One morning last December, just before dawn, a 67-year-old man named Fred Arnold stepped into a crosswalk on Baseline Road and was immediately struck by a teal Chevrolet van going 35 mph. The driver quickly slammed on brakes, but the force of impact was great enough to launch Arnold’s body almost 60 feet away, where he came to rest, dead, in a patch of grass next to a telephone pole. Little Rock police officer Ray Moreno arrived at the scene soon afterward and declared the collision an accident: It was dark, the driver couldn’t see him properly, Arnold had moved too quickly and hadn’t looked both ways before entering the street. Furthermore, Moreno recognized Arnold right away. In his report, he noted, “This subject has been warned on many occasions by police about walking into traffic.” Or as Moreno told me later, “He’d done it so many times, it was like he was playing Russian roulette.”
Arnold was albino, had long stringy white hair and regularly sported an eye patch (he was legally blind). He had spent the last few years living homeless on the streets of Little Rock. You might have seen him making his daily rounds: He dressed mostly in black and often walked with a cane. His typical territory was a two- or three-mile stretch of Southwest Little Rock that extended from the Dee Brown Library, where he’d frequently spend hours taking advantage of the building’s Internet access, and the Stone Crest Apartments a few miles west, a dilapidated complex that had been condemned and cleared out years before by the Department of Neighborhoods and Housing (City Manager Bruce Moore had cited its “multiple code violations” and “deplorable shape”). Arnold had nevertheless continued to squat on the second-floor walkway of his old apartment, propping up a slab of plywood to shield himself from passersby. When he didn’t sleep at the condemned building — when, for instance, Little Rock police would rouse him and insist that he leave — he’d often find a nice spot on a narrow bridge in front of the library, and would curl up and fall asleep there instead.
Arnold’s death was Arkansas’s 476th traffic fatality in 2015. As such, the incident went largely unacknowledged by the local media, aside from a brief blurb in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which identified the victim as Fred William Arnold and concluded, “Road conditions at the time were described as clear and dry.” Anyone reading the news would have thought very little of the accident. A homeless man had died in the street: He simply hadn’t looked both ways before he’d walked. If you had searched for Arnold’s name on the Internet, for that matter, you would have discovered that he was listed on the state sex offender database, where you would have been confronted by a harrowing mugshot in which, with his haggard white mane and eye patch, Arnold bore a distinct resemblance to a disheveled pirate. So: a tragic death, but a pitiful one.
Not long after the accident, however, I received an email from an elderly man in Columbia, S.C, named Walter Durst. He’d been a friend of Arnold’s for many years, he explained. Durst had known he’d been living on the street, and when his friend had stopped answering his emails, he’d become concerned. “When I hadn’t heard from him, I searched his name online, as I thought maybe he was in jail,” Durst wrote. That’s when he found the news item about his death. He was aware of the Arkansas Times, he said, because Arnold would occasionally send him issues in the mail. So he wrote to us, because he thought that someone should know about Fred — about his life. He wasn’t expecting much. “I knew there would be no obituary,” Durst said. “After all, why would a homeless man have an obituary?”
Some of the things Durst claimed in his letter seemed intriguing, even moving. He said that Arnold, who often went by the nickname Billy, had once owned a set of iconic record stores in Charleston, S.C., where he had also been a radio show host and an active promoter of punk bands in the 1980s. He said he’d visited London, Cuba and Russia (that his politics “bordered on Communist”) and had also briefly lived in Colorado, as he preferred a colder climate. He said that Arnold had suffered a number of strokes in recent years, exacerbating many of his other problems. The letter, though, grew stranger as it went on. Durst claimed, for instance, that Arnold had known all the members of The Beatles, and had been particularly good friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. That after Lennon’s death, Arnold and Ono had continued to correspond and had remained close friends. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” he wrote, “when I had to write to Yoko to tell her of Fred’s death.”
