Man who shined light on Las Vegas’ tunnel dwellers moving on

The afternoon sun hammers hard as Matthew O’Brien approaches the entrance to the storm-drain tunnel, this solemn gateway to a subterranean netherworld inhabited by living things — insects, animals, even humans.

He pauses at the mouth of the twin shafts that run beneath the south end of the Las Vegas Strip, standing inside a concrete culvert littered with beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and a tangle of soiled blankets as traffic whizzes past just a few feet away.

He removes his sunglasses, dons a knit cap and peers cautiously into the abyss.

These first moments inside will be critical, before his eyes acclimate to the darkness. As much as he can, he wants to know what — or who — awaits just beyond the weakening beams of daylight.

“It hits you as you look into the darkness,” he said. “At first, you’re not sure whether a tunnel goes across the street or for 6 or 7 miles. Before you step inside, you’re nervous, on edge. You don’t want any drama right away because you’re blind. Even after your eyes adjust, sometimes you have to summon the nerve to keep going.”

O’Brien, 46, isn’t any sanitation worker and he isn’t a cop. He’s a former journalist who since 2002 has embarked on a project to plumb the 250-mile-long network of underground drainage tunnels that run beneath the Las Vegas Valley like murky arteries or godless catacombs.

What started as a magazine writer’s daredevil foray into the unknown soon became something more: an unlikely urban outreach. As he inched through the gloom with a flashlight for guidance and a golf club to fight off the sticky spider webs and plumb the depth of running water, O’Brien discovered that the tunnels are home to a complex human subculture with its own rule-of-law.

Denizens of the dark

There in the depths, often lurking directly beneath the lavish casino gaming salons on the surface, an entire community of castaways has turned the tunnels into makeshift domiciles that range from sleeping bags tossed onto the concrete to makeshift bedrooms featuring painted walls, lighting and queen-sized beds propped off the floor with milk crates or shopping carts.

These residents, many fighting addictions, bad decisions and skeins of rotten luck, seek out the darkness, enduring the vermin, bacteria and the occasional flash flood as a way to escape the heat and police harassment. O’Brien estimates some 300 people call the tunnels home.

There’s John, a former Florida bar owner who after seven years here considers the tunnels a respite from the “real world,” the demand to “pay bills, pay bills and pay bills.” There are residents who read by flashlight, or relax on chaise lounges in the darkness. And there’s Spike, a rangy 62-year-old with a constellation of tattoos, a Mohawk and a wrist-ring handcuff he wears as a bracelet.

In 2002, O’Brien co-wrote two stories on the tunnel culture for the Las Vegas CityLife alternative weekly, traveling underground with a journalist companion who carried a Samurai-sword-like knife. But after the stories were published, something drew O’Brien back into the dark. This time, he went in alone, carrying his tape recorder and flashlight to conduct further research into the hard lives and predicaments of these often-destitute tunnel denizens.

He eventually published the book “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas.” He believed the broken lives portrayed in the book would bring concrete results, good or bad — either a dreaded police crackdown of the tunnel subculture or a renewed outreach there by social service agencies.

Neither happened. So O’Brien founded the nonprofit Shine a Light, which collects and distributes food, water and other necessities for the people living down under. Fifteen years later, he is still going back, no longer as a journalist, but as someone tending to the needs of people he now considers friends.

On a recent afternoon, O’Brien cautions two other tunnel visitors to wait while he steps inside the gloom. After so many years, he takes such precautions not as much for his own safety but as a concern he might be invading someone’s privacy.

O’Brien walks into the shadows and extends a hand to a man named Gordon, a Pennsylvania native who has called these tunnels home for four years. The temperature inside is 20 degrees lower than the sweltering weather outside.

“Hey Gordon,” O’Brien says, his voice light. “How’ve ya been?”

The man takes the question literally, dropping his shoulders heavily.

“Not good,” he says. “My back’s really bad. Some days, I find it hard to even move.”

Gordon is 56, “but I feel like 76.”

