Willie Ray Young smiled from ear to ear Wednesday, and for good reason.
Days earlier, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office dismissed a theft charge against the neighborhood “junkman” known as “Pappa,” who had been accused in August of stealing items from the scene of a fatal house fire on Rockdale Road.
“After reviewing the facts and circumstances of the case, it was dismissed in the interest of justice,” Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Graham Norris said in an email. “I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Young, 76, was out on $1,500 bail after being charged with theft of $500 to $1,500, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
He had never been arrested in his life.
“I had never even spit on a sidewalk,” Young said Wednesday from his home in south Fort Worth. “And here I am, 76 years old, and I get arrested for stealing. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t even go through my wife’s purse.”
Young said the items were junk.
He acknowledged that he took a washer, a dryer, eight pieces of thin-metal pipe and a rusted barbecue grill from the home during the weekend of Aug. 15-16.
“I saw the firetrucks headed to that neighborhood,” Young said. The Fort Worth man lives about nine blocks from the Rockdale home. “But I didn’t go down there that day.”
David Ramirez, 9, died in the fire Aug. 14 from inhaling smoke and carbon monoxide, authorities said.
No reason to steal
Young drove to the neighborhood Aug. 15 and saw the washer and dryer in a pile of debris on a curb. Using his dolly, he loaded the two appliances onto his 1995 GMC truck, but he never entered the burned home.
“I scooped them up from the pile, and it looked like they had been damaged in the fire,” Young said. “I was going to take them home to see if they worked. If they did, I was going to give them away to people who might need them. If they didn’t, I was going to sell them for junk. I tested them and they didn’t work.”
Young, who has been a self-proclaimed junkman for 13 years, returned to the house the morning of Aug. 16 and sifted through the debris. He pulled out the pipes and put them in his truck.
“I saw this barbecue grill near the pile, and the bottom of it had rotted out,” he said. “So I loaded that in the truck.”
Young said he was two or three blocks away when he stopped to tie down the pipes. He drove off again but was stopped by patrol officers a few minutes later.
“The officer asked me where I got the stuff, and I told them that I got them from people and that I’d gotten some stuff from the burned-out house,” Young said.
He said he also noted that no crime scene tape was at the scene. Police arrested him after a resident called to report seeing a man stealing items from the home.
Young and his family spent almost $400 to make his bail and to retrieve his impounded truck. Getting it back took about three weeks, he said.
“I don’t have a reason to steal,” Young said Wednesday. “People give me too much stuff as it is.”
Still a junkman
Dozens of relatives and neighbors rallied to help Young and his family.
“He’s an honest person who just goes around the neighborhood picking up stuff. He sees if he can fix it and then gives it to people who night need it,” Pat Tomerlin of Fort Worth, who has known Young for more than five years, said in an August interview.
For weeks, Young didn’t know what would happen in his case, but he got good news last week at a hearing.
“I thanked God,” Young said. “My name has been tarnished because of all this, but I couldn’t be where I am today without the help of my neighborhood.”
Young said Wednesday that he is still waiting to get back items that were in his truck, about $70 worth of copper, two car batteries and other junk that he estimated was worth more than $300.
Fort Worth police detectives are working on it, Young said.
Young has resumed his junking career.
“The lesson I learned: Don’t pick up burned items,” Young said. “But I’m still going around the neighborhood and cleaning it up by picking up junk.”