crystal hopped trains to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and later met up with Tim back in Philly.

Their first trip together was in summer 1999 to York, Pa., for a Rainbow Gathering, a convergence of hippies, hobos, anarchists, punks, Deadheads, drifters, tramps, and what Crystal calls “older RV people” – all with “itchy feet. ” The Woodstock-inspired annual festival has sprung up somewhere in the country since 1972.

Tim and Crystal, with two dogs apiece, later hitched to Chicago and squatted with people they met at a dog park. The stay didn’t last long; the people had cats. Again at the dog park, they met a girl who offered her new apartment. She wasn’t moving in for a month.

By May 2000, Crystal and Tim had parted.

Crystal did two semesters at a community college, did migrant work in Massachusetts, worked in a pharmaceutical lab in Oregon, and rock-hounded in Arizona, unearthing beautiful stones to sometimes sell.

Over the years, before MySpace and iPhones, Crystal met up with Tim and others randomly.
Now 33, living in South Philly with friends and looking for work, she finds the culture more connected. Of her 204 MySpace friends, she guesses, 150 are travelers.

Tim, she says, touched down in every state but Alaska and Hawaii. She remembers him calling to say he had walked through Texas “on the 10,” alternately carrying his dogs, Shanaynay and Kimble, on the interstate when their paws grew tender.

“He really didn’t have many expectations for life. He didn’t care if he was broke. He just loved going places and experiencing new things.”

But by 2003, whenever she met him, if he bothered to show up, all he wanted was to “get a bag.”

“I found myself visiting a junkie,” says Crystal, who says she quit heroin 10 years ago. “He didn’t have time for anything else.”

When Tim would go to her parents’ house in Bellmawr, she says, she’d leave money around so he wouldn’t steal something of theirs.

She’d seen many of her road friends change that way.

“At first, it’s fun, and you’re just having a good time, and you’re just exploring your teenage years and your early 20s,” she says. “And eventually you wind up with no job record and usually at least an alcohol addiction, and you can’t find a job, and you drink all the time, and it just becomes this, like, endless cycle. ”

A desperate plea

Around 2 a.m. one morning in 2005, a smell from the kitchen startled the sleeping Bradlys.

When Tom went down, he found Tim, cooking for a guy he’d just met.

Tim hadn’t been home in months.

“He was cooking him a steak,” Tom says, shaking his head.

“And Tim didn’t even know his name,” adds Peg.

The Bradlys always had an open-door policy, never taking away Tim’s key, but this was too much.

“I was petrified,” Peg says. “This guy could have killed us or harmed us or robbed us.”

The next day, they pleaded with Tim to get off the road, get off drugs, and get a job, but “it just went in one ear and out the other,” Tom says. “He’d say, ‘I’m not doing nothing. I’m cool. Nothing’s wrong.'”

But Tom and Peg knew everything was wrong.

Tim soon disappeared again.

As they had before when too much time passed, the Bradlys walked the streets of Philadelphia looking for him, especially on holidays, carrying food, clothes and blankets. They relied, Peg says, on old conversations, tips from Tim’s friends, and pure luck, which took them into squat houses, under bridges, and inside crack dens.

“You search,” says Peg. “You spend your life searching.”

Around 3 o’clock one morning several months after the steak incident, the phone rang. “Mom, I’m sick,” Peg remembers Tim saying.

“Can you come and get me? If you don’t, I’m going to die.”

“We were at a point where we almost wanted to say, ‘We’re just not going to do this anymore.’ But when your child calls with that desperate call . . .,” Peg says.

They jumped in Tom’s pickup truck and kept Tim on the line, having him describe things around him, until their phone went dead.

Tom remembers it was pouring rain. They found Tim on a corner on Vare Avenue in South Philadelphia, lying near a gas station soaking wet, passed out, overdosed on heroin.

They took him to a hospital, then rehab, then home – now their ritual. Tom guesses Tim was in rehab about 10 times.

One time Tim locked himself in his bedroom for days, “sweating to death,” doubled over in pain, desperate to fight heroin. “But he did it,” Tom says.

Tim stayed clean that time for two, three months.

Another man’s search

While the Bradlys were agonizing over Tim, a mother on the other side of Pennsylvania was breathing easier.

Dawn McCarthy’s son Conor, in his early 20s, was coming out of rocky teenage years.

McCarthy and her husband, deeply rapt in youth ministry, had traveled the country from church to church with their five children, all home-schooled, before settling in Franklin, Venango County.

By 14, Conor – smart, athletic and musical, his mother says – was sporting a Mohawk, earrings and sagging pants, and creating dissension in the strict, Christian family.

After his parents divorced in 2001, he “started to fall apart,” says McCarthy, 50. “He ended up spiraling. ” He stopped going to school, and drugs and drinking landed him in and out of jail, she says.

But in 2006, he was living with her, working two jobs.

“He was doing really great,” McCarthy says. Still, “he just didn’t want to be strapped into that life. ”

Conor would later take off for Texas, then San Francisco.

“He wanted to be more about simplicity, and being young and impetuous. . . . He wanted to have an adventure.”

Starting a comeback

For most of 2006, the Bradlys had no idea where Tim was.

“Our heart stopped every time the phone rang,” Tom recalls. “We thought he would be dead somewhere.”