O’Brien lowers his backpack, rifling its contents for hand-outs. He keeps up a steady patter of conversation, raising his voice over the roar of departing jets at the nearby airport.

He offers Gordon a snack-sized package of Pop Tarts. Sensing hesitation, he quickly includes a bag of Goldfish crackers.

“Everybody likes Goldfish,” O’Brien says.

O'Brian hands out pop-tarts and goldfish
Las Vegas Review-Journal

His offerings include socks, underwear, shampoo, deodorant and bottles of water. Gordon extends an unsteady hand, gnarled and blackened from a life both above and below ground.

“What’s new down here?” O’Brien continues.

The two talk briefly about such colorful residents as a man known as “the Mayor,” as well as those who have moved on from the tunnels. As he talks, O’Brien slips Gordon a $10 McDonald’s gift card, re-shoulders his backpack and moves deeper into the darkness.

Life underground

O’Brien is parts urban spelunker, psychiatrist and tour guide; he’s someone who readily interprets the environment at the end of his flashlight beam. As he walks, his 6-foot-3 frame bends slightly to accommodate the tunnel’s low, rounded ceiling. After so many visits, he knows to walk in the tunnel’s center where spider webs and their makers are less likely to make one’s skin crawl.

Like a summer counselor around a campfire, he lists the tunnel’s nonhuman inhabitants he has encountered: rats, mice, stray cats, strangely glowing crawfish, cockroaches and once, a spider “the size of a Volkswagen.” He once heard a rumor that mountain lions sometimes entered the tunnels in search of food.

His book portrays the realm as a metaphor for the dark state-of-mind that brought many residents here in the first place.

“If (these walls) could speak,” he wrote, “they would tell startling tales; tales of addiction, desperation and madness; of loneliness, love and regret; of triumph, disappointment, and, yes, death.”

The writing is evocative, describing a place that “had no air, no sound, no light. It was as still and dark as the inside of a coffin.” He tells of clutching his flashlight and entering one tunnel “with the uneasiness of walking into the barrel of a gun. I was ambushed by darkness. It flowed along the floor, walls and ceiling like floodwater.”

On this day, O’Brien pauses, shining his light on a graffiti scrawl. He’s seen phrases from Yeats, Conrad and Milton, all penned by down-and-out denizens of the deep pondering the fate of mankind. This one is personal, even revelatory. “I think of myself as a sensitive intelligent human,” it reads, “with the soul of a clown which forces me to blow it at most important moments.”

The tunnel guide shakes his head: “There’s something about the tunnels — maybe it’s the drugs or alcohol — that turns people into philosophers.”

Dangers down under

In the dark, he senses a figure ahead. He calls out, observing one of the unwritten rules of the tunnels. Encampments are considered people’s homes; you don’t just blunder through them. You first ask permission, and if no one is there, you turn around rather than trespass.

There are other dangers. Flash floods can wage surprise attacks, leaving tunnel residents to scramble up ladders to avoid the torrents, or toss their belongings into a shopping cart for a fast getaway. On this day, a basketball, soccer ball and several golf balls tumble past, presumably deposited here by a recent tide of storm water. O’Brien also has encountered an iron safe, oxygen tank and even an automobile swept into the storm drains by the relentless current.

He points to a water mark on the tunnel wall to demonstrate just how high flood waters rise down here, warning that the torrents can rise a foot per minute. Once, a tunnel resident rode his mattress on a black wave of water until he reached sunlight. Last year, a flash-flood surprised a number of people inside this tunnel, including a couple named Jazz and Sharon. Jazz survived, but Sharon’s body was found a mile downstream. She was one of three tunnel-dwellers who drowned that day.

Tunnel vision

O’Brien first descended into the tunnels on the heels of a rapist and murderer.

In April 2002, something snapped inside Timmy “T.J.” Weber: He killed his girlfriend and one of her sons, and raped her 14-year-old daughter before going on the run, seeking shelter in the drainage ditches beneath Las Vegas.

