The case of the homeless dot-commer

John Sacrosante says he went from six figures to a shelter. His friends say there's something fishy in San Jose.

Published June 19, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

John Sacrosante's story sounded too sad to be true. How could a database engineer go from making more than $100,000 a year to living in a San Jose, Calif., homeless shelter? Did he lose all his money in bad investments? Did he burn his cash to stay warm, or squander it on a regular diet of beluga caviar and high-priced champagne? Where did Sacrosante go wrong?

The June 15 Associated Press wire story that quoted Sacrosante failed to give us the juicy details, but it had enough. With the headline "Dot-Com Bust Creating More Homeless," it described a homeless shelter in San Jose where some 30 tech workers -- some former earners of six-figure Silicon Valley salaries -- had joined the ranks of the jobless and destitute.

It was an improbable story, but Sacrosante and his ilk seemed to personify the extreme absurdity of the dot-com rise and fall, and so we believed it. Perhaps the boom, with its instant wealth and lavish lifestyles, had indeed turned into a scene from a John Steinbeck novel, filled with the down-and-out, washed-up victims of a localized, new-economy depression.

In fact, Sacrosante's story was too sad, too perfectly iconic, to be true. Sacrosante didn't return calls for comment, but several of his former colleagues argue that Sacrosante is no symbol of the dot-com boom gone bad, he's just a quirky programmer -- one with a penchant for drifting in and out of jobs and cities on a moment's notice.

"He had huge fears of commitment," says Bruce Griffin, a programmer who has known Sacrosante since 1998 and who worked with him last year at Garrett Aviation in Phoenix. "He was always renting cars month to month and didn't even have a home phone, even though he lived here for six months."

Long before he ended up homeless, Sacrosante made impulsive decisions, Griffin and others say. His five-page résumé, faxed by Griffin, reveals that he had at least 11 jobs after leaving the Army in 1985, many of them for less than a year. Sacrosante ended up in California after hastily leaving Phoenix, says Rick Beach of Yo Consulting, the firm that placed Sacrosante at Garrett. He took off in January, and didn't leave a forwarding address.

"We received his W2 form and never knew where to send it to," Beach says. "Everybody [at Yo] was trying to track him down. Our employee [who worked with Sacrosante at Garrett] said he disappeared 'like a wisp of smoke.'"

"One day he came in and just said, 'I'm outta here, goodbye,'" says Hans Boon, another Garrett employee who worked with Sacrosante. "He quit, walked out with no notice in the middle of a project, to go to Los Angeles and work for Toyota on a $130,000 [contract] for a six-month project."

Sacrosante tried to get Boon to go with him, but Boon refused. They parted without hard feelings; Sacrosante had spent Thanksgiving with Boon, and they expected to keep in touch.

In March, Sacrosante returned to Phoenix, claiming that the Toyota job wasn't for him. He quickly contacted Boon. "John said he was working on a contract and he asked to borrow my laptop," Boon says. "I didn't think much of it."

Griffin says he also "didn't think much of it" when Sacrosante asked him for a $1,000 loan a few weeks later. Griffin had worked as a contractor for years, so he knew that free agents sometimes need help from friends. Plus, he'd let Sacrosante borrow money before and "John always paid it back," he says.

But then Sacrosante pulled another disappearing act. In early May, Boon and Griffin started to wonder if something had happened to him. Sacrosante didn't return calls to his cellphone and didn't respond to e-mails.

Boon and Griffin decided to stop by the Phoenix apartment where he was staying. No one answered the bell, but the landlord's number was posted. They called and after getting the landlady's permission, entered the unlocked apartment.

"All that was left was the kitchen table," Griffin says.

"He just disappeared," adds Lori Alyea, his landlord. "He was there and then he was gone. He didn't even leave a note."

Knowing Sacrosante's habits, Griffin and Boon assumed he had moved on for good. For tax purposes, they researched ways to write off the loss of the money and the computer -- which was worth about $3,000 -- and never expected to hear from Sacrosante again. But they kept looking and even created a Web page seeking information on Sacrosante's whereabouts. Then the AP story broke. Boon read the article in Salon, then picked up a copy of the Arizona Republic, which ran the same story, along with a photograph of Sacrosante. Neither Boon nor Griffin could believe it.

"We were jolted," Griffin says.

The entire story caught them off guard. Both Griffin and Boon, who are considering paying a visit to Sacrosante in the homeless shelter, say they were surprised to see their former friend held up as a symbol of the boom-and-bust cycle. He's no martyr of new-economy squalor, they say.

Only Sacrosante really knows what landed this former six-figure-earning database engineer in a homeless shelter. But whatever the circumstances, his story and the public's willingness to believe it shine a spotlight on America's sudden obsession with high-tech failure and appetite for images of it. But if the stories sound too good or too bad to be true, they probably are.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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