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Veteran found dead in Tidal Basin had wandered the country for 20 years

The setting sun hits the dome of the Jefferson Memorial as seen from across the Tidal Basin on Aug. 28, 2014.

MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES

By PETER HERMANN | The Washington Post | Published: May 14, 2018

WASHINGTON — Percy Ronald Chess left home for good 20 years ago and made his way across America. He had served in the Air Force in the early 1970s, then rejoined relatives in Miami. But he struggled to hold a job, and his family believes he suffered from mental illness.

At first he'd wander for weeks or months. But one day he didn't come back.

Over the years, Chess's relatives scoured the Internet, tracking his travels through his arrest record of mostly petty crimes of loitering, prowling, stealing and receiving stolen property. They found signs he'd been in Florida, Alabama, Washington, Tennessee. Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia.

They think Chess hitchhiked and earned a few dollars fixing cars and broken machines - skills he learned as a child. They tried to find him, to help him, but they were never able to catch up.

His story came to a sad end on March 31, when a tourist in a paddle boat found his body floating in the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial. It took authorities two weeks to find his family. Chess was 65. D.C. police do not suspect foul play; his cause of death is pending.

Chess's family plans to bury him Tuesday at Georgia National Cemetery for veterans, outside Atlanta, where several of his relatives now live.

"In different times and different circumstances, he could have had a really great life," said his niece, Margaret Smith-Williams, 33, who lives in Miami and last saw her uncle when she was 13. "You don't want your loved ones to pass away alone."

An obituary written by his family notes that Chess was received "with much excitement and great joy" when he was born in Miami on Aug. 21, 1952.

Chess's sudden death, his obituary says, "is most disquieting and without answers."

The family did not try to hide Chess's troubles. They wrote that the man who had once coveted family and church had returned from military service a recluse, disappearing for long spells even as his parents kept a room for him. Not much is known about his military service, but records indicate he was never deployed overseas.

"Percy lived his life out in the open," the obituary says, "sometimes alone and sometimes sleeping in the rough terrors and fierce weather of the night. . . . We can only speculate what life may have been for Percy from day-to-day."

Relatives said they prefer to recall Chess as a youth - a boy who looked after his younger sister and an enterprising teen who would take the toaster apart and put it back together again. He read books on engineering, fixed his neighbor's cars.

Chess also set out to "master the game that matched his name," said Smith-Williams, his niece. He spent hours studying strategy and plotting moves far ahead in the game. His family said he used "his quick wit and charming savvy" to draw competitors into what he called "his game."

His family described him as a "cool dresser" who is "remembered for having 'swag' even before any of us knew what 'swag' meant."

Chess enlisted in the Air Force in May 1971 at age 19 after he had graduated from high school in Miami. What happened during those years remains a mystery to his family.

From his discharge notice, it appears Chess never left the United States, although he served during the final years of the Vietnam War. The one-page form the Air Force provided his family after his death lists his service time as two years, eight months and 18 days, none overseas. It notes that Chess served in an engineering division as a tractor operator.

He was honorably discharged in February 1974 from McChord Air Force Base, now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Washington. He went back to his family home in Miami, but seemed different. Relatives said he appeared to be suffering from mental illness, although they can't recall a diagnosis.

"He was very secluded," said one of his sisters, Elouise Chess Williams, who lives in Atlanta. "It was as if he was in a totally different world."

He retreated to his room for dinner, eating whatever was served as long as it came with ketchup. He never married, and had no children. Over the next 20 years, he often left for weeks, sometimes months, but would return, sometimes with bruises from being beaten or bitten by dogs. He hitchhiked, carrying a mat to sleep on and a baseball bat.

He went with Williams when she moved to South Carolina. He did odd jobs but couldn't keep them. His father, retired from a gas company, started a yard service that could have meant steady work for Chess.

But by then Chess was drinking and refusing to take his medication. He emerged from his room only at night. He walked away from programs his family had enrolled him in to help. His sister said she paid $500 to put him in a mental health facility but he didn't stay long. "He would come out and say we were the ones who were crazy, he wasn't," Williams said.

One day 20 years ago, Chess left.

In the years that followed, if a family member lived close to a police station or a courthouse where they thought he might be, they'd speed over in hopes of finding him. They never did.

One cousin, learning he had just been released from a jail in Jacksonville, Florida, drove around the city all night, but with no luck. One of Chess's brothers is convinced he saw Chess walking along a highway in Atlanta, but by the time he reached the next exit and turned around, the man was gone.

In mid-April, one of Chess's brothers in Florida got a call from the police in Fort Lauderdale, who had been contacted by the police in the District of Columbia.

They had located Percy Chess.

Though not an unexpected ending, it was still tragic.

"We're talking over 40 years of him coming and going, and us really wondering if he's dead or alive," said his sister, Williams. "In one way it's a relief. But it's sad because he was so much a part of us."

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The Washington Post's Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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