- Special Projects
By the time some homeless people die, they’ve slipped so far outside of social circles that hardly anyone notices they’re gone.
That wasn’t the case with Bryan McKay Moorefield, whose untimely death on the streets of Waikiki last month at age 35 hit the local homeless community — and his estranged family — hard.
Moorefield spent almost a decade rollicking on the beach and streets from Diamond Head to Ala Moana, earning a warm reputation for being nonjudgmental, trustworthy and jovial.
Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the nation, driven in part by the soaring cost of housing. While most of the islands’ beach and street dwellers are homeless out of desperation, Moorefield was on the street by choice.
With no rent to pay and no one to answer to, he got by selling pot, hawking jewelry and panhandling. His lifestyle was a bid for liberation, freed of the burden to pay bills or hold a steady job.
But as he unchained himself from the totems of modern human life, Moorefield also found himself caught in a free fall of his own invention.
This account of Moorefield’s life on the street and its calamitous ending is based on public records, Moorefield’s social media footprint and interviews with police and more than a half dozen of his family members and friends.
A free-spirited Mormon dissenter with a habit of drinking himself senseless, Moorefield arrived on Oahu in his mid-20s. He was drawn to the island for its seemingly endless opportunities to get lost in nature and the laid-back mores of its beach people.
His family in Arizona disapproved of his heavy drinking and lifestyle. But in Hawaii, Moorefield found he could embrace his free spirit with enthusiasm. On his Facebook profile, he added a new occupation: Nomadism.
The transformation was so all-encompassing that he decided to change his name. In Waikiki, Moorefield was known only by his middle name, McKay.
Moorefield was a homeless guy with friends from all walks of life — from heroin addicts to average Joes with a job, a house, a wife and kids.
He once helped a pregnant woman he’d just met escape from an abusive lover. Another time he launched a social media campaign to find a young homeless girl who he feared had fallen into sinister hands. When his friend’s cell phone got swiped by a thief, Bryan chased down the suspect and blackened his eye.
Friends say Moorefield sometimes earned several hundred dollars a night selling marijuana to tourists. When his pockets were fat, he would hit the bar, order the prime rib at Tiki’s Grill or treat other panhandlers to a better meal than they were used to.
Even the scrap cardboard signs Moorefield used for panhandling seemed to attract above-average sums. His slogans were funny and sincere: “Why lie? Need beer,” or “Need money to fix the flux capacitor,” a reference to the device used for time travel in the film “Back to the Future.”
“He lived outside because he was happy that way. No one controlled us.” – Aaron McCuen
Moorefield was fatally struck by a pickup truck on Feb. 13. Police said he had been walking toward Ala Moana Beach Park at 1 a.m. when he was hit in a crosswalk on Ala Moana Boulevard near Piikoi Street.
His skull shattered the vehicle’s windshield and the impact launched his body 100 feet, causing his backpack to fly open and eject his belongings mid-air. He died at The Queen’s Medical Center of multiple blunt force injuries.
An officer who responded to the crash informed Moorefield’s family that he was astonished to learn the victim was homeless. Moorefield’s teeth were shiny. There was no dirt under his fingernails.
It was the ninth pedestrian fatality on Oahu this year, after only two such deaths occurred in 2017 and four in 2016, according to police.
The case is being investigated as a 2nd degree negligent homicide, and police say speeding appears to have been a contributing factor.
Honolulu Police Lt. Ben Moszkowicz said he expects to arrest the driver, a 58-year-old Honolulu man, who was towing an empty boat trailer.
His death prompted an outpouring of grief from current and former members of the local homeless community, as well as some tourists who rate their chance encounters with Moorefield as some of the most memorable moments of their Hawaii vacation.
“He lived outside because he was happy that way,” said Aaron McCuen, 30, who spent most of 2015 homeless in Waikiki. “That’s been my biggest fear about his legacy is that people will think he is some kind of bum. He was never a bum. It was so chill to be free. That’s what it was. No one controlled us.”
When Falon Ward fell into the Honolulu homeless scene in 2013, Moorefield helped with her initiation.
He introduced her to the esoteric etiquette governing those who reside in the public parks and city blocks skirting Waikiki Beach. He brought her to Care-A-Van, Waikiki Health’s mobile medical and social services fleet, and he showed her where she could shower and brush her teeth. He took her to see the Diamond Head drifter who would need to approve her plan to pitch a tent near Moorefield’s camp on the crater’s ridge.
