Mark Seeley's widow, Laura Seeley reacts to her first meeting with Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson and Lt. Tony Plott.
Christmas was in the air, but there was little peace on Earth for Mark Seeley.
The call to 911 from a downtown Boise merchant stated that a man--Seeley--was causing a disturbance in a woman's clothing store, and owners wanted him out. Seeley later told police that he went into the store to offer to wash some windows, but the store owner thought he was panhandling. In either case, things weren't going well.
"I remember Mark being really loud, almost incoherent," said Boise Police Lt. Tony Plott, recalling the Dec. 15, 1994, incident, which attracted more than its share of Christmas shoppers.
To de-escalate the conflict, Plott said his primary objective was to have Seeley voluntarily leave the store, otherwise, the merchant could press charges. But Seeley was having none of it.
"I came up behind him," Plott said. "The easiest hold for me was to grab him around the chest and shoulder area. Otherwise, he could have taken a swing and I could have caught a punch."
Things went downhill: Seeley was put into a headlock, handcuffed and transported to the Ada County lockup, where he was booked on a charge of disturbing the peace.
Christmas defined much of Seeley's tumultuous life, starting with being born on Dec. 26, 1960. Some Christmases were better than others--he asked the love of his life to marry him on Christmas Eve 2006--but as a young man, he spent most of his holidays haunted by the loss of his father, John, killed in a 1966 helicopter crash in Vietnam.
In between the ugliness of his 1994 arrest--just one in a string of run-ins with Boise police--and when he passed away a few days after Christmas 2012, Seeley's widow, community leaders and even Boise police all agreed that they had come to know and love a man whose life would not soon be forgotten.
In spite of his diagnosis of severe bipolar disorder, Seeley became an author, advocate for the disabled, homeless and veterans, and even a candidate for the Boise City Council.
Many citizens say they knew something about the man, but most didn't know it all.
A Father's Son
"My father's voice went silent when I was 5 years old," Seeley wrote in 2008.
Long before he began writing about his father--a practice he didn't start until into his 40s--Seeley dreamed of being a newspaper writer, preferably writing about politics or sports. He even claimed his own publication, The Seeley Tribune, at the age of 11.
"I think this picture was taken when he first began writing," his widow, Laura Seeley, told BW, pointing to a glossy black and white photo of a bleach-blond kid wearing a "PRESS" hat with a No. 2 pencil tucked behind his right ear. "Word got around to the local little league that Mark was such a good writer so they asked him to write for the Tri-City Scoop in Rockland, Calif. He was paid $12 a week."
But baseballs were put up on the shelf one early summer morning when two military officers came to the door to tell Alice Seeley that she was a widow; the CH-47 her husband was co-piloting in Vietnam had crashed.
"Every few weeks I would close the door to my room and wet my pillow with my tears, looking at a favorite photo of him and crying," Seeley later remembered in a book he wrote about his father. "The memory of that final hug goodbye would pierce its way through my weakened defenses and leave me sobbing uncontrollably."
Seeley grew up too fast. As a 17-year-old, and still receiving a monthly payment from the Veterans Administration, he spent a lot of time at a local Denny's restaurant, hanging out with grown-ups, getting a taste for cigarettes and coffee.
Ultimately, Seeley's mother moved her family back to Boise, her hometown.
"We met when we were both students at Boise State; it was in the Morrison Hall dormitory," said Laura Seeley. "I was Laura Aldous back then. It was the fall semester of 1982. I was studying information science and, of course, Mark was studying journalism. He eventually changed his major to political science."
Laura said she and Seeley just "clicked;" nothing romantic, but they were really good friends. They would sit in the lobby of their dormitory and talk the night away.
"We were just pals," Laura said.
But their relationship was put on hold--for 22 years.
"I left Boise State after that semester back in 1982 and didn't come back," Laura said. "We lost touch."
That is until 2004, when Laura walked into a Boise Walmart to buy some roof sealant. She stepped up to the hardware counter and saw a familiar face, albeit two decades older.
