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Dead End 

How could a life full of so much promise wind up on the streets?

She was spiritual, intelligent, and incredibly generous. She had a degree in literature and was known for always having a good book on hand. She was a woman without vices who was strongly opposed to drinking
and drugs.

She was an unusually beautiful woman with flawless skin, striking blue eyes, and an almost palpable confidence, which allowed her to achieve goals that women in the past had been denied.

She was a loyal wife who helped her husband succeed in his career and a loving mother who devoted herself to raising their four children and volunteering in the community. It was the life Sharon Ostman had always dreamed of. But it would never fully be realized.

click to enlarge ON THE SCENE:  Investigators remove Sharon Ostmans body from SLO creek on July 11. - PHIL KLEIN
  • PHIL KLEIN
  • ON THE SCENE: Investigators remove Sharon Ostmans body from SLO creek on July 11.

#For the last 20 years of her life Sharon Ostman would wander the streets of San Luis Obispo, weathered, disheveled, and confused, trying to negotiate the lonely and homeless world of forgotten alcoholics, dangerous drug addicts, and sexual misfits. It is testimony to her spirit that she survived that long.

Dawn was just breaking on July 11, 2005, when Sharon's half-naked body was discovered partially submerged in San Luis Obispo Creek. There were marks that showed blunt force trauma to her head, bruises over much of her body, her teeth smashed, her tongue split, and her mouth filled with blood. She had been physically battered, sexually assaulted, and brutally murdered. Sharon Ostman was 59. Whoever killed her has yet to be caught.

 

Sharon's last day

The account of Sharon's murder this past summer rippled through the street community like a deadly disease.

Especially hard hit was her longtime friend Eddie Simmer, a local resident who befriends and assists the homeless.

"We got real close over the last 10 years," Eddie said, as his eyes became misty. "Every morning I would wake her up and we would go for coffee."

Just after daybreak on July 10, Eddie and Sharon went to the Downtown Centre Starbucks to enjoy their morning coffee. As they left, Sharon handed an envelope to Denver Hoffman, a friend who only months before had also been homeless.

"She had placed a five-dollar bill behind the Starbucks gift certificate in the envelope." Denver said. "She was always trying to pay for my coffee."

Sharon then walked up to Scolari's, where she purchased a large box of doughnuts, apple fritters, and bear claws, and then walked down to the post office, where she ran into Doctor John, a local street musician.

"She gave me a big box of doughnuts," said John. "It was the first thing she ever gave me."

John said it wasn't long after that when he saw Sharon get into a violent argument with a homeless man over religion. Sharon was known to be passionate about her religious beliefs.

For most of that day, Sharon was seen sitting on the green metal bench in front Jamba Juice holding one of many small cardboard signs she carried that described her situation.

Later that night at about 9 p.m., Sharon asked Eddie to join her while she treated a couple of young transient men to dinner at Woodstocks Pizza.

Sharon never had much money, but she had received a large disability check not long before she died. Friends claim that she was in possession of between $1,000 and $2,500 the night she was savagely murdered.

However, police say they found very little money on Sharon's body the morning of July 11, the day she was found.

"After dinner she wanted to hold hands and pray that the two boys would be kept warm," Eddie said. "I'm not spiritual, but I would pray with her because she wanted me to."

At 11 p.m., Sharon and Eddie agreed to meet for coffee in the morning and said their goodbyes. It was the last time Eddie would see Sharon alive.

 

Growing up

Sharon Ostman was born Aug. 23, 1945, in the state of Washington near the southern tip of Puget Sound. A mishap with forceps during her birth produced a substantial scar on her cheek. According to her aunt, Sharon endured 30 to 40 radiation treatments during the first few years of her life in attempts to reduce the scarring.

When Sharon was 5, she, along with her mother, father, and two sisters, moved to Paradise, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"She was a cute and feisty child; an extrovert with a beautiful singing voice," her sister Vivian said. "When she was 5 a teacher asked our parents to let her make a record, and they did."

During this time, her father, Ike, worked as a journeyman pipe fitter, a job that required his family to move repeatedly throughout Northern California. Her mother Annie worked intermittently as a grocery-store meat packer. Sharon attended eight different elementary schools.

In 1955 Ike and Annie divorced. Annie took custody of Sharon and her two sisters. She soon remarried and had four more children, three sons and another daughter, during Sharon's early teenage years.

Vivian said Sharon planned to work as an architect someday, but at Shasta High School in Redding girls were forbidden to take mechanical drawing. Sharon would not be deterred nor denied; she petitioned the school board to allow her to take the class and became the school's first female mechanical drawing student.

After she graduated from high school in 1964, she entered Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, where she studied architecture, took private classical singing lessons, and majored in literature, in which she eventually received her degree.

In 1970 Sharon married a man whom she met while staying with her father in Chico. His name is Robert, though he preferred not to use his last name for this article.

