Richard Coffee’s last moments remain a puzzle, not only to investigators but to those who knew him best.
Late Saturday, May 11 – a day before Mother’s Day – he departed the Walmart store on Colton Street in north Spokane headed somewhere. Perhaps headed home, or maybe to escape the spiral of depression and anxiety that typically follows the type of exchange he had minutes earlier.
Where he ended up was a surprise to everyone.
The way police explained it to family, Coffee – a 56-year-old gay man standing 6-foot-6, with immaculately styled hair and a boisterous personality – exchanged heated words with a man in a truck in the store’s parking lot.
According to family and detectives who watched surveillance video of the exchange, Coffee walked up to the driver’s side door of the truck and asked the man to turn off his headlights, which were blaring through his back window. The video shows that the man switched them off, only to turn them on again once Coffee got back into his car.
The two started arguing. The man, like many other in Coffee’s life, called him a homophobic slur, according to a conversation he had with his mother following the exchange.
“Ricky called me right then,” said his mother Fredia Arocho, who lived with him in a condo a short five-minute drive from Walmart. “He said, ‘I’m gonna sit here a minute. That guy has got me upset.’ ”
But Coffee, ever the crowd pleaser, quickly pivoted the conversation to Mother’s Day plans. He’d bought potting soil, flowers and a “big ol’ cheesecake.” The two were going to garden together and, later, eat his mother’s favorite dessert.
“He said, ‘Leave the door unlocked because I’ve got groceries and I don’t want to deal with the key,’ ” Arocho said. “ ‘I’m going to sit here for five minutes, then I’ll be home.’ ”
Coffee didn’t go home. Nobody knows for certain why, but he ended up at Spokane Community College, his 2012 Chevrolet Malibu parked in a small lot a few feet from the Spokane River, with water high and raging from spring runoff. By the time police found it, the cake was rotting and the roses wilted.
Weeks later, on June 1, his body was discovered downriver, near the Division Street Bridge. Due to how much time he had spent in the water, he was identified mostly by a tattoo on his ankle. An investigation is ongoing.
“I think something happened,” Arocho said. “I just can’t figure it out.”
Murder before Mother’s Day?
Coffee’s family says detectives have told them that investigators essentially have two theories: murder or a slow, plodding suicide by way of walking directly into the river.
The latter doesn’t quite sit right with Arocho or her daughter Rebecca LaFleur, Coffee’s younger sister.
If he did plan on killing himself, why make Mother’s Day plans? Why buy flowers, a cheesecake and a big bag of dirt, only to leave them in a locked car?
“He would not do that to his mom on Mother’s Day,” said LaFluer. “He wouldn’t do that.”
Sgt. Terry Preuninger said detectives are looking at all possibilities, including suicide or murder.
But for now they’re awaiting toxicology results from the Spokane County Medical Examiner, Preuninger said. Due to a backlog of cases clogging the Washington State Patrol crime lab, that could mean waiting several months for a result.
What family members say they have learned, after conversations with two detectives assigned to the case, is that the man who got into an argument with Coffee likely had nothing to do with his death.
Arocho said surveillance video showed Coffee leaving Walmart while the man stayed behind and continued shopping inside the store. By the time he left, Coffee was long gone.
What police don’t know, however, is what happened after Coffee left, including whether he went straight to the community college or stopped somewhere else along the way. As Arocho explains it, detectives are also awaiting records from Coffee’s cellphone carrier to help place his whereabouts, though investigators didn’t find a phone in his car or on his body.
Preuninger said detectives aren’t yet ready to speculate on what likely happened.
LaFluer hoped that after reports Coffee went missing made local headlines, someone would come forward with information. Maybe someone saw him in the Walmart parking lot or noticed when he drove south toward the college. Maybe they saw his car parked at the college and asked if he was OK.
Maybe someone other than his mother talked to him before he entered the river.
“There could be somebody,” LaFluer said. “They could attest to his state of mind.”
‘I’m just done’
To those who knew him best, Coffee had a sickness growing inside.
Outwardly, he was near-flawless: tall, with sun-kissed skin, defined muscles, a full head of hair cut once every three weeks and perfectly sculpted eyelashes.
And he was loud, confident, boastful and affable. But also a little rebellious.
“He was proud of who he was,” said Coffee’s younger brother, Michael Caraballo. “He made sure everyone knew that.”
Then there was the side only his close friends and family saw: mired in depression, anxiety, and an influx of suicidal thoughts spurred by near-constant homophobic remarks he endured.
His friends and family say he’d also struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for much of his adult life. Over the years, he accrued a bevy of traffic violations, including DUI, negligent driving and driving with a suspended license, according to a Spokesman-Review background check.
Melissa Menetto, Coffee’s best friend for over four years, didn’t know that pain when he first sat down in her chair at Mirage Salon on Division Street. He was instead his normal, boisterous self.
“He commanded a lot of attention,” Menetto said. “And he didn’t care. You take him for who he was.”
Menetto also said she would be “shocked” if Coffee’s toxicology report showed drugs or alcohol in his system.
“I knew for a fact he was clean,” she said. “There was no way he was doing drugs.”
Over the years, Coffee would confide in her – at times in the hour or so it took him to style his hair after a new cut.
Mostly, it was about the problems in his life stemming from an esthetician program he attended at Spokane Community College. His friends and family consider those to be his darkest days.
From the time he was a child, all the way up to his death, Coffee was teased often. But friends say the abuse he endured by a few college classmates was worse.
Menetto said Coffee felt trapped, frustrated and alone while attending the school. But he persisted and eventually graduated. He even had ambitions to open his own salon – a plan that fell through, further adding to his depression.
The emotions tied to that school likely never left him. Which is why Menetto thinks he returned there to die – one last rebellion.
“I feel like he was just, ‘Screw all of you,’ ” Menetto said. “ ‘This is what happened to me. I’m just done.’ ”
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