First he bought the booze. It was a bottle of Bacardi white rum. After downing it, he went to a Dollar Store and bought a cheap box cutter.
Then, on a fall day more than a year ago, David Ristow settled himself down in an alley on Second Avenue between some garbage cans.
“I sat there, I cut my neck open,” Ristow said.
“I had had enough. I didn’t want to deal with things anymore. I just wanted to die. I just wanted to get it over with.”
This was not the first time Ristow tried to take his own life. Ever since his common-law wife Susan Reinhardt was shot and killed by her ex-husband while he laid next to her in bed, Ristow’s life had been on a downward spiral. Sitting in that alley, bleeding from his neck, he thought only of Reinhardt. He was scheduled to testify at the trial for her murder that week.
“I kept thinking if there was an afterlife then I will be with her, I will join her,” Ristow said.
Ristow was sleeping next to Reinhardt in their Fourth Avenue North apartment on July 15, 2006 when George Allgood fired a 12-gauge shotgun through an open patio door. Ristow woke up and felt a “big hunk of skin” on his side. The bed was wet from blood. Ristow said he didn’t know what happened. Eventually, it was a city homicide
detective who broke the news that Reinhardt had been murdered.
From that moment on and for the better part of a decade his life fell apart, he says. He drank, he collected government cheques, and did little else.
“I had nothing all of sudden. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not really sure what I did for a couple of years. I can’t even remember, but it wasn’t much,” Ristow said. That’s when he found his way to The Lighthouse. Dennis Bueckert remembers first seeing Ristow when he walked into a weekly recovery meeting hosted at the shelter.
“At that time I knew nothing about him,” Bueckert said.
“I was floored when I first heard about this because I didn’t realize what this guy had been through.”
Ristow is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He left school when he was 17 and, according to court records, was convicted of armed robbery a year later. In 1997 he assaulted his common-law wife. In the intervening years, he had convictions for impaired driving. For much of his adult life, his run-ins with police didn’t stop.
He said he was slowly piecing his life back together when he met Reinhardt at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As is custom, he gave Reinhardt his phone number and offered her support in her recovery. A month later she phoned him in the middle of the night. A week after that, they were living together in Reinhardt’s house.
The couple began holding weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in their living room. It was a popular meeting, Ristow said, partly because the city’s smoking ban didn’t apply.
“It was the only meeting in the whole city where you could smoke … drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes is a joy,” Ristow laughed.
It took Ristow seven years to find his way to The Lighthouse after Reinhardt’s murder. Part homeless shelter, part affordable living complex, the Lighthouse offered Ristow shelter from the street and valuable work experience.
Even once he was offered a spot in the shelter’s work training program, he still struggled with alcohol.
And when George Allgood’s murder trial began, painful memories resurfaced for Ristow. That was the last time he tried to kill himself.
“The wrong person died. She was the better person. He should have killed me
and she should be the person still alive,” Ristow said.
Ristow has been sober for two months now. He is on medication for depression. He spends most of his days sorting laundry and donated clothes. The shelter pays him $150 a month for his work, money that supplements his social assistance cheques.
He says he wants people to know about life inside the Lighthouse, to let people know that the people living alongside him are real people – not just homeless strangers asking for change. In the last year, he says, he has developed a special affinity for the homeless people who are taken to the social detox centre at the Lighthouse, people who are often too intoxicated to go anywhere else.
“I’m pretty popular with most of the guys, because I’m like that. You need clean socks? Come talk to me, I’ll get you some clean socks,” Ristow said.
When he isn’t working he spends time in a small room watching cable news. It’s hard, he says, not to think about Reinhardt.
“It comes on strong every once in a while and I have myself a good cry,” he said.
Allgood’s lawyers are appealing his first-degree murder conviction. Allgood was only arrested after he confessed to the shooting, to an undercover police officer at the end of a four-month operation that included police faking an execution-style shooting in Yukon.
After Allgood’s conviction in January, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the police technique, known as the ‘Mr. Big’ sting tactic, was unreliable. That ruling will be central to the appeal.
Bueckert, who continues to work closely with Ristow, says he still has a ways to go.
Eventually, he would like to see Ristow get his own home and a steady job.
“What I would like to see is David in his own house somewhere. Settled and stable and then coming back and telling us how it’s going. That’s my dream,” Bueckert said.
Ristow is hopeful for the same things himself. While he continues to struggle with alcohol, he hopes one day he will be sober enough to get a job working at the Lighthouse, helping others.
“I’d really like to get a job here,” he said.