I always knew we’d find him eventually.
Along with Patch editor Craig Clough and others, for weeks we’ve been searching for Kent Willard, the former owner of Willard’s Florist in Valley Village, since our
We wanted to find him and offer him help, or at least let him know about the strong outpouring of emotion the story received from so many members of the North Hollywood community.
At last we have found him. And not in North Hollywood Park, where he’s been spending most of his time when not haunting NoHo alleyways and strip malls looking for handouts, but in a lockdown mental facility in Rosemead.
Kent has pneumonia and had been treated at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, where he’s known as a "frequent flyer," a patient who checks in and out of hospitals constantly. Nurses there told me Kent wanted to go home, but since he has no home, they weren’t comfortable sending him back to the park, where he nearly died of exposure.
So unlike other times when Kent has gotten up and walked out of the hospital, this time it was determined he was in no condition, either mental or physical, to be discharged. He was sent, against his will, to the BHC Alhambra Hospital in Rosemead, where I met up with him yesterday. He’s there on at least a 72-hour hold, but doctors could extend that if they determine he requires more treatment.
"He was very upset about being moved," said his nurse. "He just kept saying he wanted to go home, he wanted to go home. But, you know, he doesn’t have a home. Then we had to call security because he got very angry."
In Rosemead, Kent seemed very sad and alone as I walked in and found him sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in hospital clothes. He didn’t smile and spoke extremely slowly, apparently highly medicated to compensate for the lack of alcohol in his system. But he expressed great gratitude to me for finding him, and to the Patch readers who responded to our piece with such emotion.
When informed about the level of concern for him expressed by people in the community, not only from friends and family of his, but by the countless people who remembered and adored him from Willard’s Florist, he shook his head, amazed.
"I'm surprised," he said softly. "I'm surprised anyone remembers."
Like Kent, we at Patch were moved by the volume of comments we received from readers and the degree of compassion expressed. Not only did step up to offer him help and reserve him a bed, many readers pledged a new commitment to helping the homeless.
It was a response exemplified by the words of our reader, who wrote, "This article has helped me to have compassion for homeless people. They are human beings with a story – not just bums to ignore."
Seeing that such a fate could befall even Kent Willard, this man so heralded in his community for decades for his generosity, has driven home the message that all the homeless are real people deserving of compassion.
After being with Kent yesterday, I could understand why people in his life have put up with him over these past three years of his homelessness: He’s a very sweet and loving soul, and a sensitive man with a big heart. Unlike others I’ve met in similar conditions, who seem to have little connection with reality, Kent’s mind is sharp, and it’s his awareness of his situation, and his inability to change it, that makes this story especially tragic.
Everyone who knows Kent says the same thing — he is a brilliant and good man who seems unwilling to accept help.
"It would take Jesus or some kind of a miracle for someone to convince him to get off the street and accept help," said his daughter, Katie.
So I asked Kent, point blank, if this were true. Does he want help? Does he want to get off the street?
He paused for a long while, as if contemplating the answer, and then spoke slowly, almost painfully.
"If I could answer that question I would," he said. "This [alcoholism], it’s an insidious disease. I come from a family of drunkards. If I could push a button that would turn it off, I would push it right now."
Sadly, there is no button or easy solution. But there is one ray of hope in this story, and that is his 19-year-old daughter, Katie. As everyone who knows Kent knows, he loves Katie deeply, and that love seems to be what keeps him from giving up.
"You know, she’s gonna be a cop," he said yesterday with palpable pride, referring to the fact that she’s part of the . Her graduation from the first level of the program is taking place at USC on Nov. 20. Kent told me it’s his intention to be there.
"It’s the least I can do for my daughter," he said.
Asked if he could explain what caused his business to close, he looked away and thought for a moment.
"It was a bad situation that got worse," he said. "I have a disease. My wife left me and divorced me and made a lot of demands on me, so I lost my house and my daughter and my store."
I mentioned that Deborah insists they were never married.
"We were," he said, "for 13 years. Then she left me to marry Christian Brando. You have to take a lot of things that Deborah says with a grain of salt."
One of the things that Deborah says is that she is the daughter of Elvis Presley, a claim that a judge threw out in 1988, according to the N.Y. Daily News. The claim has earned her a certain level of infamy in the media after she unsuccsessfully sued to be named as an heir to Elvis' estate.
I asked Kent if he believes that Deborah is the daughter of Elvis Presley, as she claims.
"Yes, I do," he answered. "Her mother spent many months with Elvis in Charlotte back in 1959. She told Deborah that her father was Elvis. She resembles him very much."