“Everything you see here has been donated,” Mote told me when I visited recently, waving proudly around the building, which was cluttered with used furniture, clothing, books and appliances of all varieties. “Even the building was donated.” When it isn’t being utilized as a casual, nondenominational place of worship — “We hang here,” Mote said of his ministerial approach, “I just throw out ideas” — the building offers a shower, laundromat and kitchen for homeless and impoverished locals, and provides necessities like clean underwear, socks and the occasional utility bill payment for an overwhelmed parent. Mote, who wore a faded orange T-shirt and ratty tennis shoes, grew up in the area, and after a 30-year career at AT&T, had returned to the neighborhood, now one of the major terminals of the city’s homeless population, to pursue his spiritual calling.
“Man, sharing the gospel just means sharing love,” he told me, shaking his head disapprovingly as he described certain other more “official” churches nearby, which he believed made no credible efforts at community outreach. One acquaintance, an official at an organized church, had recently told him, “You’re dealing with the people we don’t want to deal with.” From the ceiling of The Shack were hung kayaks, guitars and a disco ball. On a back wall, in large black lettering, someone had transcribed a verse from the Book of Revelations: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him and he with me.”
Several years ago, Fred Arnold had been the one to stand at their door and knock. The Motes used to host regular cookouts near the Stone Crest Apartments, and over time Arnold had overcome his shyness and irascibility, and had begun to stop by. “He was kinda pitiful, just his situation,” Mote remembered, noting that he’d gotten used to seeing Arnold walking his morning rounds to McDonalds, to the library and back. Eventually, Arnold opened up to Mote. He confessed everything — his sex offender status, his avowed friendship with Yoko Ono — and in turn, Mote helped him locate short-term living situations and clothes that fit properly. (Did he really believe that Arnold was friends with Yoko Ono, I asked? “Why not?” he replied.) Mote helped him move, and once even bonded him out of jail, though he now figures Arnold might have been better off had he left him there.
In his kitchen, Mote stood up from his computer and gestured for me to look at his email inbox. There were countless rows of messages from Arnold, detailing emergencies (he seemed to get robbed on a near-daily basis) or asking for help or supplies of some kind or another. Many were simply updates, lonely dispatches from a person who needed someone to care about his wellbeing, to acknowledge the increasing severity of his situation:
May sleep on the outdoor benches tonight, hope I don’t end up with the flu.
I got robbed, assaulted last night in my room by the guy who used to live there. He threw me on the floor and we tore the phone in half!
It was a bit warmer last evening under the moonlight. 40 years in retail and to be outdoors with almost nothing! I am sad.
If you locate any blue jeans … I can use a loaf of bread too.
I have been released from hospital again and I still have nowhere to live and I keep getting wet!
Did you locate shoes for me?
Over time, the tone of these emails became more desperate. Mote admits now that he’d begun to find Arnold occasionally frustrating. As a registered sex offender, there were many regulations about where Arnold was permitted to live — at his level, he couldn’t legally reside within 2,000 feet of a school, park, daycare center or church. This made finding appropriate housing a kind of insoluble puzzle, and so Arnold would often ignore the requirements altogether, inevitably leading to rejection, eviction or arrest. Mote couldn’t keep up with the innumerable embarrassments and difficulties that resulted, and so Arnold’s missives grew tinged with resentment and self-pity. “You have not returned my calls!” he began one letter early last year. “Guess you do not wish to be my friend anymore!” he wrote in another.
Mote drove me by the Stone Crest Apartments where Arnold had often slept. The building still stands, though the electrical meters and breaker boxes have been stripped of their copper and aluminum wiring. The windows and doors of the rooms have been nailed tightly shut with dark brown boards, giving it the appearance of a mausoleum. Mote remembered the week the place was condemned. “Everyone was supposed to be out by that Friday,” he said. “Needless to say, come Monday, Fred was still there.”
We drove on, down an alleyway alongside a FoodWise Supermarket. Beside the building’s dumpsters stood a stack of ripped couches and stained mattresses, on which Arnold had sometimes slept as well. A little further on, behind the store, there had once been a populous homeless camp that Arnold had occasionally frequented. When we got there, we found the place newly clear-cut, a tableau of downed trees and foliage, chainsaws still audible from the other end of the field. On the edge of the old camp, we found two men, Mike and Chuck, who seemed to be there simply to observe the destruction of an old home.
