The life and death of Cowboy Bill

Homeless activist was killed on the road to redemption

Thomas William “Cowboy Bill” DeOllas had become a leader of the Safe Ground movement before his death last spring.

Thomas William “Cowboy Bill” DeOllas had become a leader of the Safe Ground movement before his death last spring.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Baker

Sister Libby Fernandez, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, remembers one Friday not too long ago when she talked to trusted volunteer and friend Thomas William DeOllas—known to many in the homeless community as Cowboy Bill. Bill had dedicated a lot of his time to Safe Ground, an organization which aims to find safe spaces where homeless people can sleep. Fernandez wanted to offer him a job at Loaves & Fishes.

“I talked to Bill on Friday and told him, ‘Bill, you are my right arm and my No. 1 volunteer,’ and I told him, ‘You think about it; I’ll see you Monday, because I want to hire you part time. I’ve got a little bit of money to hire you at Loaves & Fishes. You think about it,’” Fernandez said. “He was hit on Sunday.”

On that Sunday, March 28, DeOllas was working as volunteer outside the Loaves & Fishes complex, greeting and directing homeless clients in need of services, a meal, a shower, some advice.

A car came speeding down the dead-end street where many people were waiting for lunch to be served. Witnesses say DeOllas and two other men tried to get the driver’s attention and tell him to slow down. According to DeOllas’ friend Bradley Lasbey—who heard the account from others on the scene—the driver then swerved in the men’s direction. The cowboy couldn’t get out of the way.

DeOllas was rushed to UC Davis Medical Center, where, according to court records, he fell into a coma. He died nearly two months later on May 22.

The driver, 53-year-old Jeffrey Yelverton, left the scene, according to the district attorney. He was later arrested near Arden Fair mall. Yelverton was initially charged with assault with a deadly weapon and felony hit-and-run. But those charges may become more severe since DeOllas’ death.

For Lasbey, the loss was crippling. “We met because we were both homeless, and we became very good friends. We pretty much lived together seven days a week, and we worked together,” Lasbey said, adding, “It really upset a lot of people. It was pretty devastating on me. I freaked out when I heard what had happened to him. … We just kind of fell apart for a couple weeks before we could actually get a handle on ourselves again.”

Although Cowboy Bill’s death rocked the homeless community, Lasbey felt the police did not put much effort into investigating the case.

“Usually the statements are videotaped and recorded, and they basically interrogate the witnesses, but that didn’t happen this time,” Lasbey explained. Lasbey also lamented the lack of media attention the mysterious hit-and-run received.

“When people die in the homeless community, and they die pretty often, there’s generally never any kind of media coverage about it,” Lasbey said. “But when some jerk-off hit-and-runs and kills a man in the homeless community, it gets brushed under the carpet.”

Yelverton is due again in court on August 11. But why he ran Cowboy Bill down is still something of a mystery.

The district attorney will likely charge Yelverton with voluntary manslaughter. But Yelverton’s attorney, Keith Staton, told SN&R that DeOllas’ death was a tragic accident.

Staton said Yelverton was leaving the Capitol Casino on 16th Street, and took a wrong turn, ending up on the street leading to the Loaves & Fishes’ main gate.

When he saw DeOllas and the other men waving at him, Staton said Yelverton panicked. “He thought he was being attacked. He panicked and tried to leave as quickly as possible,” hitting DeOllas in the process, Staton told SN&R.

Staton also said that Yelverton stopped the car and called police himself, and waited for them to come arrest him. “Our position is that this was not crime. This was a tragic accident,” Staton said.

A tragedy that happened as DeOllas tried to redeem himself from his own troubled past.

Lasbey said DeOllas was known for his selflessness among the Safe Ground activists.

“He was the solid rock that Safe Ground stood on for a long time, through a lot of hard times,” said the Rev. David Leeper Moss, who also worked with DeOllas for Safe Ground. “Whenever I needed something special to do, he was always there to do it. He was one of those very dependable people. You knew that if he said he’d do it, he would.”

Moss also mentioned DeOllas’ cultural passion. “He helped me with a Native American ceremony. … He was very serious about his connection to a great spirit and his Native American heritage,” Moss said.

Cowboy Bill’s willingness to help might have stemmed from his own guilt. Long before he started working with Loaves & Fishes and Safe Ground, DeOllas was found guilty of attempting to have sex with a minor.

The crime occurred in another county, but DeOllas got into legal trouble here a couple of years ago, after failing to properly register as a sex offender. DeOllas is listed on the Megan’s Law website, but his entry now reads, “This sex offender has been in violation of registration requirements since 4/27/2010.”

“Whatever crimes he did, we knew him for over a year, and he was nothing but impeccable. He had drug and alcohol issues, but he was clean and sober [while I knew him]. … He was giving back for his past wrongs in life and was really doing triple time to make up,” Fernandez said. “I think his past helped him to become a better person. We always learn and grown from our past mistakes.”

Boyd Zimmerman, who knew DeOllas well from working for Loaves & Fishes and Safe Ground, respected the cowboy for turning his life around.

“He had a past, but he was making up for it. He was changing his life, doing something different,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not a man unless you change and make your way out of it. And that’s what he was doing, he was being a man.”

Safe Ground recently celebrated its one-year anniversary with a festival at Cesar Chavez Plaza. When asked what his friend’s reaction would be if he could see the celebration, Lasbey answered with a smile.

“He’d probably be proud and happy that it’s actually becoming something. He’d probably say, ‘I can’t believe they made one year.’”