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Questions linger over death of David James Alton in Ladysmith

There are emergency shelters in Nanaimo and Duncan, but where in Ladysmith could David Alton turn when he found himself homeless?
David James Alton is seen here in his graduating class photo from Ladysmith Secondary School in 1965.

When the body of David James Alton was discovered in a dugout at Aggie Field on the afternoon of Jan. 14, he lay on his side as though he was asleep.

Ladysmith RCMP Staff Sgt. Larry Chomyn said there was nothing suspicious about Alton’s death, but the exact cause of his death has yet to be determined. Cindy Cox, Alton’s cousin, said the coroner suspected three possible causes of death including hypothermia, heart attack or a drug overdose.

Barb McLintock, a spokesperson with the B.C. Coroners Service, said Alton’s case remains open. Preliminary tests were inconclusive, McLintock added, and the results of additional tests won’t be returned until “late spring at best.”

Alton found himself homeless in early January after he was evicted from his apartment at 631 First Ave., Cox said, because he had not paid rent for three months.

An advocate working with the Ladysmith Resource Centre Association assisted Alton in late November to arrange payment for his rent, she said. Alton did not return to inform her of his eviction, however, so she could not comment on why he may have been evicted.

Lindsay Widsten of Widsten Property Management said he could not confirm whether or not Alton was evicted citing limits imposed by the Privacy Act. However, if Alton was in fact evicted, Widsten said  it would not have been as a result of the condition of his property.

Former classmate spoke with Alton days before his death

Bruce Mason graduated from Ladysmith Secondary School with Alton in 1965. He crossed paths with Alton “three days or so before he died.”

“He looked very ill when I saw him” Mason said. “I didn’t recognize him at first because he was so thin. He looked 90 years old.”

Alton had recently turned 65, Mason said.

“He was obviously not well,” Mason added. “He was wearing clothes that were all falling apart. I think he had a lot of layers on. He had a leather jacket, but all the seams were splitting. He had a toque on, but he was in rough shape. He was really down and out.”

Alton was “very upset,” Mason said. “[Dave] said ‘I’m homeless. They kicked me out of where I was living and they threw all my stuff away.’”

Alton had lost his possessions and a small collection of his father’s sporting trophies that Alton said he “valued most in life,” Mason added.

Alton repeatedly assured Mason that he would be fine.

“I thought maybe he was with a friend,” Mason said. “It’s quite tragic and it shouldn’t have happened and hopefully it will never happen to anyone else in town.”

Alton’s friends will gather at Elliott’s Beach near Coffin Point later this spring or summer, Mason said, to scatter his ashes.

Athletics more of a priority than academic potential

Carman Bodaly first met Alton when Alton was four years old, he said. They were playmates as children and partied together through high school and into their 20s. Bodaly married in 1967 and his daughter was born in 1971.

“When I had a child, I started to change,” Bodaly said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but I gradually pulled the reigns in on myself.”

Meanwhile, Alton’s life continued to revolve around “booze and drugs and partying,” Bodaly said. The two men slowly drifted apart, parting ways entirely when they were in their 50s after Bodaly lent Alton rent money he knew Alton wouldn’t be able to repay.

Bodaly hadn’t spoken to Alton in “four or five years” and last saw Alton around town “within a month” of his death.

“It was shocking to see him,” Bodaly said. “He was a bone rack.”

It had been a long, slow descent into destitution for a friend he remembers as having been “fairly popular in high school.”

Bodaly described a young Alton as a “fun, good-looking guy who had lots of potential. He was well-built, handsome, fun to be with and he drove around in a muscle car. I don’t think his marks were outstanding because he was doing a lot of partying even back then. His ambition in high school was to be a marine biologist, but that never happened. He never attended [university]. Back in those days, you got out of [high] school and got a job. He was making good money.”

Alton managed a gym in Nanaimo in the late 70s or early 80s and “was into weight lifting quite seriously,” Bodaly said.

Alton was heavily influenced by his father, who Bodaly described as a athletic and a “macho tough guy.” He speculated that if Alton’s academic and artistic potential had been developed, his life may have unfolded quite differently. Instead, Bodaly described his friend’s disposition as being very much like that of his father’s; Alton was a “party animal, macho tough guy, logger and red neck.”

Alton’s legendary wild side

Tim Solloway became friends with Alton after high school.

Solloway remembers his friend for his strong work ethic and “devilish” grin, he said, adding that Alton “still had that grin” whenever they happened to cross paths and remind each other of their past adventures.

Solloway and Alton worked together in the logging industry — Alton as a faller and Solloway as a rigging setter — and they partied together. Hijinks, practical jokes and roughhousing soon became trademarks of their friendship. Solloway remembers one prank their logging crew played on Alton — while they were logging for Weldwood of Canada in Toba Inlet in the early 70s with a crew of Ladysmith friends — that unexpectedly backfired on them.

