Just another homeless death
Michelle Vierra sought stability and love, but her brief life ended in alcoholism, homelessness and murder
She was found on Halloween, but she could have been there for days, neither noticed nor missed by anyone.
Covered in a blue cloth blanket, nestled in a hollowed-out sleeping space between the back of Ray’s Auto Stereo Shop and a cactus along the railroad tracks in Midtown, Michelle Vierra probably appeared to be just another sleeping homeless person.
Under the blanket was a lifeless body covered in bruises from head to toe, many fresh, many others in various stages of healing, although the medical examiner said it was the blows to the left side of her head that killed her.
For days, the corpse lay there as Sacramentans bustled by on the streets around it, oblivious to the life that had been lost, not seeing this homeless woman just as they try not to see all the others. It wasn’t until the flies began swarming that someone noticed Vierra and called the police.
When she was finally examined, Vierra looked much older than her 35 years. She wore a white T-shirt and blue jeans that had been pulled down to her knees. A man’s turquoise belt buckle lay under her body.
The discovery of Michelle Vierra’s body by an anonymous passerby triggered the usual police investigation, with official statements inexplicably claiming the body showed no signs of trauma and downplaying the possibility of foul play. The Sacramento Bee marked the discovery with a short, anonymous article in the middle of the paper.
Vierra was drunk when she died, very drunk, just as she had been most of the time in the last years of her life. On October 26, the last day anyone saw her alive, she pawned two rings on J Street for $16, bought a half-gallon of vodka at Walgreens, and got drunk with her boyfriend Amos Franco.
Since they began dating eight months earlier Vierra was always bruised. Social workers say they saw the bruises and that Vierra told them Franco was the one who inflicted them. Police interviewed three homeless acquaintances of the couple, who all testified that they regularly saw Franco beat Vierra, and had heard him threaten her life several times.
Accusations to police from Franco’s past wives also cast Franco as physically abusive. Sacramento Police arrested Franco in 1989 after his first wife, “reported that he hit her in the head, face, chest and right leg with a hammer.” Two years earlier he was arrested in Woodland for domestic violence, and over the next 10 years he was arrested a half-dozen times on allegations of sex, drug and violent crimes.
Franco had two outstanding arrest warrants when he was arrested in December and charged with Vierra’s murder. One warrant was for allegedly beating and imprisoning his second wife, Caroline, in Oakland in 1998; the other for failing to register as a sex offender, a requirement triggered by his 1989 conviction for molesting his stepdaughter in Woodland.
How did Vierra end up with such a man? Described by all who knew her as warm, giving, funny and full of life, Vierra wasn’t someone pushed into homelessness by dire circumstances, nor someone without resources and options. She was surrounded by family and friends: her mom lives in Sacramento, her grandparents are in Orangevale, she has an uncle in Carmichael and her lifelong best friend lives in West Sacramento.
Yet Vierra was desperately alone, alienated by feelings of failure to measure up to people’s expectations. Her life was a search for the love and contentment that she could never find or hold on to, a love she sought in the company of older men, men like the father that left when she was a baby. She doused her longing and disappointments with alcohol, more and more alcohol as she grew older. The more she drank, the faster and farther she fell, sliding from troubled relationships through depression into homelessness and toward a violent death, until she ended up just a name on a memorial wall.
Vierra chose the path that led to her death, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic. Quite the contrary. The closer you look at Vierra’s life, the more wasteful and lamentable her premature death seems.
By the end of her life, Vierra seemed like a woman many couldn’t relate to: homeless, alcoholic, desperate, without hope, “in love” with an abusive boyfriend—all at the young age of 35. Yet the feelings of longing and frustration that fueled her descent are emotions we can all understand.
Born Michelle Monet Collins on April 12, 1965, at Sutter Memorial Hospital, Vierra was an only child raised by a single mother, Patricia Collins. Her father, a Marine named Charles Collins Jr., split when his daughter was just 2 years old and started a new family in Texas, rarely seeing or speaking to Vierra during her formative years.
“It always bothered her that her dad and I were separated,” Collins said. “She felt neglected by him.”
