It was a Monday afternoon when a young man calling himself Chris stepped into Leland’s Barber Shop and asked if they had an opening for a drop-in.
“Chris” told owner Claudia Kirkebo that he was a medical student, working for Group Health. When the haircut was concluded, he stood and patted his pockets, and then told her he had a 20 in his car and he’d be right back. Sure, Kirkebo told him. After all, customers do that all the time, and they had always returned.
“He left and never came back,” she said. “I’ve never had anybody in all these years do that to me.”
And so ended another chapter in the annals of Spokane’s hardest-working small-time grifter. The young man who stole a haircut off Kirkebo is almost certainly the same young man who has made a full-time job out of relieving generous – and/or gullible – Spokane residents of their small bills for years now. Some people come across him as a panhandler, others as a motorist in need. But what’s notable about the young man, whose real name is Brandon Pier, is less the seriousness of his alleged offenses than the sheer number and brazenness of his enterprises.
“He’s all over,” Kirkebo said.
Kirkebo remembers the details of the purloined haircut – it was Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. – partly because she keeps notes on her customers and their cuts. I know this because she cuts my hair, and when it comes time to thin my diminishing fluff, she consults a notebook that tells her what she did last and when.
Kirkebo reported it to the police and told a lot of people about it. She got her hands on a photo and showed it around. Many people told her they’d had some experience with Brandon: – He’d panhandled them on this street, told them a story about a lost wallet, bragged to someone else about the ease of gulling people here, she said.
Pier, it seems, has knocked on more doors and approached more strangers than any candidate for office in town. And this goes back a few years: I let myself get wheedled out of 20 bucks two years ago when he came to my door and told me a tale about needing gas desperately to get to Coeur d’Alene. I wrote about it at the time and was flooded with responses similar to those Kirkebo heard. People all over town wrote and called to tell me their Brandon story. More than one person told me that Brandon had approached them twice – not on purpose, just as an accident of being such a dedicated hustler in a relatively small town.
“He hit me up twice and didn’t even recognize me the second time,” a woman who lives at a north Spokane apartment complex told me then. “In a way, I find it amusing that we’re all such saps. The guy’s so convincing!”
Time has not diminished his enterprising spirit, apparently. Spokane police Capt. Judi Carl, who oversees the downtown precinct, said Pier’s activities have been on her radar screen for a while now. He presents a challenge to police: Most of what he does is small-time, but he does a lot of it. He’s been charged with trespassing for refusing to leave private property and panhandling aggressively. Carl said there have been complaints about him following people to their cars, acting insistent though not overtly threatening.
“We’ve been looking for him,” Carl said. “We’d like to talk to him.”
There is a lot of angst over panhandling downtown, and I think most of it is overheated and unnecessarily alarmist. But Pier is an unusual case; he often presents himself as a person in need, and dresses and adopts attitudes that don’t seem like a con man’s. Either he is persuasive or a lot of us are suckers.
People “believe he’s not really a panhandler – he’s someone who’s in a predicament,” Carl said.
It’s possible he’s now in a real predicament. Kirkebo might be the very last person in town he’d want to have crossed. She’s a honey badger, tenacious and fiercely protective of her business and the streets around it, whether the issue is a certain top-hatted harmonica blaster or a couple of scrofulous youngsters acting shady in the alley.
So when the poor young medical student ran off, she didn’t simply let it go. She tracked down others with Brandon stories. She got a picture of him and shared it. She got court records about his trespassing arrest. She kept her eyes peeled, assuming she would see him again, based on the size of the town and the number of people who told her they’d seen him here or there with his hand out. She spotted him once on a sidewalk while she was in late-afternoon traffic and tried to catch his eye without success. A few days later, she spotted him outside a North Side restaurant.
“There he is, panhandling in the parking lot,” Kirkebo said.
But he’s managed to stay a step ahead.
When Kirkebo first reported this to the police, Carl followed up and showed her a photo lineup of potential suspects.
“I picked him out right away,” Kirkebo said. “I said, ‘Except he’s got a better haircut now.’ ”