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RIP Rusty Bitton 

'He was so desperately in search of peace'

Allura (left) and her mother Jennifer Clifford (right) reminisce as they look at a photo of Russell "Rusty" Bitton, circa 2003, in which he's holding a 3-year-old Allura, Clifford's other two children and a cousin.

Jenny Bowler

Allura (left) and her mother Jennifer Clifford (right) reminisce as they look at a photo of Russell "Rusty" Bitton, circa 2003, in which he's holding a 3-year-old Allura, Clifford's other two children and a cousin.

Russell Bitton died on the streets of Boise on Oct. 28, 2014. That name may not ring a bell, unless we add a marginalizing description, such as "that homeless guy who was beaten to death under the Americana Boulevard overpass."

The 37-year-old Bitton, better known as Rusty, struggled with alcohol. More importantly, though, he had many more good days than bad: Bitton was a father of two, a skilled machinist, a talented guitar player and the people who knew him best say he was courageous.

"As hard as Rusty struggled, he went out a hero. If he had nothing else, he left us with something to be proud of," said Jennifer Clifford. "And I'm proud to say that we had a child together."

Jennifer looked down at photograph of Bitton from 2003. He had his arms stretched around their daughter Allura Clifford, Clifford's other two children and a cousin. Jennifer could still see many of Bitton's features in her now-16-year-old daughter.

"You can see that she has his chin," said Jennifer. "And those eye... those eyes, definitely."

Allura smiled, remembering better days with her father.

"He moved to Boise from Utah just a few months before he died, just to be closer to us," she said. "He would come to visit my mother and me at the City of Light [Home for Women]. But he still struggled. He was picked up and sent to jail. I think it was for public intoxication, but he sent me a letter from jail that said how much he wanted to be sober. When he got out, he called me from an AA meeting. That was two days before he died. We were supposed to meet but..." Allura's voice trailed off.

Bitton's body was discovered in the early morning hours of Oct. 28. He had died of blunt force trauma to the head. Nearly two-and-a-half months later, on Jan. 15, Ada County prosecutors charged 24-year-old Scotty Turnbull with second-degree murder in connection with the beating death. Turnbull is also charged with severely beating another man and woman the night before he attacked Bitton.

"One day Rusty brought a man and a woman over to see us at City Light," Jennifer recalled. "I'm almost certain they were the ones that were beaten just before Rusty was beaten to death."

Indeed, it was the assault on the woman that prompted Bitton to stand up to Turnbull, which ultimately cost Bitton his life, according to Jennifer.

"That woman was beaten close to death," she said. "I need to tell you that the Boise Police Department and prosecutor's office have been great. The amount of investigation that they conducted was amazing. Allura and I and Rusty's family from Utah all met with a victim coordinator just before the holidays and they assured us that they needed to make sure nothing would fall through the cracks before they pressed charges."

Tears flowed during Boise Weekly's conversation with the Cliffords, who are both looking to the future. Jennifer is about to graduate from City Light's 18-month recovery program, and she said she will soon renew her nursing license. Allura will graduate from Boise's Frank Church High School, where she's on the honor roll, and she is looking forward to college.

It's important that people know Bitton as much more than "that homeless guy," Allura and Jennifer said.

"I was so frustrated that the media said he was homeless on the streets of Boise for so long," said Jennifer. "He tried so hard. Yes, he stayed at the River of Life [Men's Shelter] and Interfaith Sanctuary, but he was this amazing man. I had a sense that he was so desperately in search of peace. That was his intent: to be the man that Allura wanted him to be. If that's all he could do, he did a lot."

Wiping away tears, Jennifer added, "Gosh, what's the matter with me ... Do you think you could write something nice about him?"

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