'Walkin' Randy,' 37, found dead at home


He was as familiar as road signs or street names to Howard County motorists. If you commuted to work, drove to the mall or picked up the kids at school, Walkin' Randy was everywhere and anywhere.

Randy Christopher Sands, 37, who friends say found freedom in walking, was found dead on Valentine's Day in his Columbia apartment. County police, unsure how he died, are awaiting a medical examiner's report.

"I think Howard County as a whole has lost a little bit of its character with Randy," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of the Grassroots homeless shelter, which had been looking after him during the past 4 1/2 years.

"It's like he's kind of a folk character in Howard County," Ms. Ingram said.

It's no doubt Mr. Sands made his mark with his feet.

"He liked the open road. He would take rides, he would refuse rides," said Wendy Coulton, a community outreach specialist at Columbia-based Vantage Place, which provides support for people with psychiatric disabilities.

"He just liked his freedom," said Ms. Coulton, who discovered Mr. Sands' body. "That's all he really knew."

Dressed in dark sunglasses and oversized shoes that bent upward at the toes, Mr. Sands could be seen engaging in a brisk walk on any given day.

"He always had a place to go," said his mother, Martha Sands, a resident of Woodbine, where her son grew up. "He was always searching to make his life better."

"He never learned to drive a car," his mother said. "I went with him on his practice runs. . . . There was no way I was going to put him on my insurance," she said and laughed.

Most people did not know Mr. Sands, only his fast-walking caricature on county roadways.

Those who saw or spoke with Randy each week said walking had been a pleasure for the man who was unemployed and lived alone in an apartment in the 6000 block of Major's Lane.

Wayne Shepherd, a Columbia barber, would sometimes stop wherever he happened to see Mr. Sands and offer a ride.

"He was an intelligent person," Mr. Shepherd said. "Unfortunately, a lot of people made fun of him."

Mr. Sands was sometimes quiet and distant, but at other times he shared his dreams, Ms. Coulton said.

In the few months she knew Mr. Sands, she said, she found him to be a gregarious man often disgruntled by those who laughed at him. He liked meeting people just as much as he liked chocolate, hot dogs and Popeye's chicken.

But most of all he liked walking.

"Boy, you could see him on [Route] 40 or [U.S.] 29," said Mr. Shepherd. "He didn't care whether he got picked up or not. He was just walking."

Mr. Sands was sometimes spotted walking as far as Glenelg, where he once held a job, or as far north as Baltimore.

His treks took him from Woodbine to Laurel, from Columbia to Frederick or to Westview Mall and Security Mall in Baltimore County, caregivers and friends said.

Ms. Ingram said he could wear out a thick pair of boots in three months.

"He covered a lot of miles," said county police Sgt. Steven E. Keller. "If you've been around this county for any amount of time, you've seen Randy hitching or walking."

In 1983, Mr. Sands tried his hand at cleaning and servicing buses at the Eyre Bus Service in Glenelg for a year. "Randy had his disabilities, but Randy was still, in his heart, somebody who really wanted to do well," said J. Thomas Eyre.

Mr. Sands had difficulty holding onto his service job and employment at a number of west county businesses and, about five years ago, became homeless. His sister, Nancy Griffin, took him to Grassroots after he had been living on Howard County streets.

Two years ago, the Columbia agency helped him get his own apartment through federally subsidized housing. Workers at the homeless shelter also managed his money and helped him shop.

But in the last few months, his mental illness became worse, and it became more difficult for him to take care of himself, Ms. Ingram said. "He just couldn't quite fit into the world, with its 9-to-5 schedule," Ms. Ingram said. "It became apparent to us that living by himself was not in his best interest."

Ms. Coulton, who regularly checked on Mr. Sands' welfare, found him dead in his Long Reach apartment eight days ago. After failing to reach him on the weekend of Feb. 12, Ms. Coulton visited Mr. Sands' home about 5:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and found him face down on the bedroom floor.

"He looked like he was sleeping, but I checked and he had no pulse," Ms. Coulton said.

Almost 70 people, including family members, social service professionals and acquaintances attended a Sunday memorial service at a Columbia funeral home, Mr. Sands mother said.

County police say they are investigating the case as an "active unattended death," which means Mr. Sands likely died as he had lived -- alone.

"We haven't yet identified the cause of death" said state medical examiner Dr. Mario Golle. "The case is still pending, but there is no evidence of trauma, like somebody beat him up or shot him."

Dr. Golle said the cause of death may be known within two weeks when toxicology tests are completed.

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