‘I thought he was safe,’ brother says of man found dead in wetlands

There are moments when James Knudson forgets his younger brother, John Knudson, is dead.

“Riding on the buses, I start looking out where we used to see him, around Switzer or A&P or down at the bus barn, places you know he hung out. I catch myself looking for him,” Knudson says.

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John Knudson during his younger adult years. (Photo courtesy Jennie Knudson)
John Knudson during his younger adult years. (Photo courtesy Jennie Knudson)

His brother’s body was found in the Mendenhall Wetlands in mid-September. Juneau Police said he had likely been in the water and exposed to the elements for at least several days. His body was sent to the state medical examiner.

John Knudson, 56, is one of at least eight people who have died outside in the past three years. These are just the ones we know about based on the 2012 Juneau Homeless Coalition survey.

Juneau Police still don’t know what caused Knudson’s death. His brother James Knudson doesn’t either, but he has a theory: “My suspicion is that he was by either Switzer Creek or Lemon Creek and fell in there and then got washed out.”

Knudson says his brother was staying with a friend in the Lemon Creek area. He assumed he was safe, even though he hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks. The two brothers had always looked out for each other.

“If somebody got in a little scrap with somebody else, somebody would show up and help out. But this time I didn’t have any feeling. I thought he was safe,” Knudson says.

Knudson is staying at the Bergmann Hotel at the moment. He says he’s been homeless for 10 years. He says his brother became homeless when he split up with his girlfriend.

“He had his issues with alcohol, like other people, like I do at times,” Knudson says. “It’s a tough life living on the streets. I’d been there and we’d both lived on the streets together at different times.”

At The Glory Hole, James Knudson, 57, becomes emotional while talking about his brother, John Knudson, who died last month. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
At The Glory Hole, James Knudson, 57, becomes emotional while talking about his brother, John Knudson, who died last month. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Just one year apart, the two brothers — of seven children total — were close growing up and as adults. They were both born in Juneau but spent their early years in Hoonah.

James Knudson’s favorite story about John is one their mom used to always tell.

“My dad had just gotten back from deer hunting, had a couple deer hanging out in the shed. That night my brother came up to me. He had a butter knife in his hand, goes, ‘Jer, let’s go hunt some deer.’ That’s what they called me, ‘Jer.’ I looked at my brother and go, ‘What if we run into a bear?’ Holding a butter knife, he goes, ‘We’ll jump on his back,’” Knudson says, laughing.

Knudson says his brother fell into the wrong crowd at a young age, got in trouble and paid for it the rest of his life. Knudson says his brother went to a mining trade school.

“The instructor thought he would be a good mine worker, but with his felony, he couldn’t get a job at the mine. I tried to talk to him about it. I guess some people can work around a felony as far as working in the mine, but my brother just wouldn’t look into it,” Knudson says.

John Knudson’s school picture. (Photo courtesy Jennie Knudson)
John Knudson’s school picture. (Photo courtesy Jennie Knudson)

Instead, John Knudson went into construction and mechanical work.

“He’s a real good worker. It’s just alcohol got the best of him,” Knudson says.

Knudson continues to struggle with alcohol. He’d been sober for two months, but started drinking again while planning his brother’s memorial services. He says John’s body will be cremated, his ashes spread over their parents’ graves.

John Knudson would’ve been a candidate for Juneau’s Housing First project. If the remaining $2.4 million in funding is secured by January, the project could be complete as soon as 2017.

“In the meantime, we should just not accept this as an acceptable reality, because it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to have people die on the street,” says Glory Hole Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk.

If you see someone laying outside, ask if they’re OK. If they’re not, call for help.

“We just need to treat people like human beings,” Lovishchuk says.

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Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.