 

Problems

click to enlarge CAT LOVER:  Sharon visiting with family members in Northern California. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OSTMAN FAMILY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OSTMAN FAMILY
  • CAT LOVER: Sharon visiting with family members in Northern California.

#Sharon and Robert were married for 14 years and lived on the Central Coast. During this time, she and Robert had four children, two girls and two boys. She devoted herself to her family. Robert became a teacher at a nearby junior college and Sharon often typed his class lectures.

Robert said, "For 14 years we had a great marriage. She was a wonderful, giving woman; she helped me get my master's and assisted me in my career."

Along the way, though, troubles were brewing. In 1973, Sharon's mother Annie collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital. Annie died of lung cancer a short time later later. In 1975, her brother Bruce was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was 19. Both of these major losses in her life hit Sharon extremely hard, Vivian said, which may have contributed to the collapse of her marriage.

"Then, boom, it was like an explosion," Robert said. "One day everything was different. I was afraid to leave her home alone with the kids. One time I found her swinging one of our children by their hair."

Around 1984, Robert filed for divorce and the battle over the children began.

"The custody fight cost me everything I had," Robert said. "Sharon couldn't take care of the kids. If I had to do it again, I would just grab them and run."

Sharon lost custody of her children and a house she had purchased shortly after her divorce. She left the Central Coast and went north to work as a laborer and began drifting from job to job. She camped in hotel rooms, slept in her truck, or stayed at her sister's home in Northern California on weekends.

It was during these visits with her brothers and sister when they began to realize that something was seriously wrong.

"Sharon would at times become psychotic and paranoid," said her brother Ted Blankenheim, who lives in Shasta. "She was delusional, but never violent."

Sharon would become agitated and cut short her visits with family when they would plead with her to seek help. She found therapy and counseling oppressive and was deeply opposed to taking medications for any reason.

When Vivian began to pressure her to have treatment, Sharon stuck her thumb out, caught a ride from a truck driver, and left California in 1985, beginning a pattern that she would follow for the rest of her life.

She camped in Florida for a few months and then hitched a ride to Boston. She slept in the residence hall of a church where she had been volunteering. For six months her family had no idea where she was, and for five years they had little contact as she continued to drift throughout the country, her family said.

In 1990 Sharon returned to California, and with the assistance of a social worker agreed to sign up for disability, as long as it was under the guise of post-traumatic stress disorder or work-related injuries and not mental illness.

Though there is a strong history of schizophrenia in the family, Sharon refused the diagnoses, Ted said. "Her life was filled with wonderful moments, but it was a nightmare, also."

 

The streets of SLO

In 1995, Sharon settled on the streets of San Luis Obispo. For about eight years she regularly camped out by a small creek, below a tall palm tree next to French Hospital. She claimed that the land belonged to her.

She roped off a kitchen and regularly weeded what she considered to be her homestead. Eventually the security guards at French Hospital grew impatient with her claim, and Sharon was removed from the property and arrested for trespassing, her friends said.

Continuously looking for places to camp, Sharon attempted more than once to sleep on the memorial bench that sits behind the Marsh Street parking structure.

"The police wouldn't let her sleep there," Eddie said. "They kept running her off. Sharon knew it was dangerous down at the Mission, but she couldn't sleep anywhere else."

Friends say Sharon feared hanging out or sleeping in Mission Plaza - too many strung-out meth addicts and dopers.

Her family and friends often expressed frustration at not being able to reach her with the help she desperately needed.

"I would try to get her to stay with me, but she wanted to be by herself," Eddie said. "Sharon liked the streets; it was her home. When it rained, I would go find her and only then would she agree to stay at my place."

When Sharon became ill or frightened, which was often, she would travel north to see her brothers and sister and restock her wardrobe with outfits they had purchased for her. At the same time, Sharon resisted any efforts her family made to provide a roof over her head.

"She was afraid of being trapped somewhere," Vivian said. "Our attempts to get her into housing would always end up with Sharon becoming upset and leaving."

The family attempted to have Sharon committed numerous times into a facility where she would be safe and warm and receive the medical help she desperately needed. But unless people are classified as a danger to themselves or others, the law states, they must agree to hospitalization, and Sharon would not, her family said.

"We wanted desperately to get her off the streets, but we couldn't," Ted said. "Where is the cure for this?"

When the weather in SLO would become particularly nasty, Sharon would either rent a hotel room or seek shelter in the home of a charitable city resident or a friend.

"She would come here when she didn't feel good about being outside," said Nancy Griffin, who would often provide Sharon with a place to sleep, shower, and wash her clothes. "She would call this a safe place."

Another safe place was the downtown Christian Science Reading Room, which Sharon visited two or three days a week.

During her life on the streets in SLO, Sharon was arrested several times; mostly for trespassing and picking up wood to build a campfire. A few weeks before her murder the police picked Sharon up in an agitated state and took her for a short stay at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

"She was sent to mental health facilities several times," Vivian said. Sharon's longest period of treatment occurred after she made a visit to then Governor Deukmejian's office and accused the state of stealing her property. A ruckus ensued and state police transported Sharon to a Sacramento mental health facility.

