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Life and death of ‘Bus Stop Mary’ shrouded in mystery

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A chronically homeless woman named Natalie Thiel lived at a bus stop outside the headquarters of the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Nimitz Highway near Pearl Harbor for many years, and that is where she is believed to have died earlier this month. The bus stop is no longer there because of construction in the area.

She was known as “Bus Stop Mary” or “Crazy Mary” to the legions of military service members who walked and drove past her every day and night outside the fence line of the headquarters of the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

But she gave her name as “Natalie,” was believed to have a daughter, and lived along Nimitz Highway outside fleet headquarters because she thought the military had her husband locked in a basement inside. That was according to one version shared among retired and active-duty military observers after her death along Nimitz sometime early this month.

In another version, she had spent 30 years living on the sidewalk outside the command headquarters, pining for a dead husband killed in combat.

In nearly all of the remembrances shared on social media, the chronically homeless woman is said to have died on the street around the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument on that most American of holidays, the Fourth of July.

In reality, the truth surrounding the death of the woman who was actually named Natalie Thiel may prove as elusive as the stories that grew around her.

What is clear is that Thiel’s troubled life touched a generation of military serv­ice members who considered her one of their own.

The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office said it has been unable to contact a next of kin for Thiel and, thus, could offer no details on her death, including the day she died or her age. The office declined to say where her body is.

Thiel stood somewhere around 5-foot-8 inches tall and during her better days weighed anywhere between 145 and 160 pounds, according to those familiar with her.

She was known to social service outreach workers who offered her housing. Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, and Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, both knew of her death but did not know exactly when she died.

“She would be there at the bus stop all the time hollering,” said Richard Archer, 63, who first encountered Thiel while serving at then-Hickam Air Force Base before retiring as a master sergeant in 1994 after 20 years. “She never moved from that spot. A lot of times she would wear an overcoat, long pants and boots and sometimes a hat — she usually had a straw hat on.

“A couple of weeks ago we drove past and I told my wife that something’s wrong with her. She was on a cane and looked so frail. She was skin and bones.”

Alexander said Thiel was getting so much help from members of the military community that she saw no reason to accept repeated offers of housing over the years.

He was unable to verify any of the stories circulating about Thiel and said he believes the public’s affection for her over the years — which included providing food and plenty of water — impaired Thiel’s ability to get real help.

“Natalie died on the street,” Alexander said. “People in that area have enabled her to stay on the street, which didn’t help because she kept declining our offers. We tried to move her into a shelter many times and even housing, but she kept deteriorating while people kept bringing her stuff.”

Asked about stories that Thiel had a daughter and a husband and had been living on the sidewalk for 30 years, Alexander wrote in a follow­up email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser:

“From the information that I have, Natalie was never married and did not have any children. We are not aware of any family. We can verify that she was homeless for around 17 years but it is conceivable that her homelessness was much longer. Her stories frequently changed …

“We do know that her condition had been worsening in recent months. She refused to leave the area because people brought her food, water, supplies, even charged her mobile phone, enabling her to live relatively comfortably in an increasingly dangerous (due to construction) and unsheltered — not fit for human habitation — situation.

“I am personally saddened by her passing,” Alexander wrote. “On average, an unsheltered homeless person has a life expectancy that is 20 years less than the norm. Just wrong.”

Thiel clearly had mental health problems. But something about her persistent presence resonated with military members who rotated in and out of Hawaii over the years, Archer said.

“You show up and do three years here and she represented something that was permanent,” he said. “Sometimes she was funny, sometimes irritating, but she was a fixture. I know she was smart. And if it was true that she was waiting for her husband and died on the Fourth of July, that’s a pretty good story.”

Alphonso Braggs, who served 26 years in the Navy and is now a civilian Department of Defense employee at Pearl Harbor, said Thiel was known “to almost everyone here around the base.”

Braggs, president of the Hawaii NAACP, re-posted a Facebook post with an unconfirmed account of Thiel’s background — perhaps more myth than fact — written by a tech sergeant at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center. The Star-Advertiser was unable to contact the tech sergeant for comment.

Whatever the case, it’s clear the homeless woman known as “Bus Stop Mary” made an impression on the military service members she encountered over the years. And whatever the circumstances of her life and death, the tech sergeant said the military claimed Thiel as its own.

“Natalie was one of ours,” he wrote. “May we honor her as such. May she rest in peace. And may she finally discover that after all this time, her husband was waiting to welcome her home.”

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