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Many, many years before he died Oct. 16 after being struck by a car on a foggy Santa Rosa morning, long after his life went astray and he started down a hard road, ages before he died alone at 57, his liver failing from cirrhosis, Joseph Von Merta was a boy who loved to swim.

He'd swim in San Francisco at a pool near Mission Dolores that cost a nickel to enter, and at the YMCA on Golden Gate Avenue. And he'd swim in the Russian River in Sonoma County, said Carol Veeninga of Petaluma, recalling her youngest brother's favorite spots.

The family lived in the Glen Park neighborhood of the city and Von Merta went to Glen Park Elementary School. He was a boy who kept to himself, whose parents separated when he was 3 and whose father died soon after.

"He was just a quiet, neat kid," said Veeninga. "But very much into self."

One of 13 siblings, Von Merta enjoyed tinkering with cars when he got a bit older. He liked basketball.

But things went wrong. He was brain-damaged at age 12 after sniffing glue, said Veeninga, who last spoke to her brother about 35 years ago.

"He had just gone off the wall," she said.

Von Merta spent time in a psychiatric ward and after being released was made a ward of the state and sent to a Catholic care home and school near Cloverdale, where he was on the basketball team.

His mother, for reasons that through the years have become foggy, pulled him out when he was 16, Veeninga said, and "he more or less drifted from then."

Veeninga, a registered nurse, searched for him and heard he was at a Santa Rosa homeless shelter. She left him notes to say she loved him.

"But he wanted his own life. He didn't want to be a burden on anybody; he didn't want anyone running his life," she said.

"I respected that. The deal between us was he knew where I was, and I was there if he needed me," she said.

He showed up once, around 1978. It was dinner time. Veeninga opened the door to find him there. Down the street waited a car with two men in it.

"We didn't even have a chance to visit," Veeninga said. "He had a bag that he wanted me to hold. I asked him what was in it. He said, &‘Jewelry,' and I said, &‘No, I can't do this.

"And he said, &‘OK,' just &‘OK.' He took the bag, went down the stairs, got in the car and I never saw him again."

She saw his name once, though, before seeing it with such finality again last week.

In a bitterly cold winter at the end of the 1980s, authorities in Santa Rosa were trying to direct homeless people from their outdoor haunts to shelters. He was quoted in a news story, explaining why he didn't want to go.

"The closest that I can remember," she said, "was something to the effect that he didn't want to go to a shelter because he didn't feel it was a safe place; he didn't want to be indoors. It was very short."

She showed the article to family members as proof he was alive. But he never again appeared in her life.

"He knew I didn't like the drug scene and that I had my children I was raising and I did not want that," she said. "I really think that with whatever cognitive thinking he still had, he wasn't going to bring hurt to the family."

As his older sister, "I always felt like maybe I could have done something more but at the same time, I really felt like he respected all of us, that whatever his lifestyle was, he kept it away," she said.

His intervening years, even for someone homeless, are lost to the degree that they seem almost purposely hidden.

He showed up periodically in Sonoma County court records going back many years: Convicted a few times for being drunk in public; twice for trespassing; once, in 1994, for possessing a weapon.

But Von Merta was not registered or known at the Catholic Charities Homeless Services Center in downtown Santa Rosa, a major hub for people living on the streets.

No one interviewed at the Redwood Gospel Homeless Mission in Railroad Square had heard his name.

"Nobody knows him," said David Meyer, assistant manager at St. Vincent De Paul Kitchen, which serves more than 90,000 meals a year to people who are poor and/or homeless.

"I asked about 70 or 80 people, and these are all people on the street, people who I know are very longtime homeless," Meyer said.

His name is known slightly at Petaluma's Mary Isaak Center shelter, run by the Committee on the Shelterless, the largest homeless services provider in southern Sonoma County.

Von Merta stayed at the center last year from May through July. It is a clean and sober facility, suggesting perhaps that he was trying to stop drinking.

"He was reputed to be a really nice guy," said COTS executive director John Records. "We didn't have any problems with him."

That reputation was as much of Von Merta as has turned up in Santa Rosa.

"Never met him," said a man outside the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen at lunchtime. "I heard he was a good guy."

And that's as near to the surface as Von Merta's trail has appeared since he died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital at 7:20 p.m.

On Oct. 18, a Thursday, his sister picked up a newspaper that she'd delayed reading because she'd been busy and ill. She read that her brother was gone.

"He was in the hospital, he died alone, and I didn't know it, you know? I didn't know," she said.

She called her son, Pat Veeninga of Petaluma, and they called the coroner.

"It's very, very hard," he said. "Joseph was the little brother. And I'm curious. I would like to know who he was as a man. I'm definitely not judging him."

Joseph Von Merta has been cremated, his remains buried at the family plot at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Petaluma.

"He's going to be with his family and with his mom," his sister said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jeremyhay.

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