In Dec. 2011, NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis' undercover interview with a local phony beggar, confirmed many people's worst fears. Kevin's award-winning series, the True Payout to Panhandling, showcased just how lucrative a business begging can be. It also displayed the nasty underbelly in the skill of soliciting motorists.
To most everyone's applause, our series took the life out of local panhandling for nearly a year. Time however heals everything, and if you live in St. Joseph County it goes without saying, street soliciting is back in full swing.
For the last two months, our news team has tracked seven local beggars to see if the story on their signs, matches the reality of their lives. While one of the brief biographies checked-out, six were an unethically guided fraction of the truth.
Our investigation centered on five hotspot intersections across Mishawaka and South Bend: E. Angela Blvd. and State Road 933, State Road 23 and N. Ironwood Dr., State Road 23 and Cleveland Rd., Lincoln Way East and Ironwood Dr., and Brick Rd. and Gumwood Rd.
Our investigation began at the corner of Lincoln Way East and N. Ironwood Dr., where a self-professed father of three, stood begging for "Work or ANY HELP!" A handful of drivers answered his plea by donating money. One even handed-out a Venti Starbucks hot chocolate.
After 90 minutes the dad crossed traffic, propped himself up against Walgreens, and smoked three cigarettes. Minutes later he switched corners, displayed a terrible cough, and yanked-out an asthma inhaler. It was a scene on display for hundreds of passing motorists.
For someone without excess funds, the costly habit of smoking continued at a nearby Phillips 66 gas station. The alleged father then walked ten city blocks to the corner of W. Mishawaka Ave. and S. Twyckenham Dr., where he boarded a Transpo bus.
We followed the bus downtown, to the University Park Mall, and then back downtown. We captured the man begging onboard the bus, which is against Indiana state law, before losing him on South Bend’s Near Northwest Side, some six hours after first tracking him. Not once was he seen with a child.
Just two days later, we found the man, known legally as Tracy Glassburn, 37, begging at the corner of E. Angela Blvd. and State Road 933.
Kevin Lewis: “Excuse me sir. Hi there, my name is Kevin Lewis; I’m with WNDU-TV. How much of the money you make standing on the street goes to your three children?”
Tracy Glassburn: “Umm, 95 percent of it. 95 percent of it is a logical guess because I pay child support."
However St. Joseph County Probate Court Records show that's not the case. In May 2012, police arrested Glassburn for failing to pay $24,297.17 in child support. Glassburn served a 90 day sentence in the St. Joseph County Jail, with orders to pay $50 a week upon his release. His account is still delinquent.
Kevin Lewis: "With your sign saying you're a father of three children, people picture that you have this home or an apartment with three kids living there. Isn’t your sign a little misleading to motorists passing by?”
Tracy Glassburn: No. Well maybe it could be perceived as that, but to have a sign this long to explain my whole life to them.”
If you visit the St. Joseph County Courthouse, a hefty stack of old cases against Glassburn does all the talking. NewsCenter 16 uncovered at least 25 arrests since 1992 for crimes like battery, possession of paraphernalia used for heroin, and auto theft.
Oddly enough NewsCenter 16 has video of the Chevrolet Caprice station wagon Glassburn stole in Nov. 2011. Why? Well because it belonged to a man named Dennis Ostrovsky, the same Dennis we busted for coning motorists during our first investigative series in Dec. 2011.
Kevin Lewis: "People will say you could work at McDonalds making $8 an hour, or you could stand on the corner on your own time, on your own hours, without a boss telling you what to do, quite possibly making a whole lot more.”
Tracy Glassburn: "As my record shows, I can grow marijuana, and I could probably make really good money doing it. I could probably come up with a couple other things along the way to be illegal, and make good money so I wouldn't have to stand out here, but I’m trying not to get into trouble."
It seems dates with the St. Joseph County Courthouse are quite common for beggars. Take for example panhandler Doug Knox, 55, arrested 23 times in the last 25 years for crimes like battery, driving drunk and auto theft. We followed Knox on his bike to a friend's house on South Bend’s Near Northwest Side.
A week later we spoke with the homeowner, Todd Hill, Knox’s good friend.
Kevin Lewis: "Your thoughts about Doug, do you feel he legitimately needs this help, or do you feel he could get a job on his own?”
Todd Hill: “No he could definitely, he's self-supportive. He definitely could be self-supportive.”