Moorefield also warned against jaywalking, a practice punishable by a $130 fine that might otherwise be tempting when your living room is a checkerboard of park grass and concrete.
When he saw that the drug habit Ward desperately wanted to nix was aggravated by the lack of structure in her daily routine, Moorefield taught her how to make macrame necklaces and earrings using twine and beads.
He warned her not to name a price for her creations and demonstrated instead how unsolicited donations could help her avoid a street peddling violation.
Soon after this entrepreneurship lesson, Moorefield spent $10, which he probably earned selling weed, to buy Ward’s first jewelry piece. The anklet, woven with blue and white hemp, was embellished with a small symbol of hope — a silver anchor pendant.
He wore it every day until it broke.
On his Facebook profile, Moorefield added a new occupation: nomadism.
“He was kind of a mack,” said Ward, 34, who counts Moorefield as one of her most trusted friends during the three years she was homeless. “He was kind of super adventurous and super cute and super funny and super simple in his nature and just really easy to talk to. He had a good head on his shoulders and you knew you could count on him.”
Sometimes Moorefield would disappear for several weeks. But his friends quickly learned not to worry. From time to time he would secure a free bed through informal deals to provide aging or ailing Honolulu residents with caregiving services.
“There was this one elderly Japanese lady who didn’t speak any English and she was always hanging out at the zoo,” said Andrew Marshall-Read, who was once homeless in Honolulu and now lives in Southern California. “He offered to help her out, and he worked out a deal where he would do whatever she needed and in return he got to stay with her for a couple weeks.”
Moorefield’s candor and charisma were also advantageous when it came to romance. Shaggy blonde beach hair and sunken blue eyes exploded his success rate in pursuits with women he encountered on bar stools or beaches.
“He’d go up to a couple of tourist girls and say, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on? Where are you from?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, we want to find a good bar to go to,’ and he’d say, ‘OK, let’s go,'” Ward said. “As charming and as cute as he was, you could tell he was homeless. That just didn’t matter to everybody.”
Moorefield typically wore a wrist watch, slippers, board shorts and, occasionally, a shirt. Although in some ways he seemed to navigate his homelesssness masterfully, he was picked up repeatedly by police. His public arrest record shows 79 charges over nine years extending from June 2009 to February 2018.
Most charges result from traffic infractions like jaywalking or entering a public park after closing time. He also racked up arrests for noncompliance with the city’s sit-lie ban. He was critical of that law, which prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks. In a news story published by Hawaii News Now in February 2014, he condemned the ban as unfair to street vendors, which he considered himself to be.
“Even if you sit down for like two to three minutes, they can easily catch you on that and give you a citation,” he told a reporter. “They can even arrest you for that. So it’s making it difficult for us. They would consider us a nuisance, I guess.”
A few weeks before his death, Ward reached out to Moorefield on Facebook, sharing that she had turned her life around since moving back to Oregon. She had a job, a rental car and a small room to live in.
She was nearly three years sober now, a milestone that afforded her the opportunity to make frequent visits with her children. She still made jewelry with the techniques he had showed her, only now she claimed a fair price for her art at weekend flea markets.
Ward asked Moorefield how he was doing. “Burned out,” he replied. “Pushing efforts into your direction.”
After spending almost a third of his life without a regular job or bedroom, he confided that he craved a more stable existence. He was working on figuring out the finances and logistics to return home to Arizona. He was trying to be patient.
Shortly after this exchange with Ward, Moorefield had a conversation with his mother about his desire to leave behind his unconventional life.
His mother said she would help him make the transition if he agreed to attend a theta therapy center in Utah for patients battling behavioral issues, chronic pain and alcoholism. He declined. He didn’t want to abide by someone else’s guidelines.
Sixteen days passed before Moorefield’s family in Arizona learned he was dead. The news came via a Facebook message from the Honolulu Medical Examiner.
“Mr. Moorefield,” reads the message received by one of Bryan’s brothers. “It appears you may be related to Bryan M. Moorefield. Please contact the Department of the Medical Examiner in Honolulu … regarding Bryan. Speak to any investigator. This is urgent.”
Moorefield was carrying his Hawaii identification at the time of his death, but there was no documentation of his next of kin.
The circumstances of his death have further complicated the already strained dynamic he shared with his family.