Mike sat in a red lawn chair next to a black suitcase, which contained his wardrobe. They remembered Fred Arnold well, and called him “self-sufficient.” Mike added, “He pretty much kept about himself.” Chuck said that he was no longer homeless himself, being now gainfully employed at a nearby fast-food restaurant, though the experience of living on the streets was something he’d never forget. He’d been in prison six times, he said unprompted, once for arson. “It was over a lady,” he admitted. Mike was a musician — decades ago he had played drums for a North Little Rock band that had achieved some brief momentum. (I looked them up later; they’d opened for Styx and Pat Benatar.) Lately he’s been considering taking up the harmonica and forming a blues group.
The destruction of the camp in front of them was a fact about which they seemed less upset than simply curious. They just wanted to watch. “There’s nothing wrong with sittin’ right here,” Chuck said, and Mike nodded. “It’s peaceful, man.”
There was one other location from Fred Arnold’s final years I had hoped to see. He’d rented a U-Haul storage unit — a fairly compact one, maybe 5 by 10 feet, according to Mote, who had periodically helped him move his belongings in and out. “He tried sleeping there for a few nights, until they came and told him he couldn’t,” Mote said. He’d run an extension cord from the hallway into his unit, and had a desk, on which he’d set up his computer (a cheap one he’d bought with scratch-off lottery ticket winnings, which was later stolen). What else could he have kept in storage, I wondered? Mote remembered “boxes of keepsakes.” Arnold had sold records for four decades, and had once been renowned for his collection. What could have happened to it all? Could it be somewhere here in town, locked away and unclaimed?
Mote didn’t think so. The U-Haul management, he said, had evicted his stuff three or four weeks before he was killed. He shrugged. “I don’t know where it all is now.” There was something else Mote remembered seeing in the unit, however, hanging from one of the walls: a black canvas jacket, which Arnold claimed had been a gift from his friend, Yoko. Embroidered on the back, in white, was the word “IMAGINE.”
The living room was cramped and dim, crowded with medicine bottles, family memorabilia and the vestiges of Mike’s most recent metal scrapping ventures. A true-crime series played on a small television, though no one appeared to be watching it. Spread out on the dining room table were a set of dominoes and an overflowing ashtray. Above the couch hung a large, impressive portrait of a black panther in repose. On the wall next to it was a remarkably life-like penciled sketch of Jesus. Mike explained that his brother, another of Linda’s children, had done the drawing, and was currently in prison. He took the frame down from the wall so that I could better admire its detailed craftsmanship. “I vowed I wouldn’t get a tattoo until my brother got out of the pen,” he told me. “Now you understand why.”
Linda herself lay in a recliner, covered by a blanket, coughing intermittently. She floated in and out of our conversation, alternating between enthusiasm and pained exhaustion, which Mike attributed to the Fentanyl patches she’d been recently prescribed. “The doctors gave me six months to live in September,” she told me more than once. However, she brightened at any discussions of her family, and especially her late brother, whom she had taken in after a stroke had curtailed his retail career in 2006. (Once his sex offender status had been discovered, he had been asked to leave The Cottages.) Speaking to Linda, you are left with the impression of extraordinary kindness but also distance, a strong woman left alone to stew over a doctor’s death sentence.
Mike, who was friendly, earnest and bearded, with a white bandana wrapped around his forehead, rushed frantically around the apartment smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and pulling dense, dusty photo albums from the most unlikely corners of the room. Many of the albums were filled with pictures of wild animals: raccoons, pigs and bobcats, all of which Linda had made a habit of domesticating as pets throughout her life. One particular raccoon — his eyes laser-yellow in the glare of the camera’s flash — seemed to occupy a particular place of prominence in their memories. Linda had named him Chatterbox. “That was my baby,” she’d say softly, whenever we’d turn the page to another photo of the frightened raccoon. Finally, Mike located a picture he’d been looking for. It showed Fred, Linda, their mother and grandparents, all sitting together smiling around a dinner table sometime in the 1950s. We admired it for a moment quietly, before agreeing that it looked like a happy scene.
