In fictionland, the investigator from the medical examiner's office might be Quincy and the cop, perhaps, Columbo. Then there's the requisite nosy, bothersome "close friend" of the "victim." But you can't make up reality, where the M.E.'s office is up to its gills and the homicide cop is busy looking for whoever killed that other cop. In real life, close friends aren't incidental characters who exist just to make others miserable and to provide comic relief. And during his 25 years of life, rock-and-roll guitarist Ed Stokes had friends.
Bill Henry was a close one. He recorded with Stokes and others as Psychic Fair. Apart from his rootish, neo-psych rock endeavors, Henry is a veteran massage therapist, a psychology student at FIU, and a pizza deliveryman. Nonetheless, when it came to the mysterious death of Ed Stokes, Bill Henry also found time to play the roles of Quincy and Columbo.
"I've known Ed since 1987," Henry says. "We talked a lot, jammed a lot. Psychic Fair was basically me and him. When I found out about his death, I decided to do my own investigation." At one point, Henry suspected foul play. He says that the last time the two spoke, on December 20, Stokes did not complain about any illness, but adds that Stokes had survived a few bouts with drug abuse. "Please tell me it wasn't an O.D.," Henry said in early January.
But no one could or would tell him much of anything. There was no death certificate. Other information was woefully vague. Where was the body? What would become of Stokes's remains? Where were his personal possessions? The biggest question of all: Who was the next of kin? Though Stokes died on January 2, it would be days before answers were found. Bill Henry was trying to do just that.
So was Metro-Dade police homicide detective Tom Romagni. When someone who is under a doctor's care dies, such as in a hospital, the physician signs a death certificate, listing the cause and relevant details. But Stokes wasn't being treated for anything, investigators weren't immediately aware of any health problems, so his death became what cops call "unattended" or "unclassified." In such instances, detectives conduct an investigation on behalf of the medical examiner's office. "That doesn't mean there's any foul play involved," Romagni cautions. "The homicide department acts as an agent for the medical examiner's office, doing the Quincy sort of work. We look for signs of foul play, drug abuse." In the Stokes case, the detective says, there was nothing suspicious. All the evidence pointed to illness. "He was sick for a very long time," Romagni says. "Apparently he had a lung disorder, and his general health wasn't good."
Stokes was born in New York on May 20, 1966. When his father, Ed, a radio announcer, died in the early Seventies, Stokes's mother, Susan, took her son and moved south. Stokes attended Cooper City High and played in the school band, and then studied for a semester at Broward Community College. From 1987 to August 1990 he played guitar and sang in a band called the Pranksters, which specialized in covers of songs by groups like Cream, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. At the same time Stokes was working with Bill Henry; the loose amalgam that was, and still is, Psychic Fair recorded tracks from 1987 till May 1989, when their eponymous debut album was released. The group also issued a three-song single - featuring "Addicted," "Going Out of Town," and "Rockin' with Mr. Reed" - in April of last year.
"The first time I met him he was hanging out with [guitarist] John Salton," recalls bass player Marco Pettit, who's worked with Charlie Pickett, Psycho Daisies, and others. "I was in the last version of Psycho Daisies and he came to see us play," Pettit continues. "He was a super-nice guy. Maybe he didn't have that many friends because of his weight," Pettit says of Stokes, who weighed 472 pounds when he died. "People are prejudiced against those who are underweight or overweight. But he was a good, undiscovered guitar player, and he definitely could have been a great guitar player. But he didn't have the opportunity or take the opportunity to come out of his shell."
Singer Bob Crespo worked with Stokes in the Pranksters. He says the two met in 1978 in the parking lot of a Pembroke Pines record store. Stokes was standing there with his guitar, playing Cream's "White Room" well, and singing it not quite so well. "I kinda helped him out with it," Crespo recalls. "We always talked about getting a band together, but it didn't happen until years later. I don't know about him being shy. He had a heart that was as big as he was. He was just a really cool guy."
This past winter Stokes had been hanging out at the Pronto Pub in Coconut Grove, where he would play his guitar out on the sidewalk. According to Det. Romagni, the Pub's Jim Cahill attempted to help Stokes, who was living essentially as a homeless person. Cahill, reportedly no longer affiliated with the Pub, could not be reached for comment, but Romagni says Cahill allowed Stokes to sleep at the club and gave him some clean-up work to make a little money. Stokes was ill, and Cahill was concerned, so on New Year's Day he invited Stokes to spend the night at his home. According to Romagni, when Cahill left the house at 8:30 that night, Stokes was sitting on the couch, watching television. Cahill returned after 4:00 a.m. and Stokes was still on the couch. The time of death is listed as 4:45 a.m., but the medical examiner's office says he may have died any time that night. The cause of death, determined later, was bilateral pulmonary thrombolemboli due to phlebothrombosis due to morbid obesity. Blood clots in the lungs, essentially, says Dr. Bruce Allen Hyma of the M.E.'s office. "Obesity is a risk factor. One of the predisposing factors is stagnating blood in the lower extremities. Clots in the deep veins of the legs move into the lungs. He was relatively inactive." Stokes also smoked cigarettes. "He smoked like a chimney, the bastard," says Crespo in a tone more regretful than angry. "That couldn't have helped."
