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Frozen in Indifference

- Charlie LeDuff - Friday, January 30th, 2009 : goo

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image 30542
Inside the abandoned Roosevelt Warehouse in Detroit, a body lies frozen in a block of ice.(Photo by Max Ortiz, The Detroit News)

This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown. It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building on the city's west side.

"He's encased in ice, except his legs, which are sticking out like Popsicle sticks," the caller phoned to tell this reporter.

"Why didn't your friend call the police?"

"He was trespassing and didn't want to get in trouble," the caller replied. As it happens, the caller's friend is an urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit. It turns out that this explorer last week was playing hockey with a group of other explorers on the frozen waters that had collected in the basement of the building. None of the men called the police, the explorer said. They, in fact, continued their hockey game.

Before calling the police, this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax. Sure enough, in the well of the cargo elevator, two feet jutted out above the ice. Closer inspection revealed that the rest of the body was encased in 2-3 feet of ice, the body prostrate, suspended into the ice like a porpoising walrus.

The hem of a beige jacket could be made out, as could the cuffs of blue jeans. The socks were relatively clean and white. The left shoe was worn at the heel but carried fresh laces. Adding to the macabre and incongruous scene was a pillow that gently propped up the left foot of the corpse. It looked almost peaceful.

What happened to this person, one wonders? Murder in Motown is a definite possibility. Perhaps it was death by alcoholic stupor. Perhaps the person was crawling around in the elevator shaft trying to retrieve some metal that he could sell at a scrap yard. In any event, there the person was. Stone-cold dead. A symbol of decay.

The building is known as the Roosevelt Warehouse, once belonging to the Detroit Public Schools as a book repository. Located near 14th Street and Michigan Avenue, the warehouse burned in 1987 and caused something of a scandal as thousands of books, scissors, footballs and crayons were left to rot while Detroit schoolchildren -- some of the poorest children in the country -- went without supplies.

The building was eventually sold to Matty Moroun, the trucking and real estate mogul who is worth billions of dollars and is the largest private property owner in the state of Michigan. Among other properties, Moroun owns the decrepit Michigan Central Rail Depot that squats directly next to the warehouse. The train station has become the symbol of Detroit's decay. Like much of his property in southwestern Detroit, Moroun's warehouse and the train station are gaping sores.

The warehouse is so easily accessible, a person in a wheelchair could get in with little effort. There are holes in the fence and in the side entrance. The elevator shaft is wide open. It appears no one has ever tried to close the bay doors.

A colony of homeless men live in the warehouse. Wednesday morning a few fires were burning inside oil drums. Scott Ruben, 38, huddled under filthy blankets not 20 paces from the elevator shaft.

"Yeah, I seen him," Ruben said. The snow outside howled. The heat from the can warped the landscape of rotting buildings and razor wire.

Did he know who the dead person was?

"I don't recognize him from his shoes."

Did he call the police?

"No, I figured someone else did," he said.

"There's lots of people coming through here with cameras and cell phones. I don't got no phone. I don't got no quarter. Things is tight around here."

His shack mate, Kenneth Williams, 47, returned at that point with an armload of wood. "Yeah, he's been down there since last month at least."

He was asked if he called the police.

"No, I thought it was a dummy myself," he said unconvincingly. Besides, Williams said, there were more pressing issues like keeping warm and finding something to eat. "You got a couple bucks?" he asked.

There are at least 19,000 homeless people in Detroit, by some estimates. Put another way, more than 1 in 50 people here are homeless. The human problem is so bad, and the beds so few, that some shelters in the city provide only a chair. The chair is yours as long as you sit in it. Once you leave, the chair is reassigned.

Thousands of down-on-their-luck adults do nothing more with their day than clutch onto a chair. This passes for normal in some quarters of the city. "I hate that musical chair game," Ruben said. He said he'd rather live next to a corpse.

Convinced that it was indeed a body, this reporter made a discreet call to a police officer. "Aw, just give 911 a call," the cop said. "We'll be called eventually."

A call was placed to 911. A woman answered. She was told it was a reporter calling. The operator tried to follow, but seemed confused. "Where is this building?" She promised to contact the appropriate authorities.

Twenty minutes or so went by when 911 called the newsroom. This time it was a man. "Where's this building?"