"I said, 'You don't remember me, do you?' He said, 'I sure do. Remember Morrison Hall?'" Laura said. "It was quite a story. By then, I had been married and divorced and Mark had never married."
But in the 22 years between their first encounter and their Walmart reunion, Seeley had drifted across the West, working as a ski lift operator, cashier, trash collector and room service waiter. He looked back on the years as what he called a "tsunami of bad luck, karma, circumstance or just whatever-the-hell-it-is that rules fate in people's lives."
In early 1994, Seeley's still-undiagnosed mental illness was raging, and even though he sought out some personal counseling, he had a major falling out with his mother. She went as far as placing a restraining order against her son.
"I was instantly homeless with $3.17 to my name," he wrote years later. "Why I remember that exact amount, I do not know."
Seeley slept on the streets of Boise, spending occasional nights in shelters, including Community House (now the River of Life men's shelter), which had opened in November 1994.
It was also in 1994 that Seeley first walked into Boise Weekly. He began writing letters to the editor about homelessness and editors encouraged him to become a semi-regular columnist--which he did for the next 13 years--writing often about Boise's homeless, and even more often about veterans.
But his own demons continued to haunt him. Seeley later admitted that he often thought of killing himself by jumping from an overpass onto a Boise freeway, "So I would kiss a trucker's windshield and die that way instead of splatting like a tomato on the freeway pavement." He survived, hour to hour, day to day, by asking for odd jobs at downtown businesses.
That's when he walked into a woman's clothing store at Boise's Eighth and Main streets in December 1994, leading to a three-day stint at the Ada County Jail and triggering a bone-deep hatred for the Boise Police Department.
An Arresting Personality
"Yeah, that's when I first met Mark," Plott recalled of the arrest at the downtown store. "And from that day forward, I saw him quite often over the next several years, getting in trouble or having run-ins with other officers."
The worst of it occurred shortly thereafter.
"I heard both sides of that story," said Plott, referring to an incident that occurred just days following Seeley's arrest at the clothing store. "But one thing was clear. After the incident at the Community House, he didn't have any use for police."
There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened that December night at Community House, but all sides agreed that there was indeed a disturbance at the homeless shelter and again, Seeley was asked to leave the premises. In a scuffle between Seeley and police, one officer was knocked to the ground, suffering a knee injury that later required surgery. Throughout the melee, Seeley continued to refer to his father.
"My father did not die in Vietnam so that you could call me a piece of shit," Seeley said he shouted at police. He also admitted to kicking out the plastic divider between the front and back seats of a police cruiser.
Seeley's recollection of the story was being arrested, being called "a piece of shit" and the memory of his father being disrespected by a police officer. The arresting officer has since died.
"But there was some reason to believe that the officer--who was also a veteran--asked Seeley, 'What do you think your father would have thought of you acting like this?''" said Boise Chief of Police Mike Masterson, who joined the Boise Police Department 10 years after the incident. "But in retrospect, it really doesn't matter. Mark perceived the police as his enemy and he was hostile to us for years after that."
Plott said he tried to develop a rapport with Seeley, but with little success.
"Mark started making some threats to the department. He would say things like 'I'd like to take one out,' and believe me, he wasn't talking about a date," said Plott. "I wasn't really sure which way to go with this. I just knew that something had happened to Mark and I was beginning to understand how much his dad meant to him."
A dangerous dance between agitator and law enforcement continued for more than a decade--some years were better than others--but Seeley's relationship with the police department was rocky at best.
the $18 guy
A ray of hope came back into Seeley's life Nov. 6, 2004, the day Laura wandered into the State Street Walmart, where he had recently been hired as a hardware clerk.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. That night, we went to the Sockeye Grill, where you could still smoke at the time," Laura said. "Mark smoked two packs a day, I still smoke about a pack a day. We went to a hockey game after that, and the next time it was a movie. We dated for about two years."
