WICKER PARK — A 25-year-old local man who wanted to join the homeless "gutter punks" who hang around Wicker Park got a brutal introduction to the clan when he was attacked after allegedly coming on too strong to one of the female members of the group, her fellow travelers say.
The man suffered a fractured spine and nose and was sent to an area hospital after a beating that occurred in Wicker Park around 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the southwest corner of the park at 1425 N. Damen Ave.
The trouble started when the victim, known by the punks as "Nelson," began groping a female member of the group named Chelsea, said gutter punk Bernard Smillonovich, 22.
"He was touching her and hitting on her so we beat the s--- out of him," Smillonovich said Wednesday.
Witness Marcus Faletti, 54, who was sitting at a table in the park at the time of the attack, said he first "saw a girl hitting and stomping on a guy" before "four or five guys" took over and attacked Nelson, beating him with their hands.
Police said a 2-by-4 board was used but Faletti and another man who said he witnessed the attack said they did not see any wooden weapons.
Smillonovich said "no weapons, only hands" were used in the fight. He said he was unable to say how many people participated in the beating.
"He was drunk, passed out, blood on his face," said Faletti of Nelson, who was taken to a hospital by ambulance and had what police said was a .464 blood-alcohol content — nearly six times the legal limit to drive.
After the fight, Smillonovich said, "We scattered."
The attacker, described by the victim as white, 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, fled with the victim's backpack, books and some cash, according to Officer Michael Sullivan, a police spokesman.
A Chicago resident, Nelson had told the punks, also known as travelers and rail riders, that he had quit his job and wanted to hang out with them. He had been visiting them in the park, according to Matt Medina, 18, another traveler.
Louis Sosa, 45, said he's been traveling with the group for 23 years and was in the park when the fight occurred.
"She kept asking him to stop. He was creeping on her and touching her," Sosa said of Nelson.
Sosa said he did not participate in the beating but said the victim "got what he got." Sosa could not say how many men participated in the beating.
Faletti, a 54-year-old homeless man and scrapper, said the gutter punks drink frequently and "all of them are drunk."
Smillonovich said he'd drunk "two half gallons" on the morning of the beating. When asked "of what?" by a reporter, he replied, "of whiskey."
The travelers, most in their 20s, trickle into Wicker Park in May and head to cities with warmer climates in the fall.
Around 10 p.m. Wednesday, Medina and a group of about eight rail riders were sitting on two benches across from the park's fountain. Medina said he was "sick of Chicago" and hoping to leave that night.
Medina said three members of the group had gotten $40 together to give to a man who said he had a pickup truck and promised to transport them to a rail yard. But the man had not yet come through with the promise to meet them in the park.
Bucktown resident Carly Richter, 26, who said she saw Nelson "covered in blood" after the beating, said the gutter punks are "literally destroying the neighborhood."
"These aren't just travelers...They're urinating on people's cars, people's alarms [are] going off at night," Richter said.
Contributing: Emily Morris