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Cornelius Van Der Vies

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The cheery hellos were gone Monday afternoon at the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets. So was the American flag cap and Boo-Boo the dog. All that was left on the ledge where Cornelius Van Der Vies usually perched was a roll of red crime-scene tape.

The beloved man atop the hierarchy of the homeless in San Jose was dead, his body laid out for hours on the sidewalk as San Jose detectives investigated his death.

And the people in the eight-story Entrepreneur Center building - who had largely adopted the 67-year-old as their own - shook their heads in grief and astonishment.

"People are shocked," said attorney Jim Sunseri, who spearheaded a drive to repair Cornelius' van at Christmas of 2005. "It makes no sense at all. He was loved in this building. For a so-called homeless person, he was special."

Cornelius defied all the ordinary prejudices about the homeless. He was exceedingly polite, sometimes even mildly flirtatious with women. He took showers every five days and trimmed his beard. He was ready to exchange thoughts on the weather or the habits of Australian sheep dogs. And though he had very little, he was often willing to help other people out.

When I interviewed him in December of 2005, he was hoping to raise $2,600 for an engine job on his 1986 Volkswagen van, a matter of concern because the van doubled as his home: If he lost it, he and Boo-Boo might have no place to sleep.

With Christmas coming, readers responded generously, raising more than twice what Cornelius needed. And even though he had to give up his regular night-time parking spot under a freeway overpass on Bassett Street after getting a $341 ticket not long ago, he arrived breezily every morning to claim his place.

Cornelius gave only a few details about his past. He was born in Holland, and came to the United States at 7. He once milked cows. And he liked the valley because he would never go hungry.

But two things stood out about him: He treasured his freedom, and was determined to stay away from the shelters. And he loved his dog, a mix of Australian shepherd and dingo who began following Cornelius one day in Barstow six years ago. When Cornelius christened the dog, he thought of himself as Yogi Bear.

It was Boo-Boo who was at the center of events Monday, which police say occurred just before 11:45 a.m. Cornelius used to explain that Boo-Boo didn't like the homeless: It was something about the smell. According to attorney Sunseri, another homeless man began throwing objects at Boo-Boo. That pushed Cornelius to anger, and the two men exchanged angry words.

Sunseri said the other man then repeatedly kicked and hit Cornelius, who collapsed and could not be revived. Witnesses say a man with long gray hair was taken into custody. For most of the afternoon, Cornelius' body lay behind a partition as detectives gathered clues.

Was it homicide? A heart attack brought on by the exertion of a fight? Sgt. Nick Muyo of the San Jose police would say only that police were treating the death as "suspicious." An autopsy is pending.

And Boo-Boo? Muyo says a dog in this situation is taken in by animal control officers, who ordinarily transport it to the San Jose animal care center on Monterey Road. But it's hard to see Boo-Boo with anyone else but Cornelius. Like his master, Boo-Boo had a patriotic appearance. He sometimes wore an American flag over the blanket around his midriff.
Published in Mercury News on Apr. 30, 2007
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