Deborah married Christian Brando, the son of Hollywood icon Marlon Brando, in 2004. Christian was convicted of killing his brother-in-law in his father's Hollywood Hills home in 1990 and was sent to prison for five years for voluntary manslaughter. The case made international headlines. A decade and a half later, Brando's name was again connected to an infamous homicide case. In 2005, actor Robert Blake's attorney pointed the finger in court at Christian Brando as the person responsible for the killing of Bonnie Lee Bakley . Blake was acquitted of the crime.
Deborah married Brando in 2004, but divorced him in 2006 after accusing him of spousal abuse. Brando pled no contest to the charges.
Asked if the split with Deborah deepened his problems, Kent said, "It didn’t help."
He also admitted that during his entire marriage to Deborah he was having an affair with one of his employees, and would spend his time either at her home or at his home with Deborah and Katie.
Kent agreed to let me take a few photos of him yesterday, as he did the first time we met. He also let me ask him many personal questions about the road that led him here, but had few words to explain what has become a living nightmare.
"I wish I could tell you how this happened to me," he said. "But I can't."
He seems to share the amazement of those who can’t understand how he fell so far. When I mentioned that Willard’s was an extremely successful business, making many millions of dollars each year, he just shook his head in woeful disbelief and said, "I know. It was."
I told him some of the stories people shared with me of how much they loved Willard’s Florist, and how they raved about his warmth and artistry. He just stared at me while I spoke, and I wasn’t sure if this made him happy or sad. So I asked him.
"Happy," he said very sadly, and looked away.
While searching for Kent over these last weeks, I spoke to many of the people in his life to try and uncover all the aspects of his story, to discern just how it happened. How could such a valued and successful member of our community end up in such a terrible state?
Besides Katie (who reached out to us by commenting on our Patch site), I also spoke to his best friend and former employee Silvia Guandique, and to Deborah Presley Brando, who is Katie’s mother.
Although it does appear Kent and Deborah were never legally married, they did live together with Katie in a house that Kent rented on Valley Spring Lane in Sherman Oaks for 13 years until Deborah left him for Brando in 2004.
"Christian beat her up," Kent said. "So I went for him."
Attempting to settle the score, Kent evidently tried to attack Brando, ending up in jail with a restraining order against him.
Brando died of pneumonia in a city hospital in 2008. Since then Deborah and Katie have moved several times.
"My father is a good soul on a rough road," Katie said. "If he wants help, he should take the first step and admit it. So far he hasn’t done that. And I don’t know if he ever will. But I’m his daughter either way ... He lived with me for my first 13 years. Then he disappeared. Mom says she made him leave, but I don’t know. He came every night, but sometimes he would come and go."
Katie said that watching her father’s downfall was horrific for her.
"My mom said he became homeless before he lost the store," she said. "But I think it was when he lost the store that he became homeless. It was hard to see. I have been around it so many years now I am kind of used to it now. But it was really hard."
When she was growing up, Willard’s Florist was a happy place for her to visit.
"I went there every Sunday," she said. "It was fun there. I would be back where only employees can go and I remember a girl about my age, maybe 8 years old, saying, 'Hey – you can’t be back there! No children can go back there.' And I told her I could, because my dad owned the store. That was a good feeling. I loved it there. It was fun."
Though her father was drinking throughout her childhood, she didn’t see it, and she was also unaware of his descent into homelessness.
"When I was younger," she said, "I had no idea what was going on. My mom kept it from me. He told me he was staying with friends, so I didn’t know. He’s been homeless now for three years. By choice. He did stay with his mom until she kicked him out."
When she was 13, her mother married Brando, and Kent began to come around. It was the first time she saw him drunk and homeless. It scared her, she said, the sight of him so dirty and unkempt, his beard getting longer and bushier all the time.
"I was a train wreck," Katie said. "I used to have nightmares frequently. Of seeing him with his long beard. It was really hard. My mom would help me, she was always there for me. And praying would help, too."
These days, Katie has heard for so long that she’s his only reason for living that she’s become somewhat inured to it.
"I hear that all the time," she said, "that I’m the reason he’s living. It’s an honor, I guess, to know I’m the one he wants to live for and he hasn’t kicked the bucket yet."
Asked if she has hope, Katie said, "Honestly, I don’t want to sound hopeless, but I think it would be a miracle if he got help. But I never give up hope."
Katie wrote in her comment on Patch that she joined the LAPD cadet program as "a structure and a distraction." Asked to elaborate, she said, "I started to want to be a police officer when I was 8 years old. My dad encouraged me. I joined the cadet program a few years ago and I had to move, but then I joined it again. I have been seeing police as long as I’ve been alive. They used to come into my dad's store when I was a kid, and I was raised around them."