Tunnels beneath Vegas
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Curiosity drew O’Brien to follow in his footsteps after Weber’s arrest and later conviction. “I wondered what Weber experienced in the storm drain,” he wrote in the introduction of his book. “What he saw, what he heard, what he smelled. How, apparently without a light source, he’d splashed more than three miles upstream. Did clues of his escape route remain? Could he hear the police dogs howling overhead? The sirens screaming?”

And so, O’Brien writes, he grabbed his tape recorder and went in. “I pressed ‘Play’ and ‘Record,’ snapped on the flashlight, and followed him.”

At the time, O’Brien was the managing editor of CityLife, so he assigned the tunnel story to contributor Joshua Ellis and tagged along as a reluctant observer as he searched for his tunnel legs. Together, the pair charged into the underground space. Ellis wore a trench coat, knit cap, head lamp and combat boots. He carried an 18-inch curved knife “that could gut a shark.” O’Brien wielded a 7-iron.

Colleagues at CityLife thought the pair had lost their minds.

“I told Matt, ‘You’re gonna get killed,’” recalled Jarret Keene, who edited the pair’s tunnel series. “I was scared for him. We were all concerned. We thought it was kooky.”

Even after the stories were published, O’Brien returned to the deep to continue research for his book, this time replacing his golf club with an expandable baton.

Turning point

The journey helped turn him into an activist.

“He never struck me as someone who was particularly activist. But he’s done an incredible amount of good in the last decade and a half,” Ellis said.

“Beneath the Neon” was published in 2007, setting off an international media interest in the people of the tunnels. Television, radio and print reporters flocked to Las Vegas for an excursion into the storm drains. An art exhibit based on O’Brien’s findings was staged downtown.

“One of the reasons the subject received as much attention was the irony of having this dark and gray underworld existing right below the bright lights of the casinos,” O’Brien said. “If I had explored the tunnels below, say, the city of Atlanta, it would not have had the same appeal.”

But O’Brien did not flaunt the tunnel dwellers for his own ends. He only escorted journalists with the legitimate goal to publicize the strength and resilience of people who lived there. And he encouraged them to make a contribution to assist in their cause, just as he was doing.

Into the light

Word has spread throughout the storm drain community: O’Brien is leaving Las Vegas.

After 20 years here as an writer, editor and teacher, he’s moving to Central America to teach and to write. One of the toughest parts of the move, he said, is walking away from the tunnels. But O’Brien is working on a parting salute to the people he has met there. He has recruited volunteers to continue his “Shine a Light” outreach. He is also at work on a sequel to “Beneath the Neon” to tell the stories about the survivors who have walked out of the darkness and into the light.

“I want to tell an inspirational story about people who made it out,” he said. “It’s an oral account of the people who have survived the storm drains.”

He has interviewed nearly three dozen former residents, people like Bill Richardson, a military veteran who is now working under the Texas sun.

“That’s my bro right there,” Richardson said of O’Brien. “He climbed down the ladder that led to the tunnel where I lived. And then he saved my life.”

Cynthia Goodwin also once lived in the Las Vegas storm drains. Now she works at a rehab center in Texas: “Matt didn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes the things he gave us came out of his own pocket,” she recalled. “He was the only person who treated us like we were human.”

Rick Ethredge, Goodwin’s partner, said O’Brien’s kindness showed him how to start a new life as an addiction counselor in Texas. “He restored my faith in humanity — I had completely lost faith in people,” he said. “The only way I can repay Matt is to help people in the same situation I was in. Matt showed me how to do that.”

Now the name Matthew O’Brien has joined the graffiti-therapy inside the Las Vegas storm-drain tunnels – written by a departing longtime resident giving thanks to the people who helped him survive the dark until it was time to emerge into the daylight.

John, the former Florida bar owner, lies in his sleeping bag, resting up for his graveyard shift job at a convenience store. In a croaky voice, he says he’ll miss the man who after seven years has become his friend.

