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Family: Drowning victim says he was not homeless; befriended those in need

Gladys Diaz her brother Ricky Hernandez hold picture their father RoberHernandez whose body was found Tuesday Fox River Elgin.

Gladys Diaz and her brother Ricky Hernandez hold a picture of their father Roberto Hernandez whose body was found Tuesday in the Fox River in Elgin. October 11, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:21AM

ELGIN — Roberto Hernandez was not homeless, his family says.

Although he often could be found by the Fox River — near the Grand Victoria Casino or the Clock Tower Plaza shopping center — Hernandez always had a bed to stay in and a family to go home to, the 52-year-old Elgin man’s family said this week.

What he also had, according to his sister, children, nieces and nephews, was a deep caring for other people and Elgin’s homeless population. And he had a problem with alcohol, the family conceded.

On Thursday, the family was finalizing funeral arrangements for Hernandez, whose body was found in the river Tuesday morning. Initial autopsy reports indicate he had drowned, and there was no sign of foul play, said his daughter, Gladys Diaz. The family is waiting on results from a toxicology report.

A week before Hernandez was found, his family was worried because they hadn’t heard from him.

His sister, Anna Hernandez, said she searched for her brother after he didn’t pick up his bicycle — which he nearly always had with him — from another relative’s house. She began searching on Oct. 2, even driving by the Clock Tower Plaza eight times on Saturday in hopes of finding Roberto. On Sunday, she called one of his daughters to let them know their dad was missing.

One of those daughters, Elizabeth Hernandez, made a missing-person report to police on Monday.

On Tuesday, his son, Robert Jr., was searching for his dad near the Clock Tower Plaza when he saw emergency personnel nearby at Festival Park.

Police officials said they knew Hernandez as a local homeless resident, but his children said that was not who their father was.

“He wasn’t homeless,” said another son, Ricky Hernandez. “A lot of people know my dad, my friends from school.” And while his dad had problems, homelessness was not one of them, he said.

For the last several months, Anna Hernandez had been paying for Roberto to stay in an efficiency room. But that agreement ended Oct. 1. She’d picked up Roberto’s belongings that day without seeing him.

Stand-up guy

At other times, Roberto would stay with any one of his four Elgin children in their homes, and could stay sober for several months at a time, they said. But even in good times, he’d head down to the river and to homeless camps — protecting and standing up for people, walking with them to wherever they were staying, and going with them to fill out paperwork at social and job service agencies.

Over the years, he picked up the nickname of “El Secre,” a shorthanded version of the Spanish word for secretary, his family said. Roberto would translate for those who didn’t speak English, help them with paperwork, and help them navigate social services, Anna Hernandez said.

Although he had a place to live, he always cared about the homeless, said his nephew, Pablo Crespo.

“If they were arguing, fighting, even when he was drinking, he still cared for them.”

His daughter, Gladys Diaz, remembered when her dad once came to her home bruised and bloodied after standing up for another homeless man when someone tried to steal $5 from him.

Earlier this year, Roberto had been in Florida with another nephew’s family and got a job at a tomato factory. Even there, Roberto would find the homeless.

“He would give them money and food. He wasn’t in any condition to do that, but he was always like that,” said Luis Crespo.

When staying with family, he helped around the house with any of his six grandchildren, and many more nieces and nephews and their children.

“My boys, would play the guitar for them, playing around and having fun with the kids,” said niece Marisol Crespo.

It was his willingness to protect his friends that concerned Anna Hernandez the most — that while his heart was in the right place, it might not have been in his best interests, she said.

“That is what I was concerned about. I’d ask him, ‘What are you doing in the streets at night? You have a room, you have air conditioning, you can sleep with no one bothering you,’ ” she said. “He would say, ‘I have to go look for them. I have to tell them to stop arguing and to take care of them.’ ”

“He cared about everybody, but he didn’t really care about himself,” said Pablo Crespo. “He cared more about other people that he did himself.”

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