As Richard Miller idled his tow truck at the traffic light on Glenwood and E. Lyndale Avenues on the edge of downtown Minneapolis recently, he spotted a familiar face.
There near the corner stood his father, Rick, his long blondish grey hair cascading down his back and his goatee hanging to the middle of his chest, holding his usual cardboard sign that read, "Homeless Please Help." Miller pulled over out of traffic, gave his father a few dollars and told him he wanted him to meet his 2-year-old daughter, an invitation that made his dad smile.
But a few days later, Richard "Rick" Johnson, 58, was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center after he suffered severe burns while camped out under a highway overpass.
His family planned to take him off life support on Sunday morning.
"I wish things would have been a little different," said Richard Miller, 38, on Saturday, who spent much of the day at the hospital with his family.
A little before midnight on May 29, emergency personnel responded to a report of a burn victim under the Interstate 394 bridge at Dunwoody Avenue, according to police reports. Miller said police told him that a man walking nearby heard screaming and found his father on fire.
His father was taken to the hospital with burns on about 70 percent of his body, Miller said. The lower half of his body had to be amputated, and he was placed under heavy sedation. He was also put on life support.
Preliminary police reports suggested that the incident may have been a suicide attempt, but family members said they don't believe that Johnson would have set himself on fire.
"I've always been concerned about his safety. I've always wondered how he was," Miller said.
He went out to the scene of the fire and spoke there with a friend of his father's who told him that another homeless man who disliked his father might have set him on fire. "He said he was going to get him," Miller said the man told him.
He said police have told the family that so far, there is no evidence of foul play. His father's clothes are being tested for accelerants, he said.
A police spokesman said no details of the case were available Saturday.
Johnson's sister, Barb Snyder, 64, of Anoka, said she believes the case isn't a high priority for police because he was homeless.
"To them, he's nobody," she said.
His family said Johnson chose to live on the streets even though relatives would have taken him in.
"It's not that he had to be," Miller said. "It's just that he wanted to."
He said he believed that his father just didn't want to be a burden to family members.
Johnson grew up in Bemidji as the youngest of 13 children, Snyder said. When he was a teenager, he dropped out of high school and traveled with his brothers to Minneapolis to find a job.
But life in Minneapolis wasn't easy. While her little brother found work here and there, he ended up living off and on the streets for years.
Still, despite his hardships, Snyder remembered her brother as an optimistic and caring man who loved animals.
Johnson's son agreed.
"He would give you the shirt off his back," Miller said.
While his father had been homeless for as long as he could remember and it was no secret that he had been a heavy drinker, Miller said people should not rush to judge those who are without places to live.
"There's people out there that love them," he said.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495; Twitter: @stribnorfleet