“Matt has definitely brought a little help to the people of the tunnels. He’s brought us all a little sunshine,” he said.

Award-winning journalist John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com. Follow @jgionna on Twitter.

ad-high_impact_4
News
NSPCA Gets Kittens From LA
Man killed during road-rage incident
Las Vegas police are looking for two men involved in the shooting death of a man outside a 7-Eleven story at Bonanza Road and Maryland Parkway on Nov. 12, 2018. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System hosts Veterans Day Car Show and BBQ
The 4th Annual Veterans Day Car Show and BBQ is held in celebration of Veterans Day at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System Medical Center in North Las Vegas, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wildfires in Southern California
Wildfires hit Ventura County, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dedication of Nevada's Battle Born memorial
The state of Nevada on Friday dedicated its Battle Born memorial honoring 895 state residents who have died in America’s wars.
Las Vegas police and Sunrise Children's Hospital hope to prevent infant deaths
The Metropolitan Police Department and Sunrise Children's Hospital held a press conference to get the message out on preventable infant deaths attributed to "co-sleeping" and other unsafe sleeping habits. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
No serious injuries after car hits tree in south Las Vegas
One person reported minor injuries but wasn’t hospitalized after a Wednesday morning crash in the south valley.
Nellis Air Force Base keeps airmen fed
Nellis Air Force Bass airmen have delicious and healthy food items, and a variety of dining facilities to choose from. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Suspicious package found at central Las Vegas post office
Las Vegas police determined that a suspicious package found Monday morning at a central valley post office was not a threat.
Suspicious package found at central Las Vegas post office
Police evacuated the area around the Garside Station post office early Monday morning near Oakey and Decatur boulevards.
With husband's passing, family in limbo for workers' comp claim
Meredith Tracy's husand, Russell Tracy, died more than a year ago on his first day working for a new company when he fell 22 feet into a manhole that was not properly safeguarded. His employer was fined $82,000 in penalties for unsafe practices, but the company has denied her workers' compensation claim, leaving her with no compensation since the death. Rachel Aston Las Vegas Review-Journal @rookie__rae
With husband's passing, family in limbo for workers' comp claim
Meredith Tracy's husand, Russell Tracy, died more than a year ago on his first day working for a new company when he fell 22 feet into a manhole that was not properly safeguarded. His employer was fined $82,000 in penalties for unsafe practices, but the company has denied her workers' compensation claim, leaving her with no compensation since the death. Rachel Aston Las Vegas Review-Journal @rookie__rae
Las Vegas family shares flu warning
Carlo and Brenda Occhipinti lost their son, Carlo Jr., or “Junior,” to the flu last year.
Author Randall Cannon shares an anecdote about Stadust Raceway
Author Randall Cannon shares an anecdote about Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the TV show "Bonanza," and the actor's passion for auto racing at Stardust International Raceway in Las Vegas during the 1960s. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal.)
Project Neon 85 percent complete
On Wednesday morning Oct. 31, Interstate 15 northbound lane restrictions were removed opening up Exit 41 to Charleston Blvd. On Thursday Nov. 1, Interstate 15 southbound lane restrictions were removed. The new southbound off-ramp to Sahara Ave. and Highland Dr. also opened Thursday, November 1. With Project Neon 85% finished the flow of traffic on Interstate 15 has substantially diminished. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Girl killed after jumping from bridge onto 215 Beltway in Henderson
Eastbound lanes of the 215 Beltway are shut down by the Nevada Highway Patrol after a female juvenile jumped from the 215 overpass at Stephanie and was struck by a FedEx tractor trailer. Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal @Vegas88s
Kristallnacht story
An interview with 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Alexander Kuechel who survived seven concentration camps and didn’t leave Germany until after World War II was over. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 dead in central Las Vegas crash
An early Wednesday morning crash left at least one person dead and another injured. The crash was reported just around 3 a.m. at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Swenson Street. At least two vehicles were involved in the crash, one of which caught fire. Debris was scattered across the intersection as police combed the area as they investigated the scene. Flamingo is blocked in both directions between Swenson and Cambridge Street. Northbound Swenson is blocked at the intersection.
Richard Knoeppel named the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year