Kevin Lewis: "Has he ever talked about how much he can make at the corner then?”
Todd Hill: “Oh yeah, he said he pulled in $60 in just three hours. Tax free too. No too bad man for just sitting out with a sign. I’m thinking about doing it.”
We stopped by Knox’s Mishawaka apartment along W. Lawrence St. for comment. Despite his blue bike sitting outside, no one answered the door.
The intersection of Lincoln Way East and N. Ironwood Dr. isn’t unique to Tracy Glassburn, but also a man named John Lamphier. The 59-year-old further proved the terms panhandler and homeless are not synonymous.
We followed Lamphier on a Transpo bus from N. Ironwood Dr. to Miami St., where Lamphier bought four two-liters of soda and a gallon of milk at 7-Eleven. He then walked into an apartment, above Harrison’s Furniture, where rent and utilities costs $750 a month.
Three weeks later we spotted Lamphier, who claims to be a veteran with an ill wife and two teenage boys, doing what he calls, “hard work.”
Kevin Lewis: "A lot of people may see your apartment and think, ‘Heck I'm in a worse position than this guy and I’m not even standing on a street corner with a sign.”
John Lamphier: “That may be correct."
Kevin Lewis: "Do you think if most people that drove by knew you lived there, they'd be more or less inclined to give to you?”
John Lamphier: “I haven't got a clue. That's their choice, whatever God puts in their heart."
Passing hearts that should know, Lamphier has an extensive criminal record, owns a cell phone, collects $1,000/month in military disability, and is an avid smoker.
Kevin Lewis: "Do you feel the irony in this is that some people may be worse off than you, and donating to you?”
John Lamphier: “That's very possible.”
Kevin Lewis: “And you don't have any guilt about that?”
John Lamphier: “I don't have guilt to feed my family, or myself, no I don't."
Ryan Hunter & Jennifer Dolph:
As a stand-in beggar, NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis learned there's a lot of money behind sign language.
"Need money, need food, please help my family, God bless. Simple as that really,” Kevin said while standing undercover at the corner of Brick Rd. and Gumwood Rd. in Dec. 2011.
The quick cash concept was also simple enough for Ryan Hunter, 29, of South Bend, to understand. The self-proclaimed single dad’s sign claimed to, “need work or any help.”
NewsCenter 16 first spotted Hunter at the corner of E. Angela Blvd. and State Road 933 on a drizzly Monday morning. Not 15 minutes went by before the destitute dad ate his breakfast, digging into a crumpled paper bag of McDonald’s.
All the while a woman named Jennifer Dolph, 37, stood kitty corner to Hunter, raking-in the donations with a sign claiming to be a single mother of three.
As Hunter filled his stomach in view of passing motorists, Dolph walked to a nearby park bench and pulled out a cellular phone. She took a seat and chatted for a bit, counted her cash, pulled-out a pack of cigarettes and had a smoke. Eight minutes later she was back to begging, took another short break and then walked-off.
Hunter was soon to follow, walking solo into downtown South Bend, where he passed a free meal at a local homeless shelter, and instead bought lunch at the Taco Bell on the corner of N. Lafayette Blvd. and W. LaSalle Ave.
Hunter left without applying for any of the fast-food restaurant's seven job openings, but found the time to buy a pack of cigarettes at a BP gas station.
Hunter then boarded a Transpo bus, which we followed to the University Park Mall. Inside we lost the single dad in a large crowd, quite confused as to who was caring for his two-year-old son.
One week later, NewsCenter 16 tracked Hunter and Dolph down on a public sidewalk, near the Michigan St. Bridge in South Bend.
Kevin Lewis: "My name is Kevin Lewis, I'm with WNDU-TV, we're doing a story on panhandling and I wanted to talk to you guys, and learn a little bit more about your life stories. We couldn't help but see your signs say both of you are parents. Talk about your child.”
Ryan Hunter: “I really don't want my face on any of this."
Kevin Lewis: "Talk about your two-year-old son though.”
Ryan Hunter: “I want no part of this."
Maybe it's because Hunter was arrested in June 2012. Why? St. Joseph County Probate Court documents show he's $8,140 behind in child support payments.
Kevin Lewis: "You ask people for money on the street corner. Don't you feel like you owe it to those that subsidize your lifestyle to tell them where that money goes?”
Ryan Hunter: “Get this camera out of my face, and this microphone out of my face."