Tim was in jail.

He had been convicted five times between 1998 and 2005 – twice for assault in 1998 and three times for possessing small amounts of heroin. In one case, involving a fight in San Francisco, his parents got a second mortgage to make his bail. In another, Tim knocked out a woman in West Philadelphia when she refused him some cigarettes, then rifled $10 from her pockets and took her silver necklace.

Each time, Tim was put on probation and ordered into drug and alcohol treatment.

In early 2006, after a series of parole violations, he was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in a Philadelphia jail.

When Crystal visited him, he told her that he was happier than he’d been in a long time. He was sober.

After his release that December to a rehab program, “he was really trying to get his life together,” Crystal says, “but he saw a bunch of obstacles.”

He was stick-thin, sick with hepatitis C. Heroin had rotted his teeth. He was on parole. He couldn’t find a job.

But slowly, his parents watched as he seemed to develop a new focus.

Tom would visit his son often at his new home – a friend’s boat at a pier off Columbus Boulevard – sometimes cradling a bag of groceries.

He helped Tim get a Pennsylvania state identification card. And he took him to a dentist to get his teeth fixed. Tim proudly called them his “pearly whites.”

“I’m going to take care of these,” Tom remembers him saying.

Tim was attending rehab in Philadelphia two, three times a week; Tom sometimes drove him. And every Friday, Tom and Peg met him for lunch at some bistro Tim had discovered in Northern Liberties.

He had a new friend, a German shepherd mix from the pound that he named Guinness.

He was filling notebooks with poems and song lyrics, and talked about recording a CD.

Tim also missed the road.

“He didn’t want to let his parents down by traveling,” Crystal recalls. “He felt really stuck, bored.”
Three days before Father’s Day, Tim borrowed some money, bought a PATCO train ticket, and paid Crystal a sick call at her parents’ home in Bellmawr.

Her left eye was swollen shut; she’d been beaten up by a friend, she says.

She remembers her joy at seeing Tim, apparently still clean.

Over and over, he played “Hey There Delilah” for her, a song of promises between long-distance friends.

They stayed up late, laughing, remembering, dreaming.

“Between being a junkie and being in jail, so many years were gone that he wasn’t really sure how to live,” Crystal says. “He was just starting to figure that out.”

Horror on the roof

As evening fell on Father’s Day, Tim and his friends went up to the roof of Paradise City with Tim’s dog and three six-packs of beer.

It was Sunday, and beer was all they could get.

With Tim was his longtime drinking buddy, William “Montana Bill” Pittock, then 19, who had a two-inch tattoo of the state on one of his cheekbones. Also allegedly with them were Conor McCarthy and his girlfriend, Echo Ward, whom they had met a few days earlier at Paradise City.

Conor stood six feet and had a tattoo of a broken bottle on his left hand. Echo was 5-foot-2 and sported a red-and-blond Mohawk. They called each other husband and wife. Conor had chanced upon Echo that spring at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and took her home to Franklin in May for his sister’s wedding.

Sitting up there, under the warm night’s sky, the four told jokes and stories, passing time, while they drank, Montana Bill would later say.

According to Montana Bill’s statement to police and his testimony at a preliminary hearing, this is what happened next:

“We were talking about Conor’s girl. I was congratulating him for having a girl on the road,” he said. “The next thing I know, Conor’s on top of Tim, and Conor’s girlfriend was on top of me.”

At some point, Montana Bill said, he blacked out. When he came to, unable to break up the fight between Conor and Tim, he fled, walking until he passed out.

Around sunrise, he went back to the roof to wake everyone up, thinking by now they’d be “clearheaded and level-thinking.”

“And then that’s when I saw Tim,” he told police, “and I saw his eyes. They were bugged out.”

He ran to a pay phone and called his mother in Marcus Hook. Then he called police.

At a preliminary hearing, the medical examiner described the damage to Tim’s face and skull: “It’s kind of like if you were to . . . crush an egg and look at the eggshell and try to count all the fractures,” he said.

Tim also suffered numerous blows to his torso.

The medical examiner listed the cause of death as multiple blunt-force injuries consistent with Tim’s being hit with “a heavy pipe,” “a block of cement” or “a heavy shoe,” like a steel-toe boot, with “substantial” force.

Tim’s “pearly whites” had been knocked out.

And he had alcohol and cocaine in his system.

Police identified him through the ID that his father had urged him to carry.

In court tomorrow, Conor faces a first-degree murder charge. His lawyer, Barnaby Wittels of Philadelphia, would say only this of the commonwealth’s case against his client:

“The truth is many-sided, shifting and ultimately false.”

A hunt for explanations

Standing at her kitchen counter with the trial approaching, Peg pulls out a thick manila folder from among the expanse of photos, papers and trophies from Tim’s younger days.

She flips through the contents – printouts from travelers’ blogs, Web sites about hobos, and the MySpace pages of the accused couple.

The Internet has become her fixation, her relentless search for traces of her son’s unexplained life and death.

“I want to know what led them here,” Peg says of the young couple charged with Tim’s death. “I want to know about this girl. I want to know about him. I want to know why.”

Then, with her eyes red from tears, she turns to look at Tim’s row of gold trophies.

“And people say, ‘What kind of parents did they have?’ Well, look at us.”


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