After An Uncertain Past, 'juan' Finds a Future in Which Home Is More Than An Airport

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Unlike the other 200,000 people who pass through Los Angeles International Airport each day, a teenager named Juan wasn't going anywhere. Apparently without the comforts of home or family, the diminutive adolescent had made the sprawling concrete-and-steel complex his final destination. Subsisting on handouts, sleeping in windswept passageways, Juan lived in the airport on and off for the past three years. Seemingly unable to speak, he was both a mysterious presence and a familiar sight. To the occasional traveler who noticed him, Juan was a harmless vagrant. To those who worked at the airport, he was part of "the Shadow People," the nickname given permanent hangers-on.

But to airport custodian Mellie Thompson, 46, "He was a waif in the lions' den." The divorced mother of four, Mellie first encountered Juan while working the night shift in 1980. "He was dirty and rough-looking," she recalls, "but I looked at him and thought, 'That could be my kid.' So I went and got him food and a drink. Ever since, we've been friends." Earlier this month that friendship blossomed into a more meaningful relationship: A juvenile court in L.A. placed the boy under Mellie Thompson's temporary care in her home.

His future appears more secure now, but his past remains a mystery. Nothing is known about his life prior to his appearance at the airport, although employees there discovered that he understands some Spanish. Still, he does not speak, and the airport seems to have been the only constant in his life. No matter how often he was detained by authorities or placed in a hospital for brief observation, Juan invariably took off again for Los Angeles International. "We got tired of putting him in jail," says airport security chief Al Reed, who notes that emotionally and mentally disturbed people sometimes frequent airports to "feel more a part of the mainstream."

At the airport, Juan's income depended upon the carelessness of strangers. He scouted parking lots for baggage carts that had been rented and then abandoned by travelers in a hurry. For each cart returned, Juan pocketed 25¢, and the quarters mounted up. The enterprising youngster sometimes flashed thick wads of dollar bills to acquaintances. But then, remembers Mellie Thompson, "He would disappear for days and come back with no money. I felt that he was giving it to a family somewhere or maybe helping out people he liked."

After their initial meeting, Mellie began moonlighting as Juan's surrogate mother. She made him brush his teeth. She brought him clean clothes and when he became sick or cold, she took Juan home to sleep under the same roof with her children, Elbert, 15, and Reba, 12. (Carolyn, 24, and Nicholas, 23, are living on their own.) Acting on a hunch, she began to call the boy Juan.

Despite Juan's affection for the airport, it was not an entirely safe haven. "He was found once with a note that said, 'If I see you around here again, you're going to jail each and every time,' " says Virginia McKinney, director of the Los Angeles Center for Communicative Development. Mellie Thompson contacted that organization after she discovered Juan cut and badly beaten in a darkened hallway one night. (McKinney says that although Juan does not speak, possibly in part because of slight retardation, he does have some vocal capacity.) The two women approached government agencies about Juan's case, but without identification papers, social service organizations were reluctant to provide assistance.

Earlier this month a few pieces of the puzzle fell together. News reports of Juan's plight in Los Angeles brought forward a Baptist minister who had been appointed his guardian in San Diego during one of the boy's periodic disappearances from the airport. The minister, Wallace Recio, said the boy had had a piece of paper in his pocket with the name "Juan Tovar Bohlete" on it. Trying to determine Juan's country of origin, Recio showed him photos of Central and South American airports. Since Juan smiled and pointed excitedly to a picture of the Bogotá, Colombia facility, Recio surmised that the boy had once been there. He also believes that Juan has an insatiable case of wanderlust. "I would go on business trips down by the Mexican border, and he would get angry at me when I didn't take him along. That's when he'd run away." Juan fled San Diego for good, and reappeared at the Los Angeles airport, five months ago.

In the court action three weeks ago, Recio relinquished his guardianship in favor of Thompson. Juan was placed under Mellie's foster care until Feb. 18, when another hearing has been scheduled. Meanwhile authorities are trying to locate relatives in Colombia, and if none are found, Thompson may ask to adopt Juan.

But Juan's troubles are not over. Last December Mellie Thompson was laid off from her $15,000-a-year position as an airport custodian. An arthritic condition has so far kept her from securing another position, and she is living off her small savings. The first day Juan was placed under her care, he ran off to the airport again and was missing for 15 hours. Nevertheless, Thompson remains hopeful. Though they mainly communicate through gestures, she has acquired a Spanish/English dictionary to try to talk with Juan. "What he needs is a loving home where he can come and go," she says. "All I want to do is take care of him."

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