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Trail of illness and addiction led to man's death at Karluk Manor

For all of the years Suzanne Edwards' brother John Kort lived on the streets of Anchorage, she feared he'd freeze to death or be murdered.

"We always worried he'd come to a tragic end," she said in a phone interview from her home in Tacoma, Wash.

Kort died in his room at Karluk Manor on New Year's Day, a few weeks after moving in.

She's thankful for that.

"We're grateful he died indoors," she said. "In his own place."

His death was the first at Karluk Manor, a 46-bed home meant for Anchorage's most severe homeless alcoholics. It follows a "Housing First" philosophy that lets residents keep drinking while living there.

Kort had friends and a loving family, but suffered from addiction and mental health problems that kept him on the street instead of with them, his family said.

Kort was born in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area. As a child growing up with seven brothers and sisters, he loved collecting arrowheads and fishing, his sister said.

Fascinated with math and science, he started college at the University of Pittsburgh, but dropped out after he began to struggle with mental health issues, his sister said.

At the same time, he started drinking.

"I think he self-medicated. He had a hard time with it," Edwards said. "You can't always fix that with pills."

He moved to Seattle, where he met Cynthia Knappett.

"It was love at first sight," she said in a phone interview from her home in Kirkland, Wash.

He cooked for her -- stir fry and stroganoff were his specialties. They saw movies and went on walks. He had strong opinions on politics. He loved the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards especially. He found electrician and contracting work.

"He was just a lovely person," she said.

Around 2003, Kort moved to Anchorage.

Jobs dried up as he got older and his alcoholism worsened. He tried rehab several times but ended up living mostly in shelters.

While he had plenty of contact with the Anchorage Police Department -- 158 "entries" dating back to 2003 in a police database that tracks everything from welfare calls to pawn records -- Kort had no criminal record aside from a few citations for walking in a roadway and public intoxication.

"There's no indication that he ever committed any kind of a crime," said police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker.

Police records show that Kort was more often a victim of crime. Records show he was robbed three times, once left bleeding from the head.

By the time Kenny Petersen met Kort, he looked like the stereotype of a homeless alcoholic.

His hair was long and gray, his face reddened by booze. He wore camouflage fatigues.

Petersen is the second-generation co-owner of the Allen & Petersen appliance business in Anchorage. An active member of the Mormon church, he does outreach work with the homeless. He encountered Kort last fall at Bean's Cafe, and they struck up a friendship.

Sometimes Kort tried to stop drinking for a day or two so he could go to church with Petersen. It didn't happen. He feared withdrawal symptoms. His hands shook. He worried he was a burden on people and felt like he was letting everyone down.

"He was always saying sorry," Petersen said.

Still, he was a "mindful, observant" guy who always wanted to make sure that if he ate, his friends could, too.

Kort seemed happy to move into Karluk Manor, where he'd finally have his own bed, said Knappett, who kept in touch with him by phone. But his health was deteriorating.

"Most people had told me this was where he was going to go to die," Petersen said.

The week before he died, Kort left Petersen a voicemail in a gravelly but clear voice, apologizing for not being in touch and saying that he'd lost his wallet.

Cynthia Knappett last spoke to Kort at around 8 a.m. on New Year's Day, just hours before he died. He said he was hung over but sounded lucid.

"He said, 'Hold on, someone is at my door, I gotta go,' " she said. "And I said, 'OK, I'll talk to you later.' And that was it."

Initial autopsy results showed "nothing suspicious" in Kort's death, said Parker. Toxicology test results are still four to six weeks out.

Karluk Manor has drawn criticism from neighbors and others who question the idea of allowing residents to drink while staying there. Petersen says he knows not everyone agrees with the place. But the alternative for Kort might have been death in a park or snowbank.

Last year he went to the funeral of a woman who died while sleeping under a van in the parking lot of the Sears mall. That is no way to go, he said.

"John Kort did not die on the streets," Petersen said. "He did not die without someone knowing his name."

Still, he said, he's haunted by what Kort's life could have been.

Kort told him he wanted to make a documentary film about homelessness -- both on "macro and micro levels."

He had a vision for the film already unfolding in his head. He told Petersen there would be a scene where "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles played over shots of people at a soup kitchen.

A particular lyric, Kort said, stuck with him: "All the lonely people/ where do they all come from?"

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


Anchorage Daily News