Homeless Veteran Commits Suicide Outside Phoenix VA

Thomas Michael Murphy, a Phoenix resident and U.S. Army veteran, took his own life in the parking lot outside the VA Phoenix Regional Benefit Office.

Murphy, 53, e-mailed a suicide note to his siblings and New Times at 7:34 p.m. Sunday and shot himself a few minutes later. The same note was discovered in his 1995 white Toyota pickup truck, which was parked nearby.

In the letter, he explained that his arthritis was getting worse, and he “thanked” the VA for not helping him. A representative from the VA office, Jean Schaefer, declined to comment on Murphy’s medical records, citing privacy laws, but did call what happened “a tragedy” and said that the VA actively was looking into the situation.

The Phoenix VA has spent months in the national spotlight for issues of poor management, long wait lists, and falsified records. And most recently, late last week, the family of U.S. Army veteran Gene Spencer announced that it was suing the city’s VA for giving him an erroneous diagnosis that they say led to his suicide.

Suicide and homelessness “are well documented among veterans,” Schaefer says. “Unlike other diseases, where they can just give you a pill, these are some tough issues for veterans, and there is no one solution.” These are two issues we’re spending a lot of time and energy and talent on,” she adds, “because they are incredibly important.”

Until Sunday afternoon, Murphy lived in the 209 West Jackson Street complex, a building of 297 affordable single-occupancy apartments known for high crime and open-air drug deals. He wrote in his letter that he “can no longer afford to pay [his] rent” and had been in touch with New Times in the past about homelessness and affordable housing problems in Phoenix.

Billi Hocking, manager of 209 West Jackson, declined to comment.

Friend and neighbor Joan Norberg tells New Times that Murphy was evicted from his apartment Sunday, and that she had helped him pack his belongings into his truck.

“He looked like he had been crying. He didn’t look like himself,” she says. “It’s a really hopeless feeling living here. I can understand how you could get really depressed.”

She and Murphy had been friends for more than a year, and she adds that losing him is “a huge scar on this place.”

One of Murphy’s brothers, Scott, who lives in Missouri, tells New Times that family members had lost touch with him.

"The last contact I had with him was about three years ago,” Scott says. “He basically told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore.”

The family suspects that he suffered from mental illness and members plan to contact the VA about Murphy’s medical records.

Murphy, from Nebraska, served as a television production specialist for the U.S. Army at Fort Knox and at the Belgium Bureau. He moved to Phoenix in 1986 and worked as a freelance videographer

In his note, he writes that “with the arthritis in my left hip, sleeping is often difficult, and I now cannot do most of the work I used to do. I cannot stand on my feet for more than an hour without massive doses of painkillers, and now I cannot put a camera on my shoulder and operate it successfully for any amount of time. In TV, it’s often 14 hours on your feet. Also, VA wants to take my painkillers away from me, because of what some hillbillies do with it illicitly. Thanks for that, too, VA. Not that I can afford them, anyway.”

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser