Sonny Molten died like so many other homeless people.
Alone. They found his lifeless body along the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Salida last week, about 200 yards from his encampment on the other side of the tracks. What took him exactly, no one knows yet. At 41 years old, he dealt with mental illness, drug addiction and had been to jail and prison.
To many, he might seem like another one of those people. Those people. Those people who camp out in public parks. Those people who congregate at the county library to stay cool in the summer or warm in the winter. Those people who sleep in doorways. Those people who rifle through trash bins and push grocery carts overflowing with debris they deem vital to their existences. Those people who, to many, represent a blight on society.
But to some folks in Salida who knew Molten knew differently. Because despite his struggles, he bore a humanity that leaves them mourning. Despite his personal demons, he gave to others perhaps the greatest gifts of all: kindness and respect. Katherine Borges, Salida Municipal Advisory Council chairwoman, said he helped scrub graffiti. He’d shoo away other homeless who were panhandling people at a convenience store. He taught a couple of younger homeless women how to survive on the streets, telling them whom they could trust or should avoid.
At the same time, he maintained only a tenuous connection with his family even though his camp sat about a mile from his sister’s home east of Highway 99.
“We asked Sonny to get help,” Crystal Houston, Sonny’s younger sister, told me. “He made the choices to be on the streets. He’d come to see us, to talk to us.”
He’d refuse when she or their mother, Lunester Harley, tried to give him money.
“He wouldn’t take it from us,” Houston said. “Or from his minister, either. He knew in his heart what he would do with it. But he loved Salida. If somebody needed something done, he’d do it.”
He recycled and worked small jobs to earn cash.
Molten was born in Louisiana and came to California when the family moved west to join other relatives in Palo Alto.
“He played football in high school, loved to dance and knew God despite all he went through,” Houston said.
In the early 1990s, his mother and stepfather moved the family to the Valley, “to get us out of a bad neighborhood,” Houston said. Molten’s only marriage produced three children before the couple divorced.
“He had mental issues,” she said. “He became addicted to drugs and it steered him in the wrong direction.”
At the same time, he had a penchant for steering others in the right direction, including the two women whom he mentored on the streets. One, Heather Mantusel, had just gone through a rough breakup with her girlfriend. Moving back home at the time wasn’t an option. She and her mom, Jenny Snell, weren’t getting along. Molten befriended the 25-year-old woman in a totally platonic friendship.
“He was one of the first people I met since I’d been on the streets,” she said. “We studied the Bible a lot, and he knew how to bring me along.”
His camp along the tracks is only about 400 yards from her mother’s home. Months passed before Snell learned her daughter was so close by, and they will both tell you that if not for Molten, they might still be estranged.
“He made a huge impact on her life,” Snell said. “He brought her back.”
“He was the first person I trusted,” Mantusel said. “I knew he was watching my back. He was my angel.”
Then another 25-year-old, Dulce Garcia, found them. She ran a restaurant in Ripon, she said, before becoming a dental assistant.
“But I made some wrong choices and I ended up being on the tracks and homeless,” she said, declining to elaborate on those choices. Molten befriended her as well.
“He told them, ‘You’re looking at your futures (homelessness) if you keep doing what you’re doing’,” Snell said.
In the fall, he really did save Garcia’s life in a story which Snell and Mantusel confirmed.
“I felt like I’d been a burden and didn’t want to be here,” Garcia said. “So I laid down on the tracks. He saw me, and he said, ‘What are you doing? The train’s coming! Get up!’ ”
“He said, ‘If you’re going to die, then I’m going to lay here next to you’,” Garcia said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “And he held my hand. He cared.”
They got off of the tracks.
“If it wasn’t for him, I couldn’t have been able to survive,” she said. “He made sure I slept under shelter, and he made sure I was OK.”
By that time, Mantusel had reunited with her mom and moved off the streets. Garcia joined them, and believes Molten is the reason.
Last Thanksgiving, the women cooked him a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Snell’s home. When the winter rains flooded out his camp, they helped him rebuild it on drier ground. He continued to read the Bible with them and mentor them, often using his own life as an example of what not to be, which was consistent with the brother Crystal Houston knew.
“I used to rip and run in the streets, too, and he could tell you what not to do,” she said. “He couldn’t follow his own advice.”
She saw him recently and told him his daughter planned to bring her two girls – his granddaughters – from their home in Ohio to Salida for a visit.
“He said he needed to get off drugs,” Houston said. “He got all choked up. I hadn’t seen him like this – this emotional – in 15 years.”
But Garcia and Mantusel said they sensed something was wrong with him physically.
“He knew he was sick,” Mantusel said. “He was in pain. The last three weeks to a month, he’d been acting differently, but now that I look back I could see the signs. He was dehydrated. He was not himself.”
His death left these women – his sister, Mantusel, Garcia and Snell – all in tears.
One of “those people” touched them in ways they could not have imagined.