Richard Jackson loved his cat. His devotion to his only companion may have caused his death.
A naked, partially decomposed body that a cleanup crew found in a pile of storm-surge debris near the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove four days after Hurricane Irma pummeled Miami was identified as that of Jackson, according to his daughter and niece. They were told by Miami police he probably drowned in Biscayne Bay and washed ashore, because there was no evidence of trauma or foul play.
Jackson, 61, lived aboard his houseboat in the Anchorage, a colony of four dozen boaters who drop anchor and reside rent-free in the bay east of Clarington Island and south of Dinner Key Marina, which is where the mega-million-dollar yachts are docked.
“The last time I communicated with him just before Irma hit, he said he wasn’t planning to stay on the boat, but he couldn’t take his cat to the shelter, and he was very concerned about the cat,” said Jackson’s niece, Katrina Styles. “He said he would call after the hurricane passed, but we never heard from him again.
“Now we know what happened to my Uncle Rich. Nobody knows what happened to the cat.”
When Jackson’s cause of death is officially determined, his case would be the sixth Irma-related death in Miami-Dade County. Police had not released the name of the man found Sept. 14 where the water had flooded across South Bayshore Drive, depositing heaps of trash, boat pieces and seaweed. But a law enforcement source confirmed it was Jackson.
“I think it is sad and I’m shocked that he died that way,” said Jackson’s daughter, Amy Gagnon, a social worker in Melbourne. “They had animal-friendly shelters and I don’t know why he didn’t evacuate. But then he would be homeless because his boat was destroyed.”
Anchorage residents who dock their dinghies at Dinner Key remembered “Ditch Rich” as one of the fiercely independent free spirits who lived a simple life on the water.
“He was a good guy,” said Paul Hartford, who lives on a 27-foot Ranger sailboat. “He was not one of the shady characters living on a piece-of-crap trash boat.”
Hartford said he saved the life of an Anchorage neighbor by convincing him to join him at a hotel.
“He was going to end up dead, because his boat sank immediately,” said Hartford, who moved his own boat to a protected spot. “It would have been insane to stay out there. The boats were ripped to pieces.”
Jackson lived on his boat for at least 25 years. He went ashore to buy food or get medical treatment at the VA Hospital. He was a reclusive genius who loved to read, Styles said.
“It was his nature that he didn’t want to conform to the expectations of normal society, and he never understood why people couldn’t just accept him for being different,” said Styles, a nurse in Cincinnati. “He had an alcohol problem but in recent years he sounded pretty good.
“He’d call me in the winter and say, ‘So what’s the temperature?’ And I’d say it was 30 degrees and raining and he’d say, ‘Well, it’s 80 here.’”
Styles read a Miami Herald article about another live-aboard resident, fisherman Andres Lopez, who attempted to ride out Irma on his boat but swam ashore when it capsized. He was desperate to find his friend Richard. Styles figured that was her uncle, who had talked about his “Cuban friend” when he was securing extra lines in preparation for Irma.
Jackson and Styles grew up in San Mateo, California. She was adopted by his parents — her grandparents — so she called him her “bruncle.” He liked to take apart motorcycle and car engines. He was expected to run the family printing business in Half Moon Bay but joined the Army instead, where he was a helicopter mechanic.
Jackson’s daughter, Gagnon, said he left her and her mother when she was a toddler. They were not close.
“I met him once when I was 10 and he was driving from California to the Keys,” she said. “He looked like he belonged on a Harley. He had long hair, a big beard and a beer belly. He had a great laugh. He laughed with everything he had.”
She said she last spoke to him two years ago.
“My mom said he was an alcoholic but they had sort of reconciled and were talking regularly on the phone,” Gagnon said. “He was a really smart guy who took the anti-establishment path. I wish I had gotten to know him better.”
Jackson managed to survive other hurricanes, Styles recalled.
“After one of them, somebody found his cat in the water,” she said. “He told me they brought it to him wrapped in a towel. He was overjoyed to be reunited with that cat.”