The life and death of Red, Miami courthouse character and Internet meme

Brett Heinzinger, in a mugshot that became an internet meme.
Brett Heinzinger, in a mugshot that became an internet meme. Miami-Dade Corrections

Outside Miami’s criminal courthouse, he was known to many only as “Red” the panhandler, a distinctive character woven into the colorful fabric of the justice community, as much a fixture as attorneys, hot-dog carts and TV news trucks.

On the Internet, his wild, woolly and wall-eyed mugshot made him a briefly viral meme to be mocked or, oddly enough, the face of an online ad hawking a dubious blood-pressure cure.

In real life, he was a 34-year-old named Brett Heinzinger, a man whose only luck seemed bad. He was born to heroin addicts, heard his grandfather murdered as a child, got addicted to drugs as a young man and wound up in South Florida chasing his next cocaine score and living under an overpass.

He died here, too — run down by a motorist on a dark rainy January night on Northwest 12th Avenue, under the Dolphin Expressway, next to the courthouse. The car never stopped. Next to him, Miami detectives found the foam cup he used to panhandle, seven pennies inside.

Detectives have few clues, no suspects, no surveillance video of the crime and little hope of finding his killer.

“His life was one series of traumatic events after another,” said his uncle, James Heinzinger of Manassas, Virginia.

His life was one series of traumatic events after another.

James Heinzinger, uncle of Brett Heinzinger

The loss of the homeless man has quietly resonated at the courthouse.

Defense lawyer Brian Kirlew, who sometimes bought him food from the restaurants near Jackson Memorial Hospital, learned his sad backstory in roadside chats.

“He hadn’t been in contact with his family, and I offered to help him find them through Facebook. He thought it was cool, but he never followed back up,” Kirlew said. “I had never taken the time to befriend the homeless before, and then I met Red. You realize how human they are, and how addiction hits people in different ways.”

A chaotic childhood

Heinzinger was raised in suburban New York to heroin-addicted parents. His younger sister was born mildly mentally disabled. His grandmother took them in for stretches. Then came a series of foster homes before an aunt, Margaret Neforos, adopted him when he was about 8 years old.

By then, relatives say his father had died of a heroin overdose, his mother of other medical complications.

It was not long after, in 1992, that Neforos’ ex-boyfriend, Patrick Grant, broke into the family’s house and stabbed Heinzinger’s grandfather to death as the boy listened upstairs. Grant also stabbed Neforos more than a dozen times, leaving a piece of the knife lodge in her brain.

“He heard everything that happened,” Neforos said. “He would never talk about it. I tried for years after that, but he would never talk about it.”

His aunt survived, but young Brett returned to foster care until she recovered. To spare the boy from enduring a trial, the family agreed to a prosecutor’s proposal of a plea deal of 23 years. Grant will be out next year, prison records show.

The family eventually moved to Virginia, where Heinzinger — diagnosed with attention deficit disorder — enrolled in special-education classes. Tall and chubby with one lazy eye, soft-spoken and polite, he was an easy target. “He has those wild eyes,” James Heinzinger said. “He got a lot of mocking about that, even as a child.”

As a teen, Heinzinger took a job for a time bagging groceries. But more and more, he rebelled at home, relatives say, refusing to clean his room, taking to the streets, using drugs and collecting porn magazines. Sometimes, he told his aunt about hearing voices, although he was never diagnosed with any mental illness.

He soon joined Job Corps, the federal vocational program for at-risk youth. That didn’t last long. He headed to the streets.

“He was a good kid but he just didn’t want anyone telling him what to do,” Neforos said. “It was almost like he liked being homeless.”

Eventually he joined a traveling carnival, his family said, which is how he ended up in South Florida.

From Miami streets to meme

Nick Spill, a defense investigator at Miami’s criminal courthouse, was browsing a British news site one day before work in December. His eyes wandered to the “click-bait” ads at the bottom of the page, the kind that promise shocking celebrity photos, hair-restoration secrets and pictures of a snarling schnauzer with the caption, “22 dog breeds most likely to turn on their owners!”