“We feel like it’s our fault to a large extent as to what happened,” said Ryan Moorefield, Bryan’s 38-year-old brother who works as a border patrol agent. “We keep thinking back to, ‘If I had only called him, or if I had done this or done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
Growing up in Utah and Arizona, Moorefield was a spunky, theatrical charmer. He would dress up as a pirate, Mr. Miage or Crocodile Dundee and use his mother’s mascara wand to decorate his body with imitation chest hair, whiskers or scars.
When he was 5 he learned to tie a sloppy Windsor knot, which he fastened over the nylon athletic shirts he wore every day to school. As an Eagle Scout, he embarked on backpacking trips in the snow and desert. He could draw well and was passionate about conservative politics. He was both goofy and determined to make something of himself.
“The last time I saw him I kicked him out of my house. I didn’t want that to be the last memory I have of him.” – Ryan Moorefield, Bryan’s brother
Moorefield had a rare case of Behcet’s syndrome, which caused his mouth and throat to break out in angry, ulcer-like canker sores, his mother said. When the sores flared up, he had to eat through a feeding tube that stuck out of his nose. As a result Bryan was scrawny, and his classmates bullied him for it.
Eventually, he chose to do something about it. Moorefield would haul a pair of big buckets into the kitchen pantry and load them with pounds of flour and sugar. Then he’d lift the buckets like dumbbells until his biceps would start to burn. Within a couple years his physique transformed from gawky to chiseled.
But Moorefield became increasingly rebellious and unpredictable, suffering from mood swings, which his mother attributes to the disease. He also stopped wearing shoes in public or informing others of his whereabouts. He liked to drink, and he didn’t seem capable of doing so in moderation.
Moorefield once hitchhiked to Florida from the Southwest. Another time he ran off to Mexico for two-and-a-half weeks without telling anyone. During this inexplicable absence, his family printed his face on a “Missing” flier and papered the town over. When he finally returned wearing board shorts and a beach towel draped over his shoulder, he shrugged off his family’s emotional response.
“Well,” said the wayward teenager, “I went to do some swimming and get some sun.”
Moorefield’s family never visited him in Hawaii and he rarely made the trip back to Arizona. On those infrequent visits, he tended to aggravate his parents and siblings with disruptive behavior. He would do things like borrow a family member’s car for “a few minutes” and then go off for hours on end.
“Sometimes he would make decisions and do things that would blow your mind and leave you shaking your head like, ‘How could you do that?'” said Colleen Peppers Moorefield, Bryan’s mother. “But yet he always had a good heart. It’s just that something in him couldn’t be tamed. He would come back and visit at different times and we would want him to stay and settle down and get a job and get married and be a part of our family’s lives, but it was like he had to burst out.
“He couldn’t stay bound by the traditional.”
One of the last times his brother, Ryan Moorefield, saw him, he came home drunk at 2 a.m. and launched himself into a rambunctious workout in the guest bedroom.
“The last time I saw him I kicked him out of my house,” Ryan Moorefield said. “I didn’t want that to be the last memory I have of him.”
On the morning of March. 8, Moorefield’s family received his body at an airport in Phoenix. It came in a cardboard box stamped with the words, “PLEASE HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE.”
His mother placed an open hand on the box where his heart might have been and cried.
At the mortuary, Erica Woods rouged her brother’s cold cheeks and draped a flower lei around his neck. A memorial service was held Saturday, March 17 in San Tan Valley, Arizona at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Along with the body, the family collected Moorefield’s teal backpack, where he sheltered 40 pounds of everything he owned.
Among its tidily kept contents: A tarp, a flashlight, pocket knives, a sewing kit, hiking boots, a Star Wars T-shirt, body wash, toothbrushes, dulled colored pencils and a three-inch volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s best works.
In a tattered spiral notebook, Moorefield had recorded strange facts, such as an ingredient list for a flu vaccine, alongside political theories and doodles.
The first page contains a poem. Penned in Moorefield’s spidery, all-capitalized script, Poe’s “Dream Within A Dream” tells about a person standing on a deserted beach. Merrily, he concedes that he lives in a dreamworld, free of reality’s limitations.
But as the surf roars and the poem progresses, the narrator’s rosy disposition darkens. He becomes attuned to the understanding that his own tendency toward escapism imprisons him.
Although he grasps at it feverishly, reality evades him.
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