Michelle Gully, Vierra’s best friend since they were in kindergarten together, agrees that Vierra always had daddy issues: “Michelle always dated older men, like father figures, because she never had a father growing up, and Pat always dated younger guys. It was weird.”
Collins worked long hours at Sears and the family barely got by, living in a series of cheap apartments and then a mobile home, and getting some help from welfare at one point for about a year. So Vierra grew up as a latchkey kid, arriving from school to an empty home each day.
With piercing green eyes, an infectious smile and an easygoing manner, Vierra always made friends easily. “People used to stop me and tell me how cute she was,” Collins said. Her looks, social ease and the freedom of having a busy single parent triggered some rebelliousness in Vierra during her teen years.
In junior high school, she started skipping classes, drinking, inviting boys over in the afternoons, sneaking out, lying and otherwise getting into trouble. Determined to practice tough love, Collins took the drastic step of kicking her 14-year-old daughter out of the house.
“I wouldn’t let her come home. I decided she couldn’t walk all over me. I was the parent,” Collins said. “I made her stay gone for a year.”
During that time, Vierra stayed with Gully and other friends, with one of Collins’ male co-workers, and then with her uncle, a strict Jehovah’s Witness. Gully said Vierra wasn’t terribly upset by her exile, claiming to enjoy a freedom experienced by few other teens.
“Her and her mom just didn’t get along. She and Pat were just so much alike,” Gully said. “They were both very bull-headed. Neither one ever wanted to be wrong.”
Yet after a year, with Vierra agreeing to live by her mother’s rules, she came home. Later that year, when she was almost 16, Vierra visited her father in Texas for the first time. While there, she decided to stay permanently and finish high school in Texas, but that lasted less than a year before her father sent her back to Sacramento.
“She had been sneaking out her bedroom window to meet boys,” Collins said with a grin, seemingly amused at the memory.
While Vierra and Collins described their relationship to others as close and loving, they were also competitive with one another. Collins’ house is filled with mice collectibles: stuffed mice, pictures of mice, mice salt-and-pepper shakers, mouse this, mouse that. So, with equal zeal, Vierra started gathering cat collectibles.
Later, as time went by, that cat-and-mouse game played by mother and daughter, along with her worsening problems with alcohol, would led Vierra onto the streets of Sacramento, and into the clutches of Amos Franco. Patterns
At the age of 20, few could have predicted the homelessness and desperation that would mark the end of Vierra’s life. She appeared to be emerging from her youthful rebelliousness and settling down into a normal, conventional life.
As she blossomed from girl into young woman, Vierra adopted the appearance and demeanor of a party girl: heavy makeup with colorful eye shadow, dark hair worn big and styled, a vivacious personality, and a seeming ease with her strong sexual appetites. She was living in an apartment in West Sacramento, working at an auto parts store and having a good time.
She liked bad boys and biker types, but that seemed to be an adventurous phase that ended when she met 44-year-old businessman Richard Vierra, a short but handsome father of two with wavy black hair. They fell in love. He proposed at a resort in Carmel, they got married in a big church wedding Downtown and honeymooned in Cancun, Mexico.
“He was a real sweetheart and he treated her really nice,” Collins said, noting that Vierra expressed undying love for her first husband for the rest of her short life: “She never got over him.”
Unfortunately for Vierra, love doesn’t conquer all. Richard’s oldest son became determined to drive the new stepmother from the house. After two years of battles with her stepson, Vierra left the marriage.
After the divorce, Vierra worked as a bartender in West Sacramento, dating and drinking regularly. Even a fairly serious drunken driving accident in which she hit a parked car didn’t slow her down. In 1989, she moved to Lake Tahoe to work at Harvey’s Resort Casino, where she met a drummer and moved with him to Reno after just five months.
“She had to have men in her life and she had to feel loved,” Collins said. “She was hard to keep track of. She was always moving and in different relationships.”
After the drummer and a few other relationships, Michelle met another older, fatherly type—Tom McCrackin. They married on January 17, 1992. The couple became regulars at their neighborhood bar in Reno, Vassar Lounge, an intimate little dive tucked into the corner of a shopping center. Gully and Collins both say that it was in Reno that Vierra became a serious alcoholic, someone who got drunk every day.