Arnold was born in Delta, Colo., on Nov. 27, 1948. His mother, Helen, had joined the Dailey Brothers circus three years before with her brother, Cecil — they were both albino, and so were billed as sideshow attractions. Linda was born soon afterward. (Fred and Linda had different fathers, neither of whom they met.) Linda was the only nonalbino of the group; they called her the black sheep of the family. When Fred and Linda were still young children, Helen began manifesting violent symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. In a fit of rage, she once slashed Linda’s face with a fork, and was later accused of attempting to drop her daughter off the railing of a bridge. After the latter incident, Fred and Linda were taken in by their grandparents, John William and Mattie Mae, who relocated them as young children to Charleston, S.C.
In Charleston, Fred moved into the attic, and was “just mischievous as hell,” Linda told me, though in his grandmother’s eyes, “he could do no wrong.” He was briefly enrolled in a school for the blind, as his vision had been impaired since birth, though he disliked the notion that he was disabled. “I’m not handicapped,” he once told a student newspaper in South Carolina, “because in order to be handicapped, you have to have lost something. I haven’t lost anything. I was born this way.”
Arnold has himself written about his primal encounter with The Beatles, by all accounts the most important revelation of his life. The story can be found in a late ’70s issue of a zine called Beatlefan. He wrote that his earlier experiences with “church music” and novelty pop had largely left him cold. He’d heard The Beach Boys thanks to a friend’s older brother, but, “I didn’t care about them,” he wrote, “nor those Motown songs.” During lunch one day in February of 1964, however, he heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on a little transistor radio. He was 15. The song electrified him. The DJ announced that the group would be performing the following Sunday on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and on the night, he found himself “glued” to the TV. This particular televised moment has long since acquired the sheen of cliche for a generation, but I’d submit that Arnold’s viewing was something of a fundamentally different order. Simply put — though there’s nothing simple about it — Fred Arnold’s life now made sense to him. “He acted like they were a gift from heaven,” Linda remembered of that night, and as Arnold himself would later put it in an interview, “They are all gods really, at least to me.”
The next morning, Arnold sold all of his belongings and began a Beatles collection that would grow to become one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Linda worked in her brother’s store for a time, but never shared his Beatles enthusiasm. Elvis was her guy. “I wasn’t for all that beat-bop and shit; I was raised on country,” she told me. As Arnold’s taste became more ambitious and unconventional, Linda felt she’d been left behind. One obsession especially bothered her. “He’d play Yoko Ono and I’m telling you what, that wasn’t good with me,” she said. “I bet I could sing better than her.”
Though Fennell concedes that Arnold was “probably not the best businessman around,” he was notorious for being able to locate any record in the store on command, despite his impaired vision. Customers would occasionally try and take advantage of him — dropping a $10 bill on the counter, thinking he’d mistake it for a $100 bill — but he rarely fell for this sort of thing. For a time, he kept a “Beatles Museum” in a room in the back of the store, but worried the ceiling would leak and destroy his prized collection, so he moved much of his rare material into an adjoining warehouse. Rather than live in apartments, for much of his career Arnold preferred to live in his stores — typically in a back room, where he’d stash his money in the microwave.
In 1975, Fennell profiled Arnold for the Post & Courier, as an embodiment of the continued existence of “Beatlemania” in the wake of the group’s demise. Arnold’s pride (and obsessive compulsion) leapt off the page. “I have 234 different Beatles albums from 17 countries,” Arnold told him. “Along with several hundred 45s, two Beatles lunch boxes, a Beatles game, a can of Beatles Talc, two Beatles pillows, a Beatles bank and many Beatles films, posters, books, coins, bracelets, shirts, mobiles, ticket stubs, tapes of recordings not on albums, photos, slides, magazines, dolls, cards, buttons and promotion material.” Fennell himself had become drawn to the outer limits of collecting, inspired by afternoons at The Odyssey. With Arnold’s store as his exclusive distributor, he launched a Beatles-centric bootleg record label, Melvin Records, that would go on to gain an enduring cult reputation for its bizarre design aesthetic (many of its records featuring Arnold’s catchphrases in tribute) and consistently impressive archeological discoveries (live sets, phone interviews, demos and other rarities).
Meanwhile, Arnold was climbing the ranks of the Beatles fan clubs and had begun attempting to make contact with his heroes. He went to see George Harrison live in Atlanta, attended both of John Lennon’s “One to One” benefit concerts in New York City, and along with a few other fortunate super-fans, talked his way into spending two weeks in 1974 as a fly-on-the-wall in Nashville, while Paul McCartney recorded a never-released Wings album called “ColdCuts.” As Arnold later told an interviewer, “I was aggressive enough to be at the right places at the right time, that’s all.”