Fact is Hunter has a lengthy rap sheet, arrested six times in the last two years. In two cases he stole hundreds of dollars in DVD and Blu-ray disks from local Walmart stores. And on Dec. 26, 2012, South Bend police arrested Hunter for a syringe used to inject heroin.
Kevin Lewis: "Mam let's talk to you here real quick. We saw you on a cell phone while begging. How can you be homeless and afford a cell phone?”
Jennifer Dolph: “Because it's not my phone.”
Kevin Lewis: “Whose phone is it?”
Jennifer Dolph: “It was a friend of mine's phone."
Kevin Lewis: "You say you have three children, how old are they, what are their names?”
Jennifer Dolph: “I have three daughters. Stop! I don't want them to see me on TV.”
Kevin Lewis: “Where are they?”
Jennifer Dolph: “They're with my father.”
Kevin Lewis: “And how much of the money you make each day goes to your father who's taking care of your three children?”
Jennifer Dolph: “Oh my God, stop!”
It didn’t take much digging to learn Dolph’s donations aren’t always put to the best use. In April 2012, Mishawaka officers arrested the 37-year-old upon finding a syringe and burnt spoon wrapped in toilet paper stashed in her purse. According to the police report obtained by NewsCenter 16, Dolph told officers both items were used for heroin. When asked if she was addicted to the drug, she told officers, “not really.”
Since then the embattled mother has been locked-up two more times, once for shoplifting $431.86 in merchandise from Meijer, and in another case, $723.73 from K-Mart.
In September 2012, Dolph violated probation after she stopped attending drug evaluation appointments, failed to meet with her case manager, did not respond to court letters and tested positive for opiates, which heroin is a derivative of.
“As of October 2, 2012, the defendant has not completed her evaluation with Oaklawn or began treatment. The defendant is not testing according to her testing schedule, and has not tested since August 22, 2012,” court substance abuse paperwork obtained by NewsCenter 16 said. “The defendant tested positive for opiates on July, 30, 2012, August 15, 2012 and August 22, 2012. The defendant does not have a prescription on file for opiates,” the report continues to read.
In effort to share Hunter and Dolph’s side of the story, NewsCenter 16 made second attempts to speak with both individuals.
Kevin Lewis: "What do you want to tell the person that donates to you?”
Jennifer Dolph: “Thank you very much, and that you'll be blessed by the lord because I do believe."
Kevin Lewis: "And again what do you use your money for?”
Jennifer Dolph: “To eat, to clothe, just go away."
Dolph’s statement starkly contradicts what NewsCenter 16 witnessed at the corner of Brick Rd. and Gumwood Rd. in Granger. Around 4 p.m. on March 28, 2013, a female motorist handed Dolph an entire donation of non-perishable food, which she later tossed away in a row of bushes. About 30 minutes later, the mother of three counted her cash, grabbed a sky blue back-pack and walked-off without the food her crumpled cardboard sign asked for.
As for Hunter, NewsCenter 16 was there as Mishawaka police arrested the 29-year-old on March 27, 2013 for an outstanding warrant. Following his April release, we stopped by Hunter's St. Joseph County home along the 55100-block of Mayflower Road. Yet the man who has no problem showing his face on dozens of local street corners, once again refused to comment to our cameras.
The bona fide beggar:
Of the seven panhandlers we followed during our two-month investigation, only one had a sign and life story that checked-out
The man, who we're calling Robert, caught our eye at the corner of State Road 23 and N. Ironwood Rd., quite frankly because he was begging with his eleven-year-old son.
NewsCenter 16 tracked the duo in a Mercury Villager minivan to a modest ranch-style home in a middle class neighborhood on South Bend’s east side.
Robert, 48, is married with six children, all under 15-years-old. A South Bend native, Robert never thought he’d hold a cardboard sign on a street corner.
Although life was never “comfortable,” Robert says his family got by on $56,000 a year, working two full time jobs. Then in July 2009 a local Catholic church outsourced its custodian department. Robert was consequently laid off as director of maintenance.
Less than six months later, the father of six was let go as a plane mechanic when Northwest Airlines closed its maintenance hangar at the South Bend Regional Airport; two jobs lost in six months.
Now more than three-and-a-half years later, his unemployment has run out, and the bills continue to pile-up.
Kevin Lewis: "What was the tipping point when you realized the only other option was to go out on the street and beg?”