But Laura was more than Seeley's girlfriend. She became his advocate and partner. She also helped Seeley run one of the most unique political campaigns in Boise history. Seeley decided to challenge then-incumbent Boise City Councilman Vern Bisterfeldt in the November 2005 general election.
"I was his treasurer. I helped him manage the entire campaign fund, which totaled $18.43," Laura said. "Do you remember back then? Mark was known as the $18 Guy."
Seeley's campaign platform had one big plank: advocating for Boise's homeless community.
"He picked up a coffee mug one day and he looked at the saying, 'Be the change you want to see,'" Laura recalled. "And he said, 'I can't sit here. I've got to do something.' People would hand him a few cents here, a dollar there for his campaign, and that totaled $18.43."
And in a losing effort--but one of the city's most efficient campaign returns--Seeley spent $18 to secure 7,121 votes. Seeley said Bisterfeldt spent more than $5,000 on his winning campaign, securing 24,611 votes.
The following year, on Christmas Eve 2006, Seeley and Laura took a stroll across their old campus.
"It was cold. We stood there at Morrison Hall, our old dormitory at Boise State," she said. "That's when Mark asked me to marry him. We got married the next February."
But love couldn't cure Seeley of his illness, and 2008 was a particularly bad year.
"He was formally diagnosed as bipolar. And it completely changed his personality. He got very little sleep, combative, and his language would become a bit vulgar. There was a full eight months when his meds stopped working altogether. He talked about killing himself," said Laura. "But he had enough love and respect for me that he would try to stay away. He would wander downtown and even sleep in his car. The downtown was his world."
But going downtown also meant that Seeley would have more run-ins with the police.
A Framed Piece of Paper
"I would go to briefings each morning, and I kept hearing about someone named Mark Seeley," Masterson told BW. "I would hear stories about him running around in his car, purportedly flipping the bird to attract the attention of officers so that they would pull him over. He was pretty agitated."
Masterson said he continually heard about Seeley and his occasional arrest or citation; Masterson said he also began to sense that Seeley might have been struggling with mental illness.
"In a city of 210,000 people, we have thousands of people who suffer from mental illness," Masterson said. "But instead of dealing with Mark tactically, we chose to deal with him strategically to determine what his needs were."
What came next was a strategy that can't be found in any police manual.
Plott reached out to Seeley, offering to sit down over a cup of coffee and asking to bring along a guest: Masterson.
"Mark was pretty happy about that," Plott remembered. "There was no way in the world that he was going to miss that meeting."
The three agreed to meet at the Starbucks on Franklin Road, not far from the Boise Towne Square. The weather was nice on March 26, 2008, so they sat outside.
"Mark said, 'Hi chief,' but then he started right into it," remembered Plott with a laugh. "Mark was a bit on the spicy side. He was ready to pick a bone. He said, 'Listen, here are my concerns.' The chief let him go for a bit. But after a while, the chief said, 'Hey, Mark, this is why we're here.'"
Masterson smiled when BW asked him if he had to think twice before meeting with Seeley.
"Only in that the chief of police had to meet with an angry man and the possibility of arresting him. Believe me, it would not have been the way I wanted to be welcomed to Boise," he said with a laugh. "I think Mark was geared up and ready to fight. But then we told him we were there to apologize."
And that's when Masterson revealed a framed certificate with the seal of the Boise Police Department above the words Certificate of Appreciation:
"The Boise Police Department recognizes the sacrifice of your father, Captain John S. Seeley, on June 27, 1966, in the service and defense of his country while serving as a pilot in Vietnam. He is a true American hero to those of us in law enforcement who understand the dangerous work and risks inherent in our professions while protecting our great nation and city."
"Mark was speechless," remembered Masterson.
A healthy amount of silence marked the next few minutes. Eventually, Masterson and Plott said they had to return to their respective offices, said their goodbyes and shook Seeley's hand. Almost 40 minutes later, Masterson and Plott separately drove by the Starbucks to see if Seeley had left. And there he was, at the same outside table, staring at the framed certificate.
