Storage unit 175 at 1725 First Ave. N. in Fargo appeared to be largely untouched Monday, July 15, since a fire destroyed most of its contents over the weekend. The thin aluminum door that provided security for the tiny 5-foot by 10-foot space was half torn off, bent and charred. The pile of items inside the unit was badly burned, the stench of smoke heavy.
There looked to be at least one bicycle in the burned pile and perhaps more bike parts. There was a soda bottle, some clothing and what appeared to be a torched suitcase. Laying in front of the unit was a religious pamphlet titled, "He is Risen."
A couple of young men were removing items from a nearby storage unit as an elderly woman looked on. One of the men said their grandma's items sustained smoke damage so they were moving her stuff. Asked whether he knew a person was found dead in the burned-out unit, one of the men said yes he'd heard that news. Asked if he knew anything about the deceased, the man said no.
On Monday afternoon, Fargo police released the name of the deceased man. He was Jonathan Wayne Liles, 58, of Fargo.
And that's about where the news story stands regarding a fire at the storage unit in north Fargo, reported at 2:35 a.m. Sunday. The Fargo police and fire departments responded to the call and found smoke coming from the north end of the complex. They knocked down the fire within 10 minutes of arriving. They found a deceased male during a search of the unit.
Fargo police spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker said the department cannot release any more information, echoing what chief Matt Brand said about the fire department.
So we wait.
The questions on my mind are simple ones: Who was Jonathan Liles? How did he die?
What kind of life did he live in Fargo? What was he doing at a storage unit in an industrial area not far from downtown at 2:35 on a Sunday morning?
Was he living in the storage unit?
These are the types of questions that cross my mind now when there are deaths involving people who appear to be among the less fortunate in our community. Maybe they cross your mind, too.
They cross my mind with more frequency since the death of Barbara Anne Barry of Barnesville, Minn., in late January. Barry was found in her car in the Cash Wise Foods parking lot in south Fargo. Police believe she'd been there for several months, lying in the back seat and covered in a way that passersby might not have noticed her. She was not reported missing. The Cass County coroner eventually ruled her death came from natural causes. Police originally said they believed Barry to be homeless, a definition her family members rejected.
I wrote a column about Barry and in the course of my reporting learned that many Fargoans had called the coroner's office wondering if they could donate a few dollars to help give her a "proper" service and burial. It turned out Barry had family in Barnesville and her services and burial were handled by a funeral home in that Minnesota town. I also learned from Cass County Social Services that there are somewhere between 50 and 75 indigent burials in the county each year. These are people who resided in Cass County and had no immediate next of kin or close relatives who claimed them after they died.
"There is a lot of misery," a social worker told me, emphasizing that while Fargo's economy is very strong, there are many people living in difficult conditions.
Was Jonathan Liles one of those people? A search of court records showed that he had some misdemeanor infractions in the past few years and was granted indigent defense services on a couple of occasions, including as recently as February.
The owner of the storage unit, local architect Kevin Bartram, said the unit was leased to Liles but had been "red-locked" because Liles hadn't made the approximately $70-a-month payment for several months. Bartram isn't sure how Liles got into the unit and, when asked, couldn't say definitively whether Liles was or wasn't living there.
Local homeless shelters and advocates said privacy laws prevent them from saying if Liles was a client or used their services.
So we wait to find out more about Jonathan Wayne Liles, 58, of Fargo. What is his story? We will tell it when we find out.