10/6/85 – 12/28/10
Although Sammy Thompson had lived the longest in New Orleans, he was the last one to be claimed at the coroner’s office after the fire. In many ways, Sammy had broken free of his family years earlier and replaced them with a family of the heart he found in the rutted streets east of St. Claude, where the 9th ward begins.
His mom Cheryl Green had moved with him to New Orleans from Connecticut when Sammy was 12 years old. The time they spent in Connecticut, where Sammy was born, had been rough for the family.
They’d lived in a poor part of New London, Connecticut, right next to the housing projects. In July of 1991, when Sammy was only 6, his brother Christopher and two friends bludgeoned two younger boys nearly to death with baseball bats. They bound their hands, feet and mouths with heavy duty tape and threw them in the Stenger Farm Pond, where the boys had been fishing, and took off on their bicycles.
The 10-year-old victim Tom Walker, broke free of the tape and dragged his friend Geoff Theilbar, 13, out of the water. Theilbar suffered permanent brain damage.
Christopher and his friend Brian Davis were charged with attempted murder, kidnapping robbery. They were tried as adults but their third friend, who was 15, was considered to be a juvenile. The case received huge attention in the New York media and, after Christopher was sentenced, Cheryl and Sammy moved to New Orleans, where Cheryl’s son by a previous marriage said he could help her find a job.
Sammy always had a lot of energy, even as a small child, his mother said. She would exhaust herself taking him outside trying to get him enough exercise so that he could sleep at night. Being inside made him jumpy, and school was never a good fit for him either. He had Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity, dyslexia and other learning disabilities that kept him in 9th grade for three years.
“Sammy had a lot of problems with reading,” Cheryl said. “He couldn’t, really. He figured he’d be 21 or 22 before he ever got out of high school. I could say I regret letting him quit, but what could I do? I couldn’t promise him that school would get any better.”
When he dropped out, he started sleeping all day and going out all night with his friends. “Just before his 18th (summer 2003) birthday I kicked him out of the house,” Cheryl said. “I came home from work and found condom wrappers in my bed and he was gone. He’d disappear for five or six days at once. I knew he was into drugs. I couldn’t take it any more.”
In the 9th Ward, he found a home. “People told me he was homeless in the French Quarter, but he wasn’t, he told me,” his mom said. “He’d have a job and make some money and live in an apartment for while. Then he’d hop a train and travel. Every once in a while, he’d call me. When he did he would always say he was doing just fine.”
Maybe he was, compared to how difficult it had been for him to fit in before. He met Anna Lynne Thompson, who had run away from home in Mississippi. “There are a lot of stereotypes that go with being a street kid, but he didn’t fit any typical idea. He could blend in with anybody. He has one of those personalities that makes you feel like you’ve known him forever. I keep talking about him in the present tense because I feel like he’s still with me,” Anna Lynne said.
He started trying to build a family for himself right away. A few months after he was kicked out of home, he asked Matt to be his brother. Matt was 29 when he met Sammy. Matt was drinking with some friends on the Riverwalk overlooking the Mississippi. “I needed someone I could confide in and he was the one person I could tell things that were bothering me,” Matt said. “Maybe I wasn’t always in the state to give advice, but I could tell when things were getting out of hand and try to pull him back.”
On and off, Sammy was on heroin and so was Matt. “I let myself get out there too far and I knew I needed to get out of town to rein myself back in,” he said. He was on his way out of town for Texas four years before the fire when he saw Sammy on his way “to cop some stuff. We sat in a park on Elysian Fields and I told him I had to go, or I was going to die. He told me to do what I had to do.”
While Matt was in Texas, friends would sometimes send word to him about Sammy. And every few months or so Anna Lynne, who left the streets of the 9th Ward and had gotten a job in the chemical industry, would buy him a cell phone. He would always call Matt, before he lost it, broke it, or it was stolen.
Right around the time of the fire, things had started to look up for Sammy. His friend Shondi had helped him kick heroin and he told people this time it was for good. He loved tall bikes: bikes with the seat five or more feet off the ground and a vertical chain that drives the wheels. His friend Burnout was teaching him how to weld.
Then the warehouse opened up and he had a new girlfriend, Nikki Pack. In the warehouse, he hoped he and Jonathan Guerrero, who had great skills in mechanical things, could open a workshop where they would teach young kids from the neighborhood how to make and repair bikes. They planned to build tall bikes there too.
Sammy was the most concerned about safety in the warehouse, and the most alert to danger. Audrey Chmielowski, who had been staying in the warehouse, said Sammy was the one who made sure that the fire was completely extinguished before he went to sleep at night.
He was also protective of others. He and Audrey wrestled on Christmas Eve, tumbling around so close to the fire that Audrey almost fell into the pit. Sammy put his hand in the fire to push Audrey out, suffering severe burns on this hand and arm.
The night before the fire, when the community was mourning the death of Flea, a member of the community who had been killed in a home robbery, Sammy was too sick to go to the Second Line funeral procession or drink with everyone at the St. Roch. Audrey believes if Sammy had been well, the fire wouldn’t have gotten out of control because he would have made sure it was out before he went to bed.
When Sammy’s Aunt Beth Penot heard about the fire, she couldn’t be sure it was Sammy in the warehouse. She hadn’t seen him in six years and wasn’t certain of his real last name. His mom hadn’t seen him in four years, yet only members of the immediate family were legally allowed to identify the body. Beth and her daughter searched for photos of Sammy on the internet to try to find marks or tattoos that would help them identify the person in the morgue as Sammy. The coroner’s office required real proof and, while most families had dental records, Sammy’s family couldn’t lay their hands on any.
Finally Beth and her daughter found a photo of Sammy naked from the waist up. They made out a tattoo of a rose with the word “Justice” above it. That was the mark they used to identify the body.
But then there was the problem of raising the $1600 to get Sammy’s body released from the coroner’s office and more money needed for the funeral home. Anna Lynne and Sammy’s high school friend Chase, and a few more of Sammy’s friends took up a collection in the traveling community and managed to raise $2000. Anna Lynne put up $500 for the police escort for the Second Line. “It was amazing how everyone came together so quickly,” Anna Lynne said. “I don’t think I cried until the day of the Second Line, then I cried pretty much all day.”
Cheryl and Jennifer, her daughter from another marriage, came through New Orleans on Martin Luther King weekend after a long-planned trip to DisneyWorld with Jennifer’s children. They got the coroner to come in on his day off to release Sammy’s body. After the funeral home cremated him, the family and a few friends went down to the RiverWalk to release Sammy’s ashes into the Mississippi.
They held some of the ashes back because several of his close friends wanted to have them mixed in with the ink when they got tattoos in Sammy’s honor.
In many ways, a year later, those who knew and loved him in New Orleans still mark his memory. The frame of his tall bike, which they rescued from the ruins of the warehouse, hangs in a prominent place at the St. Roch. On his birthday in October, many people gathered came together to mark his passing. And Matt, his “brother”, who has moved back to New Orleans, still talks to Sammy.
“I do go down to the river, to the place where we dropped his ashes, and pour a Guinness into the river there,” Matt said. “When I got into town that was the first thing I did. I had my beer and sat there and talked to him. How you doing, Sammy? Yeah, and I’m sorry.”