Richard Knoeppel, an architecture design instructor at the Advanced technologies Academy, named the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mojave Poppy Bees
(Zach Portman/University of Minnesota Department of Entomology) Male Mojave poppy bees exhibit territorial fighting behavior. The Center for Biological Diversity wants the bee, found only in Clark County, to be added to the endangered species list.
Clark County Schools announce random searches
Clark County School District middle and high school students will be subject to random searches for weapons under a new initiative to combat the wave of guns found on campus. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local
Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda lost his home in California wildfire
Eric Wynalda, coach of the Las Vegas Lights FC soccer team, talks about losing his home in the deadly California wildfires during an interview in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Women face issues from Essure birth control implants
DeVonna "Kat" Normand said she had complications from the Essure birth control implants. Normand uses her Sin City Heat show at 22.3 TakeOver Vegas Radio internet radio station in Las Vegas as a platform to raise awareness about Essure and connect with other women who have used the device. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Truancy and Clark County schools
Tony Stark, one of 23 attendance officers with the Clark County School District, have a tall order tracking down students who aren't in school.
North Las Vegas Water Meters
Randy DeVaul shows off the new water meters that the city is installing.
Project 150 Thanksgiving 2018
About 100 volunteers for Project 150 box Thanksgiving meals for high school students and their families in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 14.
Three Square’s Maurice Johnson Talks About Food Waste
Three Square’s director of operations Maurice Johnson talks about food waste.
Parade preparation nears completion
Downtown Summerlin prepares for its annual holiday parade.
Clark County Wetlands promotes 2019 Wetland Walker Program
This year the park will be celebrating the Northern Flicker. The program is designed to teach about that bird, and encourage people to visit the Wetlands and walk the same distance the bird migrates each year.
Poet’s Walk Henderson introduces storytelling
Residents enjoy a storytelling activity.
Downtown Summerlin hosts its annual Festival of Arts
People crowd to Downtown Summerlin for the 23rd annual Summerlin Festival of Arts in Las Vegas, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County educators debate alternative grading systems
Spring Valley High School principal Tam Larnerd, Spring Valley High School IB coordinator Tony Gebbia and retired high school teacher Joyce O'Day discuss alternative grading systems. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Grandparents on the fire that killed three family members
Charles and Doris Smith talk about the night an apartment fire took the lives of three of their family members. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
New York artist Bobby Jacobs donated a sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden
Bobby Jacobs, an artist from upstate New York, has spent much of the past year creating a sculpture of two separate angel wings. He donated the sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Weather will cool slightly through the end of the week
The weather will cool slightly through the end of the week., but highs are still expected to be slightly above normal for this year. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mayor announces new public-private partnership
Mayor Carolyn Goodman announced the creation of the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE, a public-private partnership that will allocate money to the city’s neediest.
Fremont9 opens downtown
Fremont9 apartment complex has opened in downtown Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Fall fairytale gets cozy at Bellagio Conservatory
Bellagio Conservatory introduces its fall-themed garden titled "Falling Asleep." (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
What the house that Ted Binion died in looks like today
Casino heir Ted Binion died in this Las Vegas home in 1998. Current home owner Jane Popple spent over $600,000 to restore and modernize the home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Rescue Mission employees terminated
Don James, a former employee for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, talks about the day his team was terminated. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders Cupcakes at Freed's Bakery
Freed's Bakery will have Raiders-themed cupcakes available in store and for order during football season. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s fans say goodbye to Cashman Field
Las Vegas 51s fans said goodbye to Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Monday September, 3, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s owner Don Logan's last weekend at Cashman Field
Don Logan, owner of the Las Vegas 51s, gives a tour of Cashman Field before the team's final weekend using the field. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like