Roseburg News-Review / Seattle Times

Vet’s Hunch on Hitchhiker Proves Costly

(Oregon Newspaper Association, Spot news, 3rd place, 2001. Also appeared in The Seattle Times.)

Giving a Lift Brings Vet Down
Favor to hitchhiker proves costly to cancer patient
Possessions stolen: Suspect takes off with man’s truck and U-haul containing $30,000 worth of items.

He had never heard of Roseburg before, but he will remember it now, to the end of his numbered days.

Forty-nine-year-old Thomas Carver hadn’t picked up a hitchhiker in 15 years, but this one seemed different.

“I saw truth in his eyes,” he says of a young hitchhiker standing on a northbound Interstate 5 exit in Shasta, Calif.

So he stopped.

The hitchhiker, who looked to be in his mid-20s, hopped into Carver’s white 1992 Ford F250 truck, which pulled a U-haul carrying all his possessions. Carver then continued his trip from Buckeye, Ariz. to a new home in Buckley, Wash. Thursday.

By Friday afternoon, all Carver’s possessions have been stolen for more than 12 hours. The Vietnam veteran sits in a room at the Super 8 motel in Roseburg, chain-smoking and bewildered.

“What you see is what I own,” he says, holding out his hands.

Now, all Carver owns is a T-shirt, a pair of blue jeans, some credit cards and $250 cash.

“That’s what blows me away,” Carver says. “He went into my blue jeans to get the cash, but he left all that money. Maybe we’re talking about some kind of gentleman bandit.”

After taking Carver up on his offer to get a double room, the young man who called himself Robert Keller simply waited for Carver to fall asleep before stealing his keys and a $100 bill from his jeans Thursday night.

When Carver awoke at around 4 a.m., he said he knew something was wrong. The bed next to him was empty – and still made.

“I ran outside to look for my truck, and it was gone,” the former hunting guide and contractor said.

So was the trailer, which carried about $30,000 worth of uninsured possessions, including three rifles, three handguns, a shotgun and the mount of a four-horned goat’s head, Carver said.

Carver said he sleeps a lot because of his terminal lymphoma cancer.

Doctors in Phoenix recently told Carver he had one year to live. Carver said he was on his way from Arizona to Washington for better cancer treatment.

“The waiting rooms in Phoenix are overwhelmed,” he said.

Carver said he was poisoned by Agent Orange while serving as Navy flight mechanic in the Vietnam War. He got so sick, he said, that he couldn’t work as either a hunting guide or contractor.

“I lost my business; I lost everything,” he said. “Now I lost the last bit of stuff I own. I had to walk two miles up the street just to get a comb and toothbrush.”

According to a police report, the hitchhiker is white, about 5 feet 7 inches, weighs 170 to 180 pounds, has short brown hair, large brown eyes and is missing a right incisor. He has tattoos of a long, thin cross on his right forearm and peace sign on the web of his left hand.

The hitchhiker said he was headed to Olympia for a disability check but would eventually return to Modesto, Calif. Carver said the man seemed very familiar with Roseburg.

“We seemed to have so much in common,” said Carver, whose eyes were red because his cancer medication had been stolen.

Despite the tattoos, Carver said the hitchhiker’s clean-cut appearance and honest-looking face caused him to stop.

“Because I was a hunter and a guide, I thought I could trust my instincts,” he said. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Early Saturday, a cab dropped him off at the Greyhound station, where he planned to catch a bus to Tacoma to meet his brother.