Long a hotspot for birds and the homeless, Laguna Grande Park has recently become known for morbid discoveries. Two dead bodies have been found in the park, which straddles the border of Monterey and Seaside, in the last two months.
The body of Michael Paul Verga, 55, was discovered in a shallow grave July 25, and that of Charlene Leslie, 58, was found floating in the water under a bridge Sept. 15. Both were homeless.
A rash of complaints following the first discovery led Seaside city workers to conduct numerous sweeps through the park, and recent visits indicate they have appeared to work. The forest is clear of homeless encampments, for now.
“We pulled 15 dump-truck loads of trash out of there,” says Dave Fortune, Seaside’s maintenance and utilities field supervisor. Fortune and his crew were acting on calls from nearby residents about noise and campfire smoke rising from the trees.
“It’s complaint-driven,” Fortune says. “If there’s a complaint, we’ll go through there.”
A hike into the park’s forest back on Sept. 3 revealed vast, empty areas in the grove that looked like they’ve been lived on for years. An eerie quiet carried through the trees, interrupted by occasional birdsong.
“THERE ARE LITERALLY CAMPS EVERYWHERE. [PEOPLE] JUST DON’T WANT TO SEE IT.”
A blackberry-lined trail led to police tape still surrounding the site of the first discovery. Human sounds broke the silence. A man and woman, both wearing small backpacks, approached on a path, trailed by a pit bull. They said they were helping friends move out the last of their belongings – Seaside city officials came through in the morning and said everything had to be out by noon – and described what the park had been like before the sweeps.
There were about 20 people living here, the woman said, in different camps. There were solar showers, shared meals and a “trash out, water in” ethic.
Both the man and woman declined to give their names, but the woman, “J,” who appears to be in her late 30s, offers a tour of the forest. Her clothes are clean and she looks healthy. Her six-month-old pit bull, Felony, follows us through the trees.
J has only been homeless about six months, she said, following the recent loss of her job. After months living in Laguna Grande Park, she moved.
“There are literally camps everywhere,” she said. “[People] just don’t want to see it.”
J pointed to a handful of spots along the trails where she once camped in a makeshift tent, outfitted with a queen-sized mattress.
She said she never feared for herself while living in the park. Verga, whose body was the first found, had lived there for years and died of natural causes. He wanted to be buried there, J added.
She reported that some of the Seaside workers making the sweeps, who have all been friendly, mentioned the area was going to be turned into a bird sanctuary.
According to Seaside Deputy City Manager Diana Ingersoll, the idea has been proposed by the Audubon Society, but it’s still only talk.
Back in the forest Sept. 18, J is nowhere to be found. An unoccupied tent has cropped up alone in the trees.