'I don't want him to have died without people knowing that he was somebody'

LaTanya Pierce befriended neighborhood handyman Sebastian Riley.

LaTanya Pierce rushed to Temple University Hospital when she heard that her reclusive handyman had collapsed.

She’d grown close to Sebastian Riley over the couple of years he’d done work for her and her family, and now she wanted to be sure he wasn’t all alone.

Riley, whom she called “Ralph,” was a private man, never sharing much about himself except to talk about his beloved mother, Julia, who died in 2006. But in the last year or so, he’d begun to open up. One day, he asked her for help to get his papers in order. There wasn’t a lot, but enough to paint a picture of a man who didn’t have much, including running water.

Pierce, 50, never would have guessed. Riley was always clean and put-together, his dreadlocks tucked into a knit cap he always wore. She had let him use a shower in one of her properties on West Fletcher Street while she worked on getting his utilities back on.

Now, she was running to his side.

Sebastian Riley, a North Philadelphia neighborhood fixture, recently died. Now, neighbors are trying to locate his family so they can claim his body.

“I just knew that he said he didn’t really have anybody, and I didn’t know what ID he had on him,” she said. “I was just afraid that if something happened, he’d be listed as a John Doe.”

At the hospital on June 3, Pierce was told that Riley had died. A heart attack, apparently. He was 62.

Once, when Riley had asked Pierce for help, he told her that his mother had told him that one day he’d have to trust others when she was gone.

“My mother told me that I’d have to dance with somebody else,” she said he told her.

She bent over the man she’d befriended and said goodbye.

“Now,” she said, “you can go have that dance with your mother.”

She gave the nurses what little information she had for his death certificate, and then tried to piece his life together in an effort to find any living relatives. But so far, she’s come up empty.

Which is where I came in.

“It weighs on me that his body hasn’t been claimed yet,” Pierce said when she called me. She’s ready to step in, but she thinks relatives, even estranged ones, should have the opportunity to lay him to rest.

Maybe, she said, I could find out more. Maybe if I write about him, one of his relatives will see the column and come forward.

“I just want him to know that I tried everything I could,” she said. “I don’t want him to have died without people knowing that he was somebody.”

On the 2500 block of West Lehigh, where Riley lived with his mother, I got a bit more information.

Riley’s house still bore hints of an impromptu memorial put together by neighbor and childhood friend Rick Bush, who recalled a simple guy who never felt like he fit in, who was always more comfortable around the books and newspapers and knickknacks he horded.

Sebastian Riley in an undated picture. 

“He was a ’60s type of guy, into Woodstock music, Funkadelic. He wasn’t mental or nothing. He was just stuck in that era. He shied away from everybody because he couldn’t deal with the times, the changing of time. Everything about him was old — old books, old records.”

When Bush was in prison, Riley sent him books. Bush still has some of them, including his favorite, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Bush said Riley had two kids he thought were in North Carolina. But attempts by both of us to find them went nowhere.

As far as Bush knew, Riley never held a formal job, instead making money doing everything from washing cars to cleaning buildings. Court records show a few arrests for possession of drugs, one of which led to about a year in jail.

The daily 6 a.m. sweeping of their street, from the 2500 block to the 2700 block, Riley did for free, adding whatever treasures he found to his collections.

Until a relative comes forward, Bush has put out the word around the neighborhood that no one should mess with Riley’s house.

And that big tree that he used to like to sit under on Fletcher Street? Pierce is planning to erect a bench in his name under it, so he’ll always have a place there.