After two weeks, She was released, drugged and disoriented, onto the streets of Sacramento. Ted said it was fortunate she was able to remember the family phone number.

"She did not know where she was and she was afraid," Ted said. "She was never institutionalized long enough to get her on the proper medication."

Sharon suffered from numerous delusions, including fears that the government had devices that constantly tracked her movements, the Diablo sirens were sending her signals, and the Russians were after her.

However, Sharon's greatest fear was that she would be murdered by one of several men she claimed were after her, her friends said.

 

The investigation

It's been six months since Sharon Ostman's murder, and San Luis Obispo police still don't have any suspects.

"We have a number of very possible motives," said Allison Martinez, lead investigator with SLOPD. "When you have an unlimited suspect base it makes it incredibly difficult to solve the case."

Police bristle at accusations that little is being done because it's just another homeless homicide.

"Just the fact that it was a sexual assault homicide in the center of town, next to the Mission, makes it very concerning," said Sergeant Chris Staley. "A person with those capabilities might be able to do it again." Police Chief Deborah Linden pointed out that as many as 20 detectives have been involved in the case. Many have worked days and nights and weekends, she said, missing their children's school events and family celebrations, traveling from state to state, interviewing witnesses and "people of interest."

Lab results in the case seem to be a bone of contention. Linden said police are at the mercy of the state's overloaded crime lab in Richmond. Though detectives have taken samples of DNA from 40 suspects, police said the lab has not had time to process all the samples nor has it finished processing all the crime scene evidence. Police say it's a matter of who in California has the best possible case that determines lab result priority.

But state crime lab officials claim that they quickly processed all the samples they received on Sharon's case due to the nature of the crime.

"We completed all our work to date on this case back in October, said Gary Sims, case work laboratory director with the Jan Bashinski State Crime Laboratory. "This case was not shelved."

Detective Martinez in response insists that the crime lab is mistaken.

SLO police hope that DNA results will identify the killer, or killers. If not, they hope it's in the form of a confession. Which is why police have not released the cause of Sharon's death, nor the manner in which the crime was committed. They say that would jeopardize their investigation. The autopsy report shows no gun or knife was used in the assault, but there were blunt injuries to the head and major bruises to the body.

Family and friends of Sharon Ostman say the police were slow in coming. Ted says many family members tried to contact police, but were initially ignored.

And Nancy Griffin called the police shortly after the murder and explained that she knew Sharon and that she could give contact information on her family.

"The police said they had already contacted the family," Griffin said. "Sharon's friend Denver told police we had a better picture of Sharon than the mugshot they were using in the paper, but members of the department did not respond back to us."

Nancy also had a duffel bag full of Sharon's writings and other belongings, which was eventually picked up by her daughter. It wasn't until a few weeks ago when Martinez finally stopped by Griffin's house for an interview.

When asked why it took so long to respond, Chief Linden said, "It's a matter of just having way more work and way more leads than we have time and investigators to do. Anything like this you can't get to everyone in a timely manner that would like to be talked to."

Police aren't the only detectives looking for clues. A close-knit, shocked, and frightened street community has done some sleuthing on their own. Many street people told New Times that Sharon would often clash with the homeless drug addicts and was afraid to sleep anywhere near Mission Plaza, where the meth freaks gathered.

They also mentioned that Sharon was physically strong and quite feisty. Eddie said it would have taken a lot to bring her down. Some on the street think Sharon was attacked by two people.

While a lot of names have been mentioned and theories cast, one consensus is that Sharon was killed by a dangerous speed freak with a chain who goes by the name of Roger. Some say Roger has threatened to kill anyone who spoke to the police regarding the murder. Word from the street is that police are just now looking into it.

Immediately following the discovery of Sharon's body, police solicited help from the media and the public as to her identity. Many residents from all over the county came forward to share their encounters with the generous and wandering woman who had become somewhat of a fixture downtown. But nobody really knew her, how she got here, or where she came from. Nobody except her four children, ex-husband, sister, and two brothers, most of whom claim many of their initial calls to police went unheeded.

Soon after Sharon's murder police posted a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction of the killer. So far, no one has come forward. And police have little to go on. Detective Martinez does not know if Sharon's attacker has already been questioned.

"Sharon Ostman was killed in a brutal fashion," said Chief Linden, who maintains her investigators are still doing everything possible.

Eddie Simmer sure hopes so, if only to arrest the fear that still exists on the streets.

He said the last time he saw Sharon she told him, "I'll see you tomorrow."

Simmer returned the next morning to find police swarming the area where Sharon planned to sleep, soon to discover that the woman found murdered in the creek turned out to be his best friend.

"She had a heart of gold and she didn't deserve this," Simmer said. "She was benign; she would never hurt anybody."

 

Intern Karen Velie can be reached through Managing Editor King Harris at

kharris@newtimesslo.com.

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