Friends recall Arnold disappearing for weeks at a time, and returning with deliberately vague stories suggesting he’d spent time with John and Yoko in New York. As a local fan club president, he’d get offered occasional promotional opportunities, and meeting the band was apparently part of the deal. “John, you just feel in the atmosphere around you that he’s greater than you are,” Arnold told a reporter about his first visit with Lennon. “He doesn’t necessarily feel that way — you just feel that way.” And Ono? “Yoko,” he hesitated, “I just feel comfortable with. She’s very natural, normal, intelligent and intellectual. A bright lady; very bright.”
When Lennon was murdered outside his apartment in December 1980, a number of newspapers reached out to Arnold, by now an elder-statesman in the fan community, for comment. “Who would kill him?” Arnold asked a reporter from the United Press International, whose article was syndicated all over the world. He compared the act to “killing Billy Graham.” To the Associated Press, Arnold noted his own deep depression and that of his customers, adding, “The world has been deprived of one of the four gods.” By that time, Arnold’s collection exceeded 1,000 Beatles records from 35 different countries. In the aftermath of the band’s break-up and Lennon’s death, Arnold had discovered the great cause of his life: “My eventual goal is to one day open a Beatles museum in New York and take people on tours,” he told a reporter, who identified him as the “world’s 2nd largest collector of Beatle paraphernalia.” “Of course I could never sell or part with all my souvenirs and memorabilia,” he told her, “but I’d love to talk to people as I have talked to you.”
In the ’80s, Fred renamed his store The Prism and began increasingly to embrace the avant-garde. Friends wondered openly if Yoko Ono’s influence might be to blame. Fennell and the rest of the city’s old-school Beatles-fan community found his interest in Ono baffling, almost treasonous. “He was much more enamored with Yoko than with Lennon,” Fennell told me, still shuddering at the thought. “We found it very weird.”
The Prism became an important meeting place for Charleston’s emerging punk community, and Arnold enthusiastically embraced the new subculture. His employees wore facial piercings and spiked collars, and Arnold started booking shows for groups like the Dead Kennedys, developing longstanding relationships with artists like Jello Biafra, Wendy O. Williams and GG Allin. He kept a cage of live rats in the center of his store, a gimmick that appealed to his new customers. Online, you can find a number of nostalgic tributes to the ’80s Charleston punk scene, many of which cite The Prism as a crucial gateway to the underground. (Jack Hunter, a radio host and former writer and aide for Rand Paul, told me he purchased his “entire Sex Pistols record collection there when I was in high school.”) You can imagine the appeal of punk’s proudly outcast ethos to the albino child of a paranoid schizophrenic. For their part, the punks made Arnold into a kind of mascot, “Billy ‘Bino,” and several of the online remembrances contain speculation as to the mystery of his whereabouts.
In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the coast of Charleston. The Category 4 storm brought with it winds of up to 140 mph, and large areas of the city were devastated, Arnold’s store included. He estimated the initial inventory loss at $10,000 — the roof of the store’s warehouse was dislodged entirely in the storm. He lost electricity for two weeks, and, as he told Billboard in an interview the following month, he assumed the resulting lack of air conditioning had inflicted even further damage. Moreover, Arnold had no insurance. “I’ve been in business for over 18 years, and we never had insurance for our inventory,” Arnold said. “We hardly ever have hurricanes here. I think the last one was in 1958.”
Among the objects lost were important pieces of Arnold’s Beatles collection, artifacts of incalculable sentimental value. On top of everything else, there was the cruel fate of his favorite pets. “When the hurricane came, the rats died in the flood,” Durst told me. “It was a sad day for him.”
Joining his uncle in Grand Junction, Arnold did the only thing he could think to do: He opened a new store, this one called CD and Video Exchange. He would spend only a few years in Grand Junction, but they would prove to be decisive years — more specifically, they would prove to be the years of his undoing.