Vierra began spiraling downward: she had money problems, trouble holding a decent job, and she was affected deeply by the suicide of an acquaintance. She then suffered through a bout of depression that left her hospitalized for eight days and with a failed second marriage after seven years.
After the divorce, she briefly cleaned up and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, only to start dating another alcoholic who turned out to be physically abusive. That was the first relationship with an abusive boyfriend of which Gully or Collins were aware.
Vierra and Collins stayed in regular contact, and would visit one another occasionally. For Collins’ 50th birthday Vierra rented a baby blue Cadillac—her mom’s favorite kind of car—and drove her around the Sacramento area to celebrate. Yet Vierra’s sobriety was short-lived and she soon started drinking again and having financial problems, but she also started seeing a counselor to deal with some of her issues.
Finally, in October 1999, after visiting her daughter in Reno, Collins convinced Vierra to move back to Sacramento to live with her, promising that she would help her daughter get her life back on track.
In retrospect, Gully believes the move was a bad decision on both of their parts. She spoke regularly by phone with Vierra in Reno, and didn’t understand why she would be better off in Sacramento than she was there.
“I don’t know why she brought her home,” Gully said. “I don’t know what led her to think she had to come home, or how that would help her.”
While it’s clear that Vierra had major personal problems at this point in her life, one can only speculate as to why she was having such a hard time pulling her life together, and what it was that caused the inner pain that fueled her alcoholism. But even Vierra recognized where she was headed.
“She always told me she would die before she was 40,” Collins said, noting that the comment was partly a joke, partly recognition of the consequences of her hard living and the choices she was making.
Even as she predicted her own premature death, the concept of tragic death-before-one’s-time was deeply disturbing to Vierra. While living in Reno, the suicides of two people she knew had a major impact on her.
When a neighbor committed suicide in 1999, a broke Vierra spent her last $50 on flowers and soil. She planted a flower garden in the new widow’s yard while she was away.
“She had a weird way of caring about people who weren’t part of her family, strangers,” Collins said.
“Michelle never met a stranger and always befriended the people she met,” her dad would later write in a memorial letter. “Unfortunately, there were some that abused her warm heart, good nature and eagerness to extend a caring and helping hand.”
Another friend from Vassar Lounge hanged himself from the front balcony of his home after his ex-wife refused to allow further visitation with his children. Collins said Vierra became obsessed with the incident, talking about it constantly and bursting into tears when she would pass the home. “She just could not get past the guy who killed himself,” Collins said.
While Vierra felt such strong empathy for others, it seemed that she longed for others to feel a similar empathy for her. Gully said Vierra felt great love for her mother, but never felt able to meet her mother’s standards for being a good daughter or a good person.
“She felt she could never be good enough,” Gully said, noting that it was a sentiment she began voicing at age 14, the same time that she began to rebel against her mother’s strictures.
Unable to have children for medical reasons, Vierra felt she wouldn’t have the family life that she secretly craved, Gully said. Quick to enter relationships with men, she was also never able to cultivate the deep and lasting relationship she needed after growing up without a father in the house. And early bad choices and an addictive personality made respectability and normalcy elusive goals.
“She was ashamed,” Gully said, “and I think that’s why she turned to the streets.”
Despite her struggles to do so, Collins still isn’t able to precisely define why her daughter followed such a self-destructive path, or why she felt inadequate, except to cite the general notion that, “She lost her way later in life and couldn’t find her way back.”
Because, by the end, Collins not only didn’t understand where her daughter was coming from, but she feared the implications of the hard-living road on which Vierra found herself. And once Vierra returned home to Sacramento, Collins found herself unable to reconnect with her daughter.
“I was afraid of her,” Collins said, her eyes welling with tears. “Isn’t that terrible?”
When Vierra returned to Sacramento to live with her mother, she was at a low point, sleeping or crying most of the time. Yet mother and daughter fell into familiar patterns and seemed to replay many of the same issues and conflicts that plagued their home life in the early years.
As she did when her daughter was younger, Collins set firm rules for Vierra: no drinking, no men, no going out on the town, get a job. Vierra found the restrictions oppressive.
“She said it was like living in a prison here,” Collins said, noting that she wasn’t going to allow her life to be turned upside down by her chaotic daughter, despite her offer to help.
