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UPDATE: Police release ID of man who likely died of exposure

FARGO – A man whose body was found here Thursday afternoon is believed to have frozen to death, which would make it the area’s first death in six years from exposure to harsh winter weather.

Police on Friday identified the man as Randy Lee LaFontaine, 48, no permanent address.

Police had a preliminary identification of the man Thursday evening and were working to notify next of kin before releasing his name publicly, Lt. Joel Vettel said.

The last known death due to exposure was in January 2008 when the body of 43-year-old Vernon Weigand was found on the sidewalk in front of the bishop’s residence at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Broadway.

Weigand, a known alcoholic, died shortly before the Gladys Ray Shelter opened in March 2008 at 1519 1st Ave. S. Gladys Ray is the only shelter in the region that allows homeless people who have been drinking to stay the night.

Vettel said police received a report about 1:30 p.m. of a body found under a flatbed pickup outside a commercial building at 1902 1st Ave. S., about three blocks from the Gladys Ray Shelter.

Officers found no signs of trauma and do not suspect foul play, he said.

Jan Eliassen, director of the Gladys Ray Shelter, said Thursday that no one had been turned away from the shelter recently and she did not know of anyone who might have been trying to reach the shelter.

Eliassen said the shelter has remained open 24 hours to ensure anyone in need of a place to go can be helped during the recent bitter temperatures – daily highs well below zero many days.

Police believe the man was dead for several hours or more and most likely froze to death, Vettel said, though they can’t be sure until an autopsy is performed.

Officers remained at the scene well into Thursday evening trying to establish a timeline of the man’s death and preserve the integrity of what they still considered a crime scene.

Vettel said it is too early to tell if hypothermia played a role in the man’s death, but it is a theory that may account for why the man was found with his pants down.

Hypothermia can cause confusion and a victim may feel extremely warm instead of cold.

Vettel said officers will examine autopsy and toxicology reports.

He said metro shelters have done a good job making sure the homeless can find shelter in extreme weather, a concern officials agree is a primary one during the winter months.

Besides metro shelters such as Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, Gladys Ray and the New Life Center in Fargo, metro churches and the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons have been sheltering about 16 men in churches each night since November.

“It’s the third winter the churches have participated, so everybody is really well-practiced at it,” said John Roberts, shelter operations director for Churches United.

Two residents in the neighborhood where the body was found Thursday said they haven’t noticed a lot of homeless people sleeping in the area.

“I didn’t even know there was a homeless shelter around here,” said Maddie Herman, who lives close to where the man was found.

If any of the shelters cannot accept someone for some reason, the homeless organizations have a plan for transportation to an appropriate shelter.

“We try to make sure we know where everybody is headed,” Eliassen said. “That’s a fear we have every day, that anyone trying to make it to us can’t get here.”

Some homeless may choose not to seek shelter. A month before Weigand’s body was found, the body of 52-year-old Homer G. Childs was found in a bus shelter in Moorhead. Childs was a homeless veteran known to not use the aid of local shelters. Autopsy reports indicated he died of hypothermia.

Roberts said while there are not many, there are still some folks who do not seek shelter in the winter.

Laurie Baker, executive director of the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons, said those people may not feel comfortable at shelters or they may suffer from a mental illness crisis and pose a threat to other residents.

“Sometimes for the safety of a majority, an individual has to leave,” Baker said. “When that happens, the police are alerted, but they can’t put somebody in jail just because they are a danger to themselves.”

She said those cases point to an underlying problem that must be addressed: helping those with mental illness.

“Until we do a better job of serving people with serious mental illness, we will have people that will stay outside because either it’s the only place they can stay or the only place they feel comfortable,” Baker said.

Baker said news of the man’s death would be felt throughout the community.

“It has a tremendous impact on the homeless community when someone dies like this,” she said.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates about 700 homeless or people at risk of being homeless die by hypothermia each year.

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