Isaac Bennett Hancock spent years on the streets, dividing his time between two East Baltimore homeless shelters, a bottle of Scotch in one pocket and paperback books about the Wild West in the other.
It was a way of life the 53-year-old man chose and, his friends say, he could take care of himself. When the weather got too cold to stay outside, when icy winds blew down the alleys and park benches became frigid slabs, Ike Hancock always knew enough to get himself to a shelter.
But on Wednesday night as temperatures dipped into the low 20s, Mr. Hancock -- perhaps none the better from a day of heavy drinking -- chose to rest for the night in a lot in the rear of the 1200 block of East Fayette Street. His only protection from the cold was a light jacket.
Just before 7 a.m. yesterday, the police found him dead on the ground with a couple of wine bottles nearby. One of the shelters that he frequented was just two blocks away and had ended the night -- the coldest of the season -- with 75 empty beds.
Dr. Frank J. Peretti, an assistant medical examiner, said Mr. Hancock died of environmental hypothermia -- a loss of body temperature -- and that alcohol was a major factor in his death.
"He was not a bad person," said Louise Hancock, a sister-in-law. "He was a lovely brother-in-law. He didn't have anyone."
That, also, was apparently by Ike Hancock's choice. Louise Hancock said that both she and one of Mr. Hancock's other brothers had often invited Ike to come live with them, but he always refused.
"What he did, he did to himself," Mrs. Hancock said. "That was his choice [to stay on the street]. I often asked him [why], but he never answered me."
Friends of Mr. Hancock say he was not incapable of making a living. Yesterday, a friend said that Mr. Hancock had recently received a $6,000 check from the Social Security Administration, but neither his sister-in-law nor the police were able to verify that.
An Army veteran, Mr. Hancock once drove a truck for living, but for reasons known only to himself, gave it up and decided to roam the streets, occasionally doing odd jobs to earn spending money.
One of the missions he frequented was the Helping Up Mission in the 1000 block of East Baltimore Street, where the registrar, Ben Lionberger, last saw Mr. Hancock in November.
"You wouldn't want to meet a nicer person," Mr. Lionberger said. "I've known him about eight years. He kept to himself and never bothered anyone. He liked to read books --those paperback books with western stories."
An official at the mayor's Office of Homeless Services said an MTA bus took 82 homeless people to shelters Wednesday night, in accordance with the city's winter plan for caring for the homeless.
Why Mr. Hancock wasn't among them or why he didn't walk the two blocks to a shelter remained a mystery to his friends, relatives and the police yesterday.
"He always seemed to know enough not to be out in the cold when he was drinking a lot," Mr. Lionberger said.
He said about 95 people stayed at the shelter Wednesday night, leaving them with 75 available beds.
Dave Harvey, an employee at the Baltimore Rescue Mission at 4 N. Central Ave., the other shelter frequented by Mr. Hancock, said he last saw him on Saturday. Like Mr. Lionberger, Mr. Harvey described Ike Hancock as "a nice guy," but he said he didn't know where Mr. Hancock might have been for the past few days.
"I don't know what he did when he left here," he said. "They don't say where they're going or when they're coming back."