"My relationship as an individual with Mark and the department's relationship [with him] improved dramatically," said Plott, who added that he began hearing from Seeley more than ever, but the conversations were pleasant and engaging. "He would talk about his marriage or a new job. And then there was his mom's birthday."
Plott said that he received an invitation to attend a birthday barbecue for Seeley's mother, a unique request for an officer to step inside such a personal circle.
"That was a good day. Mark told me he thought he had his illness under control on that day," said Plott. "And I know that my being there meant a lot to Mark's mother, too."
In 2008, Seeley sat down to write his ultimate tribute to his dad. A Most Fortunate Man is a full chronicle of Seeley's own journey, while featuring 55 letters his father wrote from Vietnam. Seeley dedicated the book to the memory of 2,207 helicopter pilots who gave their lives during the Vietnam War, and gave special acknowledgement to his wife Laura and even Boise Weekly, which Seeley said "gave me a voice when I had none."
The Rev. Bill Roscoe, executive director of Boise Rescue Mission, told BW that the mission possesses the final 200 copies of A Most Fortunate Man, and any proceeds from the sale of the book go to the River of Life's veterans outreach program.
"Mark asked me once to place a copy of his book at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., near where his father's name is written," said Roscoe, himself a Vietnam vet. "I told him I would be honored. Come to think of it, it was Father's Day when I was at the wall. I had someone take a photo of the book right next to John Seeley's name."
Roscoe added that when the River of Life designed a special wing to serve homeless vets, it dedicated a room to John Seeley. Hanging next to the door is a photo of the book at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
A Short Goodbye
Masterson told BW that he considered his ongoing relationship with Seeley as "tremendous," and stayed in touch for the next four years.
"And then one day, last December, I came into the office and my assistant tells me, 'Mark Seeley called to say, you're on his bucket list,'" said Masterson. "I said, 'What? Bucket list?'"
Laura said that her husband wasn't feeling well that Thanksgiving, complaining of flu-like symptoms.
"We kept going back to a family clinic, and finally one day, they gave him an IV and his ankles started swelling up," she said. "They took a chest X Ray and immediately put him into St. Al's on Dec. 19, 2012. His lungs were filled with cancer."
That same evening, an MRI revealed that the cancer had metastasized to his brain.
"They estimated that he had over 30 tumors. He was in and out of the hospital twice. Mark had seen what chemotherapy had done to his stepdad and he didn't want that."
Making matters worse was that the Seeley's had no insurance.
"But they were amazing. Medicaid picked up the bill. I think it was $89,000," said Laura.
On Dec. 27, one day after his 52nd birthday, Seeley called Plott and asked to go for a drive. Seeley crawled into the passenger side of the police vehicle when Plott pulled up at his doorstep.
"And you know what? He lit up a cigarette... in a police car! I thought, 'What the heck,' and cracked a window open," said Plott with a huge laugh. "We talked about everything that day, all that he had been through with the police department. Later, we came back to my office [at the Boise State police substation], and he was sitting right where you're sitting and looked up on my wall."
And there, right next to Plott's photos of his own family was a piece of stone-rubbed paper, with the name John Seeley. When Plott visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall the previous year, he used a pencil to rub John Seeley's name onto a piece of paper, but he had never told Seeley.
"His eyes caught that and a big old tear starting coming out of his eye," said Plott, whose own voice cracked as he remembered the day.
"Mark died three days later," he said.
Laura said her husband's last wish took even her by surprise. Seeley, a lifelong agnostic, wanted to visit a local church.
"By the time we got to the church, the service was over but he just sat there for a few minutes and said it was a great visit," she said.
"What?" Roscoe said with incredulity when BW told the reverend about Seeley's final wish. "Mark and I would talk about faith quite often, and Mark was always inquisitive and respectful, but to the end, he contended that he was an agnostic. I always tried to assure him that at any point, he could invite God into his life. But now, you're telling me he went to church? Oh man..."
Roscoe said he needed a moment.
"Oh, wow; he always had a way. Even when he's gone, he still stirs me up."