Conflicts between mother and daughter came to a head after less than a month. Collins left town for a weekend, writing down the mileage on her car before she did. She returned and discovered the car had been driven to Placerville and back to visit a man, and caught her daughter in a lie about it.
“Trust is a huge issue with me,” Collins said. “I think I told her she would have to move out, that I didn’t want to live like this.”
Collins never saw her daughter alive again.
After leaving her mom’s house, Vierra spent Thanksgiving with Gully, her husband and three children. Vierra loved children and was great with them. “She had a way of bringing herself to your level, no matter who you were. She was very warm,” said Gully, whose children loved “Auntie Michelle.”
Yet Vierra’s inability to have children was something that added to her sadness and disappointment. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, she told Gully that she was envious of her life.
“She cried a lot and was very emotional,” Gully recalled. “She said, ‘We grew up together, how can our lives be so different?’ “
At the time, Vierra was dating and staying with a man named Darin, but that relationship was winding down just like all the others. A few weeks earlier, Vierra and Darin met a Midtown resident named Larry Brown and they all hung out at his house at 19th and G streets, just a block from where she would be killed a year later.
“One night, she just showed up at my house and said her boyfriend told her to get lost,” Brown said of a night just after Thanksgiving.
Brown told Vierra she could stay with him. He found her to be “caring, warm-hearted, soft-spoken … I was touched by her.” Brown and his 10-year-old daughter became deeply attached to Vierra, so much so that his eyes and voice fill with a mixture of intense sadness and rage when he talks about her … and about Amos Franco.
Vierra met Franco in February while he was working as a caretaker for a house at 20th and H streets. They would all party together, but Brown said he was distrustful of Franco from the beginning and afraid for his new friend.
Franco, 52, is a strong and stocky Latino, with a bushy gray mustache and stern demeanor. After his parents divorced and his mom remarried, Franco moved to Woodland to be raised by his grandparents. His sister, who was raised by their mother, said Franco was nice and caring when sober, but that his personality would sometimes turn mean when he drank.
Brown said Vierra made a similar observation to him. “She told me he was real bossy and I knew what was going to come next,” Brown said. “But he had money and she knew he could get alcohol, because she was an alcoholic. … If she wasn’t drinking, she said she wasn’t happy.”
Brown became protective of Vierra and said he tried to steer her away from Franco, but Vierra reacted by deciding to move out of Brown’s place after having been there nearly three months, moving in with a party friend named Connie, who lived at 17th and H streets.
“I just wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t make her stay at my house or change her mind,” Brown said, breaking down into heavy sobs. “I tried to do everything I could for her, but it wasn’t enough.”
By May, Vierra and Franco were together and living on the streets. She took showers, ate and received other services at Loaves & Fishes and the charity’s Maryhouse daytime shelter for women and children. The couple would spend most nights at homeless encampments in Discovery Park.
Police reports, Maryhouse files and statements from those who knew the couple all indicate Franco was violent and abusive toward Vierra almost from the start. Three witnesses told police they witnessed regular abuse, and Maryhouse employees say Vierra told them that Franco inflicted the bruises they saw.
“She was such a loving, lovely girl. She was one of the special ones,” said LeAnne Harvey, the Maryhouse employee who got to know Vierra better than anyone and says Vierra told her Franco abused her. “She was covered with bruises every day I saw her.”
The three witnesses, who shared a camp with the couple, all told police that they were aware of the physical and psychological abuse that Franco heaped on Vierra, and that he would regularly threaten to kill her, particularly toward the end, when he was worried about going to jail for one of his outstanding arrest warrants.
Police investigators wrote that they were “told by [Maryhouse] client Linda Anderson that Franco had kept Michelle captive at their camp in Discovery Park by holding a gun to her head and tying her to a tree when he left.”
Yet like many victims of domestic violence, particularly those who also share a co-dependence on alcohol with their abuser, it doesn’t appear that Vierra sought help or made any serious efforts to get away from him.
“She felt like he would change and it would be OK,” Harvey said.
“I asked why she was with him and she said she loved him,” said Franco’s sister, Dolores Magana of Sacramento, who met Vierra once.
