Rachelle Conrad's life on the streets of Lawrence was a combustible mix of violence and alcohol abuse. Friday, those who knew her best said those elements were probably responsible for the homeless woman's death.
"She was at the top of my list for people who would last the least long," said Terry Bewick, a homeless Lawrence resident. "She was pushing the envelope."
Conrad's body was found about 7 a.m. Friday near a shelter at Clinton Park, 901 W. Fifth St. A preliminary autopsy report was inconclusive about the cause of death, police spokesman Sgt. Mike Pattrick said Friday evening.
"We are calling it a suspicious death, but we aren't saying it's a homicide," Pattrick said. He declined to elaborate.
The results of tests on blood and tissue samples are needed to determine the cause of death, Pattrick said. He doesn't know when those results will be ready.
"It could be awhile," he said.
Four persons police found in or near the park at the time the body was discovered were questioned by police, but no arrests have been made.
Police didn't make a confirmation of the 37-year-old woman's identity until Friday night. The confirmation was made through fingerprints, Pattrick said. She was a transient, Pattrick said.
But word spread earlier in the day among the city's homeless community that it was Conrad who had died.
No stranger to violence
Billy Collette, who serves with the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutritional Kitchen, said Conrad visited LINK about two weeks ago, her midsection covered with blood from an apparent stab wound.
"I asked her what had happened," he said. "She said, 'Don't worry about it. It's taken care of.'"
Others said Conrad was frequently the victim of violence. She always refused to discuss the details.
"She always had black eyes, getting beat up," said Gary Miller, president of the Lawrence Coalition for Homeless Concerns.
Conrad short, wiry, with cropped dark hair was a familiar presence in downtown Lawrence. Many who knew Conrad said she had severe alcohol problems, and had other ailments stemming from a stint in the military during the early 1990s. She told friends that she had lost eyesight in one eye and was starting to go blind in the other.
Despite her reputation for toughness, Conrad was praised for her tenderness as well, particularly toward the city's homeless American Indians.
"She was like a mother to the other Indian guys," said Captain Carolyn Schuetz of the Salvation Army.
"She was very helpful," said Amy Carr, fiscal coordinator for the Pelathe Community Resource Center. "She would bring people into the food pantry, bring homeless people in to get advice."
"She was kind of leery of people," said Wy lma Mortell, a friend. "But after she knew you, she'd give you a nickname."
"She could be a very nice lady," said Clark Keffer, a volunteer kitchen manager at the Salvation Army. "But she was living a life-and-death struggle with alcohol."
In recent weeks, friends said, Conrad had suffered from at least one seizure. Thursday night, she visited the Acceptance House, 407 Maine, where Project Acceptance Director Sharilyn Wells was one of the last people to see her alive.
"I thought she looked very weak, very thin," Wells said. "I looked at her and wondered how long she had in this world."
Conrad left the house at 8:30 p.m. Thursday with several men, Wells said. Her body was found Friday morning.
Residents near Clinton Park said the park is a well-known hangout for homeless people. Many of them go there at night and have been seen drinking, they said.
"I've seen fights over there but not very often," Howard Walker said Friday morning, as he watched police work the scene. "We kind of watch the park because there are a lot of kids around."
Gladys Rennels, who said she had lived near the park for many years, said she, too, has seen the homeless in the park and the drinking.
"But I don't see a lot of problems over there," she also said. "This is usually a quiet neighborhood."
The park is to the north of Pinckney School, 810 W. Sixth St. Police notified school officials about the incident, Lawrence public schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle said. Students were kept indoors for their recess, she said.
Friday night, the school had planned a family picnic in the park, but it was moved into the gym, Boyle said.
"I think they had decided to move it into the gym anyway because of the weather," Boyle said.