“We’d been [in camp] for six weeks,” Solloway said. “It was Thursday night and we were going to go into Campbell River on Friday after work. We glued one of his pant legs together with Speed-Sew. Dave went to put his faller’s pants on in the morning and boom, over he went. What we didn’t know was that he wouldn’t be able to get the Speed-Sew apart. He couldn’t go to work that day because that was the only pair of faller’s pants he had, so Dave actually got the last laugh because he got to go into town a day early.”

Solloway and Alton “went down to California a couple times,” introducing the locals to their madcap Canadian ways.

“Dave and I would wrestle,” Solloway said. “I’m a little guy and he was a pretty big, muscular guy. We’d fight and knock tables over and have a great time, and they thought we were nuts.”

“In Haight-Ashbury during the hippie days,” their Canuck crew’s reputation for craziness earned them an invitation to a party thrown in their honour, Solloway said. A party they missed solely because their chauffeurs “were baseball freaks” who wanted to watch an Oakland Athletics game rather than attend the party.

In spite of his penchant for drinking, Alton was a capable boxer and gym trainer.

“He put together the best [workout] program out of all the different trainers and gyms that I’ve seen,” Solloway said.

“Dave was a really good looking guy, too,” Solloway’s friend Hillary said. “He was musical and wrote songs and played the guitar.”

Alton never married, but “he lived with a few different ladies, or they lived with him,” Solloway said. “A few years here, a few years there.”

He had no children.

The dangers inherent in Alton’s work as a faller eventually caught up with him.

“He had quite a few injuries,” Solloway said. “It seemed like he had a lot of bad luck with that. He actually had a limb come down and hit him on the head so hard it knocked his two front teeth right out.”

Solloway said Alton stopped working altogether “10 or 15 years” ago due to injuries to his back and shoulder.

Alton managed to dry himself out at one point “at least 20 years ago,” Solloway said, but “he was too busy helping others” to remain committed to the program.

Solloway, himself a recovering alcoholic, said it would have been nice if Alton had remained sober, but having gone through the program himself, he understands the challenges inherent in overcoming an addiction.

Solloway last saw his friend a month before he learned of Alton’s death.

“If we, the original Ladysmith crew, had known that Dave had been evicted from the Rialto,” Solloway said, “someone would’ve got hold of a social worker, because they could have put him in the Lodge on 4th or somewhere.”

Solloway thought Alton might’ve been too proud to reach out to his friends following his eviction and too stubborn to leave Ladysmith for a shelter in either Duncan or Nanaimo.

“I wouldn’t leave Ladysmith either, to tell you the truth,” Solloway said. “If I was in that position, I would’ve made the same choice. I’m not even sure that I would’ve asked for help.”

When he learned of Alton’s death, Solloway deliberated over how he might broadcast news of his friend’s passing to Alton’s estranged friends. In the end, he decided to post the news on Facebook.

“There were some nice comments,” Solloway said. “A lot of people found out about it through my posting. That was a good thing. I wasn’t sure if I should post it or not and now I’m glad I did.”

Regarding Alton, his friend and fellow nomad, Solloway said he has “nothing but good memories. We had a great time together.”

Homeless shelters available in Nanaimo and Duncan

Ladysmith and Chemainus lack emergency or “extreme weather” shelters. The closest shelters are in Nanaimo and Duncan.

Warmland House (WH) is located at 2579 Lewis St. in Duncan. Manager James Tousignant said WH has 30 beds available in its emergency shelter ­— 24 for men, 6 for women — and an additional 24 “transitional apartments” commonly occupied for anywhere from three months to two years. During cold streaks, Tousignant said they have permission to place an additional 10 mats on the floor of the common area to serve as their “extreme weather shelter.”

Those seeking shelter sign in daily at 5 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no limit on the number of consecutive nights someone is allowed to stay at WH.

Nanaimo is home to two emergency shelters and one extreme weather shelter.

Samaritan House (SH), a women’s shelter located at 355 Nicol St. and operated by the Island Crisis Care Society, offers 20 beds and four “transitional suites” for women with children, support worker Vicky Corrin said. SH is open 24 hours a day and people can come and go as they please, Corrin said, but individuals stays are limited to a maximum of 30 days.

The Salvation Army New Hope Centre at 19 Nicol St. is a men’s shelter with 20 beds, according to BC Housing’s website.

North of downtown Nanaimo is the First Unitarian Fellowship’s Extreme Weather Shelter (EWS). Located at 595 Townsite Rd., the shelter offers 24 beds to men or women, Kevan Griffith, shelter co-ordinator with the city of Nanaimo, said.

Griffith said the EWS hasn’t been full yet this year. He credited new social housing projects — including First Nations housing for elders and youth and the Wesley Street Project — with helping ease demand for emergency shelter spaces in the city. Nevertheless, the absence of transit service between Ladysmith and Nanaimo poses a major challenge for anyone in Ladysmith in need of shelter, Griffith said. Aside from limited access, though, he said anyone  in need is welcome.

“We don’t care where they’re from,” Griffith said. “We just want them to be warm and safe.”

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