Identification confirms one family's fears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Larry Eugene Leeson's family knew he lived in a shanty under Interstate 95 in South Baltimore.

He regularly called his mother. He visited his two children. And he walked to his sister Tina Green's home in Arbutus for a shower, always refusing to spend the night.

So when the family learned Thursday of a fatal fire involving a makeshift homestead beneath the interstate, and they didn't hear from Leeson, they worried he was the victim.

Yesterday, the state medical examiner confirmed their fears. Using dental records, officials identified the 46-year-old Leeson as the victim, the family said.

"He wanted to do his thing, his way, so we let him do it," said sister Barbara L. Leeson, 36.

His way meant living in what he called his "hut." His way meant doing what he called "camping." His way meant refusing most assistance.

"You couldn't get through to him that he wasn't a burden," Barbara Leeson said.

The former pressman was the third of nine children of a steel worker and a stay-at-home mother in East Liverpool, Ohio. They moved to Baltimore before he turned 1.

Larry Leeson dropped out of high school shortly after his father died. By 18, he was working as a pressman. He worked from 1982 until 1999 for Oles Envelopes on its high-speed folding machine, according to his resume. He married and separated.

He owned a home in the 400 block of S. Payson St. in Southwest Baltimore and lived there with his longtime on-and-off girlfriend and their two children, a boy, now 10, and a girl, who is 8.

Leeson was a lot like his siblings, they said. He cracked jokes about the effect of aging on their appearance. He wanted children so badly that before he had his own, he was named godfather to several nieces and nephews.

But when Larry Leeson's home was destroyed by fire about six years ago, his life fell into disarray, his family said.

He lived for brief stints with relatives and even moved back to Ohio for a short time, siblings said. He sporadically held jobs.

His brother and sisters said Leeson's problems were worsened by alcohol and a troubled relationship with his girlfriend.

Leeson's girlfriend could not be reached yesterday for comment.

At least three times he entered alcohol rehabilitation.

"He wanted to get off alcohol so he could be a great father," said sister Carol Lee Johnson, 47.

After befriending some men who lived under Interstate 95 where it intersects Russell Street, his family said, he began living there himself. Leeson built an approximately 6-foot-by-8- foot plywood shanty. He kept a cooler, snacks, comic books and a mattress inside, locking it up when he left.

According to Leeson's family, his children, Larry Jr. and Elise, were the center of his life. They were the reason he wouldn't move away from Baltimore.His family said he walked them to school, picking them up at their mother's South Baltimore home.

Employees at Paul's Place, a social service agency west of the stadiums, said Leeson stopped by occasionally to see his children, who are enrolled in an after-school program there.

The fire that killed Leeson started early Thursday, and officials have not identified a cause. The man who lived in the shanty 50 feet away spotted the blaze about 5:30 a.m., ran to a nearby gas station and called 911. By the time firefighters arrived, Leeson's hut had been destroyed. They pulled his body from the charred remains; at the time officials described him as an unknown homeless man.

"He has a family. He had clothes. He showered," Barbara said yesterday. "I don't consider him homeless."

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