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A cold death

By Rhonda McBride 10:47 PM December 26, 2013

Woman found dead in used car lot raises questions and tugs at heartstrings

ANCHORAGE - As morning rush hour traffic was starting to build on East Sixth Avenue in Fairview, Anchorage police had cordoned off a used car lot with yellow tape.

They were called to Alaska Professional Auto Dealer around 7:30 a.m. Thursday, after a woman’s body was found in a white Chevrolet van. Shortly after, medics pronounced her dead at the scene.

Police later identified the woman as Elaine Marie Cleveland, 34, of Anchorage.

As neighboring businesses began to open and watched investigators photograph the van, workers already suspected what had happened.

“It makes me feel blessed, I guess, to have a warm place to sleep at night,” said Ryan Suchan, who works at Far North Supply, which has a shop across the alley from the car lot where Cleveland was found. “Every morning we come to work. We see people get out of the cars, the homeless people, you know. They seek shelter to get out of the elements.”

Turns out Suchan was right. Investigators did not find signs of foul play. An autopsy revealed that exposure to the cold was a factor in Cleveland’s death.

Temperatures overnight ranged from -3 to 6 degrees.

Later in the morning, a man named Ed walked by. He recalled spending a night in one of the cars in the same auto lot where Cleveland died. He said it’s better to keep moving when it’s so cold — but when you’re drinking, the urge to rest somewhere, anywhere, gets stronger. Ed said sleeping in a car would not be his first choice, because it’s like sleeping in a “cold box,” which in Cleveland’s case turned out to be a coffin.

A woman who only wanted to be identified as Charleis, pronounced “Charlie,” knows something about sleeping in cars. She said a week ago she reached her 30-day limit at the Brother Francis Shelter.

She was sleeping in a tent — but after it was stolen, her brother let her use his car to live in. It’s parked near the shelter, and she worries that it may be towed because it no longer runs.

Charleis prefers the tent to the car.

“You might as well sleep in a tin can,” she said. “You ever put a tin can out? And then you look on the inside, it’s going to be frozen.”

For now, Charleis is making do with the car, even though it was vandalized. Two windows were busted out, windows now covered with blue tarp.

“In here, it’s cold,” Charleis said, as she rubbed the frost off the dashboard and exhaled a frosty breath of air. “It’s cold, ain’t it?”

To keep warm at night, Charleis wears five layers of clothing. She has a bedroll and a blanket that she uses to cover her head and keep warm air inside a cocoon.

At least there’s one thing she doesn’t have to worry about:

“That’s my food right there,” Charleis said, pointing to a plastic grocery bag. “It ain’t gonna spoil.”

Charleis said she can relate to what happened to Cleveland. She wonders if Cleveland had been drinking alcohol.

“When you pass out, first you’re cold. Then you start getting warm. Then you start relaxing, and then you go into a deep sleep,” Charleis said, who described the impact of extreme cold and too much alcohol as an experience like a coma. “And when you go into that coma, you’re slowly dying.”

Anchorage police said it might be six to eight weeks before toxicology results are available for Cleveland. They aren’t saying much about the circumstances which led up to her death — how she got into the van, whether she was homeless or whether she breathed her last breath on Christmas day or sometime the next morning.

“If that lady did not have no blankets or anything, she would have been frozen within three hours,” Charleis said.


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