Mark Rye was a gentle soul and a voracious reader. But his alcohol addiction might have led to his death as he lay outside on a night when temperatures plunged to the low 20s.
An autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death for Rye, a transient found dead in his sleeping bag outside a Grass Valley business Monday morning.
Toxicology reports have been ordered, but they can take four to 10 weeks, said Nevada County Coroner Paul Schmidt.
Rye was found dead in an alcove of a building in the 2000 block of Nevada City Highway with a sleeping bag over him.
Empty containers of alcoholic beverages were nearby, but it was not clear whether Rye had been drinking or whether they were containers he had collected for recycling, Grass Valley Police Capt. Dave Remillard said.
Rye was a frequent visitor to Eco Community Thrift Store in Grass Valley, said owners Debra Kiva and Curt Smith.
"He would be at the store from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., sometimes, just helping out," Smith said. "He was just a real sweet person. It's a tragedy."
Rye - who had a big black beard and long hair - could appear intimidating, Kiva said.
"But he was such a gentle soul," Kiva said. "He read a book a day; he was very, very smart ... He loved sci-fi, anything about dragons ... He read everything. I learned a lot from knowing Mark."
Rye was always friendly and talkative and was "quite the traveler," Kiva added.
"We tried to figure out ways for him to stay somewhere, not on the streets," she said. The couple had given Rye a tent when his fell apart in the rain.
Right before Christmas, Smith helped Rye locate his brother in Illinois, Kiva said. Although Rye told Smith he did reach his brother, he didn't provide any details of their conversation.
Grass Valley resident Bret Burns had a haunting encounter with Rye on Sunday night.
"My wife and I drove through the B&C parking lot and saw a homeless man holding up a sign that said 'Help,'" Burns wrote in an e-mail to The Union. "We parked next to him, rolled down the window, introduced ourselves, and asked how we could help him."
Rye told them he was a Vietnam veteran, Burns said.
"He said that he was hungry, so we gave him $10," Burns wrote. "He was shivering from the cold, so I asked him if we could give him a ride to the Hospitality House, but he declined the offer, stating he had a hard time being around people and loud noises, and that he also liked to drink too much. I asked him if he would stop drinking for the night so he could get a warm place to sleep, and again he declined."
Burns came forward because he wanted the community to know that Rye "was a real person with real needs, with real blood running through his veins," he said. "He was really no different than anyone else. I'm reminded that we are all a paycheck away from being just like Mark."
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.