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Retired officer shocked to learn homeless man was his classmate

Unlike the other members of the Bishop Turner High School Class of 1967, John V. Fildes had spoken to their classmate Lawrence Bierl dozens of times through the years.

He just didn't realize it until Thursday, when he heard the last name of the homeless man known only as Larry, who was found dead earlier in the day in the NFTA bus shelter just yards from where he had a makeshift camp in a patch of trees.

The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office found that Bierl died of hypothermia, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority announced Friday.

As an Amherst Police officer from 1971 to 1998, Fildes estimated he spoke face-to-face with Bierl dozens of times without ever realizing that the weatherbeaten man with the long beard and dreadlocks was his classmate.

Looking closely at the yearbook photo of the Larry Bierl he knew, Fildes sees traces of the man that he – and much of the rest of the Snyder and Williamsville community – would come to know simply by his first name. There are the same green eyes under slightly arched eyebrows, the same snub nose.

Fildes first encountered Larry in the early 1980s. It was just 15 years after they graduated together, and Fildes hadn't changed much. He is sure that Larry knew who he was, not only because of his appearance, but because he wore his name on his uniform.

"It's weird, because looking back, I realize he knew something that I didn't," said Fildes.

Lawrence Bierl in 2018 in Spot Coffee in Williamsville. (Photo courtesy of Carole Taylor)

Bierl, who already had changed so much that Fildes didn't recognize him, never mentioned that they had spent four years not only in the same class but in the same section of 30 or so boys. Sections were set up alphabetically, so Beirl and Fildes shared homerooms and many classes through the years.

Fildes learned of the connection Thursday evening, when he began to get messages and emails from other members of the Class of 1967, whose bonds were renewed at the class's recent 50th reunion. Needless to say, Bierl did not attend.

Fildes emphasized that Larry was a gentle soul. The police interacted with him not because of anything he did, but because callers were worried about him.

"He never acted disorderly, he never panhandled, he never bothered customers" in the Main Street businesses he frequented for food, coffee or to get out of the cold or rain, said Fildes.

"The calls we would get about him were from people who were concerned, 'There's a man who looks like he needs some help.' As soon as we'd get there, we'd see who it was," he said.

Before his death last week, Lawrence Bierl was often spotted in area coffee shops like Spot Coffee in Williamsville. (Photo courtesy of Carole Taylor)

At every encounter with him, as a matter of policy, Amherst Police checked to be sure that Larry had no warrants. It was a twist of fate that through the years Fildes was never the officer who ran his name, so he never found out who Larry was.

Many years ago, Amherst Police found out that some teenagers had damaged some of Larry's meager belongings at his campsite in a clump of trees close to the bus shelter, where he slept in what Fildes recalled as an improvised tent that incorporated a tarp or blanket. Fildes remembers finding the young men and "reading them the riot act." As far as he knows, that was the last time they targeted the homeless man.

In the Turner yearbook, called the Crozier, Lawrence A. Bierl is listed as a member of the History Club in his senior year, and a participant in four sports – cross country his first and second year, wrestling his second year, and baseball and intramurals all four years.

Tuition at Turner could be a sacrifice, especially for large Catholic families. Like all his classmates, Bierl kept his hair short and wore a dress shirt, tie, jacket, slacks and dress shoes every day. In the photo, he looks serious, fresh-faced and young.

Fildes doesn't know what happened to Bierl after high school, whether he was, as some said, a Vietnam-era veteran, as Fildes was. Back then, people didn't feel the same way about vets that they feel today, Fildes said; veterans didn't talk about their military service and nobody asked about it.

For Bierl, the secrecy ran much deeper than that.

Many people interacted with him, buying him a cup of coffee, slipping him a few bucks or greeting him on the street or along his route, where he checked trash bins for cans and bottles to redeem at the nearby Tops Market. His face was deeply tanned and wrinkled from exposure to the weather; his hands were gnarled. He sometimes napped or sat with his head in his hands at a corner table in the Walker Center Tim Hortons. For a while, the end of his thick, single dreadlock brushed the ground when he walked. Yet he always wore season-appropriate coats, jackets and boots, usually green, black or camouflage design.

"People have a soft spot for people who are down on their luck," said Fildes. "A lot of people realize that that's not the way you should live, but what happened in his transition from high school to adulthood, I just don't know."

Since the shocking news that a man he considered "one of the Snyder characters, just a fixture in the community" was his classmate, Fildes has wondered whether it might have made a difference if he could have reached out to Larry by drawing on the bond of the four youthful years they shared.

"I'd like to think that it would have," he said. "But the fact is, he was one of the people who was absolutely living life on his own terms, so maybe that wouldn't have made any difference."

Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich: Why I told Larry's story two decades ago

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