The Life and Death of a Miami Courthouse Panhandler

by David Ovalle, Miami Herald

Outside Miami's criminal courthouse, he was known to many only as ``Red" the panhandler, a distinctive character woven into the colorful fabric of the justice community, as much a fixture as attorneys, hot-dog carts and TV news trucks.

On the Internet, his wild, woolly and wall-eyed mugshot made him a briefly viral meme to be mocked or, oddly enough, the face of an online ad hawking a dubious blood-pressure cure.

In real life, he was a 34-year-old named Brett Heinzinger, a man whose only luck seemed bad. He was born to heroin addicts, heard his grandfather murdered as a child, got addicted to drugs as a young man and wound up in South Florida chasing his next cocaine score and living under an overpass.

He died here, too — run down by a motorist on a dark rainy January night, next to the courthouse.

Detectives have few clues, no suspects, no surveillance video of the crime and little hope of finding his killer.

The loss of the homeless man has quietly resonated at the courthouse.

Defense lawyer Brian Kirlew, who sometimes bought him food from the restaurants near Jackson Memorial Hospital, learned his sad backstory in roadside chats.

``He hadn't been in contact with his family, and I offered to help him find them through Facebook. He thought it was cool, but he never followed back up,'' Kirlew said. ``I had never taken the time to befriend the homeless before, and then I met Red. You realize how human they are, and how addiction hits people in different ways.''

Heinzinger was raised in suburban New York to heroin-addicted parents. His younger sister was born mildly mentally disabled. His grandmother took them in for stretches. Then came a series of foster homes before an aunt, Margaret Neforos, adopted him when he was about 8 years old.

By then, relatives say his father had died of a heroin overdose, his mother of other medical complications.

The family eventually moved to Virginia, where Heinzinger — diagnosed with attention deficit disorder — enrolled in special-education classes. Tall and chubby with one lazy eye, soft-spoken and polite, he was an easy target. ``He has those wild eyes,'' James Heinzinger said. ``He got a lot of mocking about that, even as a child.''

He soon joined Job Corps, the federal vocational program for at-risk youth. That didn't last long. He headed to the streets.

``He was a good kid but he just didn't want anyone telling him what to do,'' Neforos said. ``It was almost like he liked being homeless.''

Eventually he joined a traveling carnival, his family said, which is how he ended up in South Florida.

Nick Spill, a defense investigator at Miami's criminal courthouse, was browsing a British news site one day before work in December. His eyes wandered to the ``click-bait'' ads at the bottom of the page.

And there was a photo of Heinzinger, eyes red and askew, face seared pink from the sun, red beard full, hair atop his head not. He was the face for a site touting, ``The 4 Worst Blood Pressure Drugs.''

``I was like, `How did this guy appear on here?' " Spill recalled.

The photo was a mugshot — he'd had dozens taken over the years — but this one, snapped in 2012, somehow went viral. It also wound up appearing on a website called ``1000 Ugly People,'' with a cruel caption about his wandering eye: ``I see you! And you, too.''

The ad was for a Texas company called The Blood Pressure Solution, which hawks ``natural'' drug-free treatment way to lower blood pressure. The company did not return calls or emails about how they'd picked the photo or whether they'd tried to identify, contact or pay their model.

Told of the photo outside court days before he died, Heinzinger said he knew nothing of the ad or his meme before riding off on his bicycle.

Miami's criminal-justice complex — court, the main jail and offices of prosecutors and public defenders — lies in the heart of the city, wedged between the river and the sprawling blocks that house hospitals.

``Everybody here is like family,'' said 52-year-old Leonardo Fernandez, a homeless man who slept under the overpass next to Heinzinger, when not being chased off by police. ``There's Wolf. That skinny guy is Steve. And Red. Everyone knew Red.''

He was no stranger inside the jail or court either. In all, police arrested him 60 times since 2004, almost always for ``aggressive panhandling.'' Most of the time, prosecutors gave him credit for jail time served or dropped the charges all together.

Despite his scary look and the chronic arrests, many who interacted with him — even the Miami detective now tasked with solving his death — described him as harmless and mild, even on the streets.

``We used to ask him to get out of the road so he wouldn't get hit, and he would nod his head, give a little salute and get off the street,'' said traffic homicide Detective Joseph Kennedy. ``We never had a problem.''

Even if courthouse regulars didn't really know Heinzinger, many knew of him. He was Red. Homeless, not faceless.

Lydia Martinez, a probation officer based in court, knew him only by sight.

``He counted as a person. He was a human being. He was born somebody's baby,'' Martinez said. ``We remember Red. We'll always remember him.''

Information from: The Miami Herald

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