And there was a photo of Heinzinger, eyes red and askew, face seared pink from the sun, red beard full, hair atop his head not. He was the face for a site touting, “The 4 Worst Blood Pressure Drugs.”

“I was like, ‘How did this guy appear on here?’ ” Spill recalled. “It was clearly a jail mugshot. How are they using his photo? It was shocking.”

In fact, the photo was a mugshot — he’d had dozens taken over the years — but this one, snapped in 2012, somehow went viral. It also wound up appearing on a website called “1000 Ugly People,” with a cruel caption about his wandering eye: “I see you! And you, too.”

The ad was for a Texas company called The Blood Pressure Solution, which hawks “natural” drug-free treatment way to lower blood pressure. The company did not return calls or emails about how they’d picked the photo or whether they’d tried to identify, contact or pay their model.

Told of the photo outside court days before he died, Heinzinger said he knew nothing of the ad or his meme before riding off on his bicycle. “Sometimes people like to take pictures of me,” he said — his voice as distinctive as his shock of red hair, unexpectedly high for a gangly man, not unlike the voice of tough guy boxer Mike Tyson.

The daily courthouse parade

Miami’s criminal-justice complex — court, the main jail and offices of prosecutors and public defenders — lies in the heart of the city, wedged between the river and the sprawling blocks that house Jackson Memorial and other hospitals.

Right after lunch, it’s not uncommon to see defendants, still wearing jail-issue flip-flops, stream happily down the courthouse steps, released from custody because their minor criminal cases were resolved. Many are transient and find ways to leave the neighborhood.

Others, like Heinzinger, stay close. Northwest 12th Avenue, between the Dolphin Expressway off-ramp and 14th Street, has had other familiar homeless faces. Many people knew an older woman named Mary, who died a few years ago of a heart attack.

“Everybody here is like family,” said Leonardo Fernandez, 52, a homeless man who slept under the overpass next to Heinzinger, when not being chased off by police. “There’s Wolf. That skinny guy is Steve. And Red. Everyone knew Red.”

Heinzinger, who used to roam Little Havana, staked out the area after Mary died and also was sometimes called “Leprechaun.” Like many of the other homeless people who populate downtown Miami, Heinzinger tried to make extra money helping the hot-dog vendors set up each morning, or guarding the cars of lawyers parked in the municipal lot.

Prosecutor Adam Korn sometimes bought him sandwiches or gave him money.

“Anybody who works in the area, we saw him every morning when we got there, every evening when we left. He was a guy we got to know from a distance. And unfortunately, for those of us who worked in the criminal justice system, we often saw him when he got arrested.”

He was no stranger inside the jail or court either. In all, cops arrested him 60 times since 2004, almost always for “aggressive panhandling.” Most of the time, prosecutors gave him credit for jail time served or dropped the charges all together.

Despite his scary look and the chronic arrests, many who interacted with him — even the Miami detective now tasked with solving his death — described him as harmless and mild, even on the streets.

“We used to ask him to get out of the road so he wouldn’t get hit, and he would nod his head, give a little salute and get off the street,” said traffic homicide Detective Joseph Kennedy. “We never had a problem.”

He added: “He was a down-to-earth guy. He’d sit there and talk to you. He’d tell you about his past, and how he grew up.”

He counted as a person. He was a human being. He was born somebody’s baby.

Lydia Martinez, a probation officer

Even if courthouse regulars didn’t really know Heinzinger, many knew of him. He was Red. Homeless, not faceless.

Lydia Martinez, a probation officer based in court, knew him only by sight. When she heard of his death, she called the Florida Department of Transportation and downloaded an application for a roadside memorial. Within weeks, she and Kennedy saw to it that a small round white-and-black aluminum sign was installed near where he died. “Drive Safely, In Memory of Brett Heinzinger.”

“He counted as a person. He was a human being. He was born somebody’s baby,” Martinez said. “We remember Red. We’ll always remember him.”