Robert: “We drained all our savings accounts. I had two 401(k) accounts, they're gone, insurance is gone, and there was no other money coming in. I'm an airline mechanic, I have a FAA license to work on million dollar airplanes, and here I am on a corner getting 50 cents or the finger flipped at me because they think I’m a lazy bum out there trying to get some money."
As for begging with his son, Robert says he's never forced any of his kids to tag along, but rather his eleven-year-old asked for the opportunity to help the family earn money.
Robert: "He’s a hard worker. He knows what a dollar is worth, and he knows when we don't have a dollar. He gives what he has, and I appreciate him for that. I will never be able to pay him back for what he's done for us.”
Unlike his curbside counterparts, Robert does not have a criminal record. The 48-year-old, who suffers from fibromyalgia and arthritis, says he panhandled for the first time on Jan. 1, 2013, to pay off the December credit card statement.
Robert: "If there's one more catastrophe, then at that point we'll be done. At this point though, we know that between all of us, we'll get through, we have to."
Despite Robert’s story, local police departments, food banks and homeless shelters recommend donating to not-for-profit organizations. Panhandlers, they say, are a risky gamble.
If you’d like to review Tracy Glassburn, Doug Knox, John Lamphier, Ryan Hunter and Jennifer Dolph’s entire criminal records within St. Joseph County, and their respective mugshots, just click on the documents attached to this story.
The Legal Dos and Don’ts:
When it comes to begging, the question of legality is a complicated web. However make no mistake; most beggars have reviewed state statutes on panhandling from top to bottom, better than most attorneys.
"I don't believe what I’m doing is panhandling. After I checked into it, panhandling is an illegal act and by me holding a sign, it's simply suggestive,” beggar Tracy Glassburn told NewsCenter 16.
Glassburn’s defense is one St. Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Dvorak can't argue.
"Our constitution provides us with the freedom of association. We don't live in a society where just standing on a street corner can get you arrested,” Dvoark said.
Dvoark and the other 91 prosecuting attorneys across Indiana use Indiana Code 35-45-17, a detailed two page print out, to define who is a panhandler and what begging actions are deemed illegal.
"At the point when they make you feel compelled to donate, by swearing at you, by grabbing a hold of you, by following you, by touching you, by doing it after dark, those people are intimidating and that then becomes a misdemeanor offense,” Dvorak added.
Still, a handful of local beggars ignore the rules with 22 arrests for panhandling in St. Joseph County between April 2011 and April 2013. Of those arrested, 13 were actually charged with the crime, eight of which served between 9-40 days in the St. Joseph County.
The rules were more stringent under Michigan Complied Law 750.167, which outlawed anyone "found begging in a public place." That was until Grand Rapids police arrested two men for begging. The duo teamed-up with the ACLU and sued the state of Michigan and city of Grand Rapids and won. The U.S. District Court – Western Division of Michigan found the law unconstitutional, citing the inability to restrict one’s freedom of speech and assembly.
To date the state legislature hasn't revised the statute, placing a burden on localcities, towns and villages to create their own begging ordinances.
As ethically questionable as some beggars may be, no government jurisdiction has a law against lying. That mean panhandler Ryan Hunter can continue leading people to believe he's collecting money for his two-year-old son, but instead pocket every cent for himself, and police can't do a thing.
"If you want to believe everything their advertising says, or what they may be saying about their need for money, that's up to you. If you've given it to them under false pretenses, that's not a crime. The Indiana statute doesn't provide that it’s a criminal act,” Dvorak concluded.
To read Indiana’s law against panhandling for yourself, click here.
Charities Chime In:
The Center for the Homeless, which often houses more than 200 men, women and children at its South Bend facility, says there's a definite distinction between homeless and panhandlers.
Research by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention in Indianapolis found virtually every panhandler posted at a major intersection with a cardboard sign was not homeless. As for passive solicitors sitting with cups in downtown Indianapolis, only 25 percent were found to be without shelter of their own.
"There are a lot of substances out there. We know about crack cocaine and alcohol, and now we're seeing injectable heroin on the rise in this community. The wisest thing to do really is support the agencies working tirelessly to keep these folks afloat,” said Lani Vivirito, chief program and resource officer with the Center for the Homeless.
If this series has opened your eyes to those in true need across our community, we ask that you donate something to a local not-for-profit. Whether it be time, money or food, a little goes a long way.
For a full list of charitable organizations in our area, click here.