It was explained to him, as was the elevator shaft and the tomb of ice. "Bring a jack-hammer," this reporter suggested.

"That's what we do," he said.

Nearly 24 hours went by. The elevator shaft was still a gaping wound. There was no crime scene tape. The homeless continued to burn their fires. City schoolchildren still do not have the necessary books to learn. The train station continues to crumble. Too many homicides still go unsolved.

After another two calls to 911 on Wednesday afternoon (one of which was disconnected), the Detroit Fire Department called and agreed to meet nearby.

Capt. Emma McDonald was on the scene. "Every time I think I've seen it all, I see this," she said.

And with that they went about the work of recovering a person who might otherwise be waiting for the warm winds of spring.

You can reach Charlie LeDuff at (313) 222-2620 or

This article has been viewed 69388 times in the last 6 years

groovehouse: 30th Jan 2009 - 18:09 GMT

I came pretty close to checking out these buildings when I was in Detroit last year. Sadly, we didn't explore them.

City of Diss: 30th Jan 2009 - 18:14 GMT

WTF. At first, I was sort of enraged that they kept playing hockey instead of reporting it, then I realized that it wouldn't have mattered anyway, really. At least they got in a good hockey game ^_^

AP: 30th Jan 2009 - 18:19 GMT

I'm also amused at how the reporter finally got around to calling it in to 911 himself, but not til he had taken his time to see it, have it photographed (great photo BTW!), canvas the people in the area, exploit the situation by writing up a big story for public-consumption about it, etc and still frowns upon the urbex guys who were playing hockey. Ha ha ha!

Deep down, all of us aren't really that different after all, eh?

Peter: 30th Jan 2009 - 18:23 GMT

this is a good followup:

looks like the consensus points the finger at the department for their sluggish response more than those wanton hockey fiends, heh...

Rich: 31st Jan 2009 - 00:41 GMT

Humanity, what's happening to us where's the compassion?! He was somebody's friend, brother, and child. Thank you Capt.Emma McDonald for doing the right thing in a tough situation, GOD Bless you and your company. Thanks for the link Peter.

Lucy: 31st Jan 2009 - 02:13 GMT

Odd how to some people even a life seems insignificant.

Ricky: 23rd May 2009 - 18:21 GMT


What another eye chaser. I moved to Detroit, MI on August 28, 2009 and what a culture shock it was. I left Detroit, MI on February 29, 2009 and I couldn't understand the affairs and conditions of the city. First and Foremost, I blame the politicians for getting the Black vote (who are Blacks Politicians) and doing nothing for the people. The City council members curse each other out as well as the White politicians stole from the people, too. The state of affairs Detroit is in is sad, the people don't trust people who are nice to them as well as the natives (a vast majority) are afraid to leave. I worked in the suburbs and if you live in the City of Detroit and work in the suburbs, you have to pay more in taxes for living in the City of Detroit. I found the suburbs of Detroit such as Westland, Livonia, Royal Oaks, etc to be very racist and the social class in these and surrounding suburbs and not of Upper Caliber of Whites. I find that some of the Blacks in Detroit hate their Blackness and resort/live with these type of Whites (the same Whites who took White Flight to Detroit suburbs). The City is 100 years behind many Major cities or southern cities. Detroit doesn't even have a rapid transit system and the buses are not guaranteed to arrive on time. There are no decent shopping stores or grocery stores in the city and you have to go the suburbs for everything. The vast majority of the Natives are arrogant and ill-mannered (not all). What a culture shock!!! The No Fault Insurance for the State, the Carjackings, auto theft and burglary (my vehicle was vandalized and it took the policemen two hours to come to my vehicle) and the mind set is disturbing. With this in mind, I lived at Woodward and Warren (by Wayne State/Medical Center) and people stated to me that that was a safe area, I think NOT!! The is NO HOPE FOR THE CITY!!! And even after Hurricane Katrina, The Gulf Coast still looks like Beverly Hills, California compared to Detroit, MI. Detroit, MI and it's suburbs are racist. I am so GLAD to be out of Detroit, MI, I am a Chicago Native (Chicago is a Clean and beautiful City)and I have no desires to return to Detroit, MI. I would like to add one last statement, Chicago had Ford, GM and Chrysler Plants, too so Blaming it the BIG Three is a cop out and I am a Black/African -American .

Djibouti: Did you give the guy a couple bucks?

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