Stokes's body was taken to the M.E.'s office. All Det. Romagni found at the house was a bag of Stokes's laundry and his wallet. "I found about fifteen names on scraps of paper, cards," the homicide cop says. "Ed had many contacts, friends and people he'd met just briefly. But he always wrote the name down with a phone number. With that I started making contact with these people. I felt that by putting out feelers, in some way the news would reach someone who could be helpful."
Although no one he hooked up with was very helpful, the detective's hunch was on the mark. One of the people he called knew Henry and passed along the information that Stokes had died. On January 11 Henry began knocking on doors, placing phone calls, seeking and searching any way he could think of to find out what happened to his friend.
Before long, Henry had located several of Stokes's relatives, including two who could be considered next of kin: an uncle and a half sister.
"I was working on the Bauer murder," Romagni says, referring to North Miami policeman Steve Bauer, who was allegedly gunned down by five bank robbers. "I went to my office and in my phone mail there were five messages, one from Bill, one from Stokes's half sister, and one from his uncle." Henry had located a cousin in New York, who then relayed the bad news to other relatives.
Wendy Austin and Jim Wilk, both of whom live in Broward County, had called Romagni after hearing of the death. "Wendy called me on January 9 or 10," Wilk says. "We learned he was at the Dade County morgue. I called down there and found out who the detective was. I called him a day or two afterwards." He and Stokes were not especially close, he adds. His nephew called about twice a year to say hello. "I got a phone message over Christmas," Wilk says. "We were out of town. He said he was doing okay and that he wanted to wish us a merry Christmas."
Wendy Austin admits that she didn't know her half brother well, either. But she desperately wanted to. "Our father died when Ed was about five. His mother brought him up alone, mostly in Dania or Davie. We lost touch for quite a while. For the past four and a half years, I've been looking very hard for him," she says. "I had a feeling that I was needed, that he needed me. His mother passed away about five years ago. No one ever told me that she passed away. No one told me.
"Maybe I was the black sheep of a dysfunctional family," Austin continues. "My parents split when I was fifteen. Our father died on Friday the 13th in 1971. I saw Ed once by chance. We lived on the same street in Lauderdale Lakes. I never saw him from that last time. I went through musicians exchanges, trying to find him. I had no idea he was homeless. There was no need for it. He told people he had no family. That hurts."
For her, Austin adds, the death of Ed Stokes was a doubling of personal loss. "My mother passed away December 28," she says. "I knew, because of our family background, that Eddie needed somebody. I just knew. Maybe he avoided me because he thought I might force him to do good, I might act like a big sister. And I would have. From the times I talked to him, he was a wonderful, gentle human being, just like his father; gentle and artistic, and that's how I'll always remember him."
Those who knew Ed Stokes better, and wanted to know him longer, have similarly positive things to say. And like Jim Wilk, some came close to seeing him just before he died. "He had called me about ten days before Christmas," says singer Bob Crespo. "He had been living in the Grove, and he said he was bumming big time. He used to do the holidays with the the other members of the Pranksters, but they moved to Puerto Rico. This year he was doing the alone thing, and he was bumming about it." Stokes asked his pal to come visit him. "The next day I was in South Miami, so I went over to the Pronto Pub. There was nobody there. I waited an hour, and left a note telling him to call me. That was it. Two weeks later the detective called me. I thought it was a prank. I said, `Don't do this to me.' But he was serious. As soon as I got off the phone, I got like six calls: `I just got the call, did you?'"
Stokes's body remained at the M.E.'s office for nearly three weeks. Considered an indigent case, he was destined for an anonymous burial in a potter's field. When he found out what was going on, Churchill's Hideaway owner Dave Daniels said he would gladly host a benefit concert to raise funds. Others had the same idea. "We were getting donations together to get things done right," Crespo says. "We had to get 2500 bucks together, and we were halfway there. Then Bill Henry called me, and said the family is taking over."
Case closed? Not quite. "I guess I'm handling the arrangements," Jim Wilk said early last week. "Wendy will transport his cremains to New York as soon as they're ready. I spoke to the M.E. this morning, and they were turning the body over to a funeral home." But this past Wednesday, a spokesman for the Hall, Ferguson, Hewitt mortuary said, "We received him late last night as an indigent case. The morgue released him." This news was relayed to Wendy Austin, who says she reached the funeral home the next day and made it clear that the body was to be cremated. She will take the cremains to New York, where the family owns a plot at the Evergreens Cemetery on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn.
And the case isn't closed for Bill Henry, who's still working on the final mixes of the second Psychic Fair album. "We had booked a session for December 23 to do some mixing," Henry says. "I canceled it because a vocalist couldn't make it. So I figured we'd get to it early this year. I was in the Grove on the 27th and I wanted to stop in and see Eddie, but the Pub wasn't open yet. Now I have to mix a song he wrote and sang.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.