I asked a number of Arnold’s friends and family members about the nature of the incident that led to his lifetime inclusion on the sex offender registry, and heard a number of different explanations, ranging from the benign to the more serious but hazily imprecise. I turned instead to the Grand Junction Police Department. From the police, I learned that Arnold was arrested in 1991 on charges of “Inducement of Child Prostitution.” According to the incident report, Arnold behaved suggestively toward a 16-year-old boy, who had come into the store looking for a job. Arnold “let him look at the pornographic magazines,” the report says, and allegedly asked if he could videotape him masturbating. Later the boy reported Arnold to the police, who searched the store and arrested him. Looking through a stack of job applications on the counter, the officer noted, “There were hardly any female names.”
“Fred didn’t like to talk about that part of his story for obvious reasons,” Durst said, though he understands it was the major impediment to Arnold’s receiving help when he needed it later in life. “When I would try and get someone to help him, most were reluctant because of his background. [But] the fact that he was on the sex offender list does not minimize his worth as a person.” Little Rock homeless shelters are, as a rule, generally not available to registered sex offenders: “To my knowledge there is not a shelter in town (or even the entire state, for that matter) that will accept any sex offender,” Aaron Reddin, founder of the homeless outreach nonprofit The One Inc., told me. Mote, who didn’t know the specifics of Arnold’s record, referred to this as “the bad part of his world,” though he stressed that he never saw or heard of Arnold offending anyone here in town. Officer Ray Moreno, who knew Arnold from the neighborhood, agreed. “He didn’t bother anybody,” he said. “He left people alone.”
It’s fruitless to speculate about the sexuality of the deceased, though one close family member told me Arnold self-identified as gay. In a 2014 letter to a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge, pleading to be allowed to return to live at The Cottages with his sister, Arnold referred to the Colorado incident as “one nonviolent offense” more than two decades ago, arguing, “I have done nothing to justify a lifetime registry.” He also included the contact information for a cardiologist he’d consulted after his most recent stroke, a doctor he claimed could “tell you that I am unable to have sex because of my heart.” According to his nephew Mike, Arnold was also HIV positive. Mike said he’d learned this from Officer Moreno, who, when I asked, explained, “When a person is identified as HIV positive, anytime we get a call that involves them, we are alerted to that.”
Mote had initially insisted that Arnold’s death was “nothing but an accident,” but the longer we spoke, he admitted that he could imagine a potential scenario in which Arnold had simply given up. “Living where he did and how he did, it seemed like everything was against him,” he said. Arnold’s nephew Mike was blunter in his assessment. “I think he done it on purpose,” he said of the collision. “He’s been blind all his life. He’s made it around New York City, Russia, all kinds of places. But he ain’t never got run over before, know what I’m saying?”
Among the dusty photo albums at Mike and Linda’s apartment were several candid photographs of Ono hanging out at what looked like a recording studio or backstage area; in one of them, Arnold and Ono posed together. Days later, Durst forwarded me a letter from Ono’s attorney, which confirmed their relationship and inquired about the whereabouts of “certain recordings” that “Mr. Arnold had always mentioned to Ms. Ono.” Even Yoko Ono, it appeared, was curious about the status of Arnold’s never-to-be-completed Beatles Museum, the state of which remains one of the unsolved mysteries of Fred Arnold’s life.
I reached out to Ono herself, through her attorney, and after several weeks of alternately encouraging and discouraging messages from her understandably cautious legal representative, I was permitted to ask her about her relationship with Arnold. “Yes, he was a sweet friend,” she wrote me. “He loved my work and always encouraged me to do more.” She added that “Fred did send me letters from time to time, [though] we didn’t really see each other in later years.” I asked if she had been aware of his living situation in Little Rock, and she confirmed that she had been. “I didn’t think he wanted to talk about being homeless so much,” she said. “He was a very proud and artistic person.”
Nevertheless, I learned also that Ono had supported him financially in his final years — to a life-saving extent. Durst sent me a photocopy of a 2009 check made out to Arnold from the account of “Yoko Ono Lennon,” in the amount of $10,000. Mike told me he’d seen others just like it. During his last years, when he’d had no place to live or sleep, he’d at least had Yoko Ono. “Dear Fred,” Ono had written on an accompanying note to the 2009 check, “Here’s your microwave oven and more. Have fun. Lots of love, Yoko.”