While she doesn’t believe her brother killed Vierra, Magana does acknowledge his history of violence: “I think he needs help, and I think the court should help him. More than anything, I think he needs medical treatment. He has problems.”
On that fateful day of October 26, Harvey said Vierra had a nasty bruise on her face and was acting particularly strange and scared. As she showered at Maryhouse, Harvey said Vierra began talking to herself, laughing uncontrollably and hallucinating. It was the first time Harvey saw any signs of serious mental instability, and Vierra agreed with Harvey’s suggestion to seek help.
“As Harvey was walking Michelle across the street to the mental health unit, Amos Franco walked up and told her that Michelle had to leave because she had an appointment at the welfare office. Michelle and Amos left together,” read the police report.
That was the last time anyone but Franco has reported seeing Vierra alive. Franco told police that after leaving Harvey, the couple pawned Vierra’s rings, bought the bottle of vodka and parted ways that afternoon.
Harvey said she’s been deeply affected by what happened to Vierra, and the fact that she “inadvertently walked her into his arms.” Harvey is left to contemplate “what if"—"Maybe if I had a little more time, or maybe if she was a little more accessible.”
SN&R requested a jailhouse interview with Franco, but he refused. Police reports indicate that Franco denies killing Vierra, saying they broke up on October 26 and that she planned to return to Reno. Franco also denies ever striking Vierra.
While the full case against Franco has yet to be heard, much of the evidence presented so far is circumstantial, centered on the allegations of regular physical abuse, Franco’s alleged death threats and the fact that he was with Vierra right before she died. The only direct physical evidence presented so far was Franco’s belt buckle being found at the crime scene (he told police that he had given it to Vierra as a gift before they parted ways) and the fact that some of the marks on Vierra’s body bore an unusual impression of three knuckles, supposedly consistent with the deformed little finger on Franco’s right hand, which was broken in an old injury from a knife.
After discovering Vierra’s body and hearing reports of abuse from Harvey and others, police searched in vain for Franco, even as they told the media that the death was not a homicide and the desire to speak with Franco was routine. A month after the body was found, the death was ruled a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head.
On November 30, police received an anonymous tip that Franco was staying at his parents’ house in Avenal, where he traveled to using a bus ticket purchased by Magana. He was arrested at the house and is currently awaiting trial on a first degree murder charge.
It was a sunny and warm day on November 2 when hundreds of people gathered in Friendship Park for the dedication of the Loaves & Fishes Memorial Wall, which includes a pond, stone wall and a plaque inscribed with 207 names of homeless guests who have died since 1990.
Michelle Vierra’s name was not yet on the wall, her body having just been discovered two days earlier.
“It really is a death-defying act to be homeless,” advocate John Foley said during the opening prayer, recounting how sadly common it is for the homeless to die violently, or from exposure, malnourishment, alcoholism or drug addiction.
The mood was somber and reverent as the homeless and the people who try to help them recounted stories of tragedy and loss, and of the daily struggle the homeless face just to make it to the next day.
“What we do today is an act of love. We remember the men, women and children who have gone before us,” Rev. Chris Hartmire told the assemblage. “They were our friends and our loved ones, and we remember them well.”
Finally, former Loaves & Fishes director LeRoy Chatfield took the microphone to officially dedicate the wall that was his inspiration, and which he had spent years working to erect.
“The best explanation for why this wall is needed was explained in an article in the Sacramento Bee yesterday,” Chatfield began, pulling out a copy of a story headlined, “Woman found dead near railroad tracks in midtown” and reading the simple, five-paragraph article in its entirety.
After a long silence, Chatfield explained to the large group exactly who the previously anonymous woman was, that she was a frequent guest at Maryhouse, and that she was “soft-spoken, gentle, a beautiful woman” who was “trapped, she felt, in an abusive relationship, with the marks to prove it.”
With the serendipitous timing of her death, Vierra became the focal point for all the love and sympathy that was expressed at that ceremony, with her otherwise little-noticed death then making that evening’s newscast on Sacramento television stations, the front page of the Sacramento Bee the next day and that week’s SN&R.
“It is our desire to remember this woman so she doesn’t ever become a nobody," Chatfield said, "so she doesn’t just become a woman who was found."