NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tara Cole, who had been living on the streets of Nashville for more than three years, spent her last night alive sleeping on a boat ramp along the Cumberland River.
She was killed in the early hours of Aug. 11, when two unknown males pushed her into the river, according to witnesses. Other homeless people couldn't save her.
"She was one person, but it terrorized the whole homeless population," said Howard Allen, a homeless man who helped organize a nightly vigil for Cole.
Police said a body pulled from the river this week is likely Cole, and investigators interviewed people overnight Wednesday after surveillance videos helped them to identify suspects.
Authorities have said the attack on Cole was unprovoked, and homeless advocates say such violence is on the rise across the nation. Often the attackers are teenagers or young adults who are more affluent than their victims, experts say.
A 2005 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless showed 86 violent attacks on homeless people in 2005 compared with 60 in 1999. Those numbers are likely low because they only reflect attacks that have been documented in public records, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the Washington-based coalition.
Stoops said that in the 1980s attacks appeared to plague only big cities on the East Coast and West Coast. Now, the coalition has documented incidents in 165 cities nationwide, 42 states and Puerto Rico.
"I think they do it for thrills. I think they think they can get away with it, that the homeless won't fight back, that no one will care, that the police won't pay any attention to them," Stoops said.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a teenager beat a homeless man to death and pelted his body with paintballs in January. Another homeless man was beat to death in March in Orlando, Fla., and five juveniles have been arrested in the case.
In February, the National Coalition for the Homeless asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of violence against the homeless, though the GAO has not responded, Stoops said.
The increase in violence may be loosely linked to the increasing popularity of so-called "Bumfights" videos and imitation videos which show homeless people fighting one another and performing dangerous stunts, he said.
Four producers of the "Bumfights" videos pleaded guilty in June 2003 to charges of conspiracy to stage an illegal fight for their videos.
And a 20-year-old man in Los Angeles has been convicted for beating two homeless men with a baseball bat in August 2005 after watching a "Bumfights" video.
Internet site Bumfights.com, which sells the videos, says their purpose is to call attention to poverty and violence. "Please do not miss the point of these videos! Educate yourself. Help those who are less fortunate. Spread love not hate," the Web site says.
Not all heed the warning. The Web site includes one viewer commenting, "Let the idiots kill each other for my amusement."
No one responded to an Associated Press e-mail to Bumfights.com seeking comment for this story.
In cases where the perpetrator of attacks on homeless people is known, 76 percent are people 25 or younger, Stoops said. About 80 percent of attackers are white, he said.
"This might give an immature or drunk or high young adult encouragement to attack homeless people," Stoops said. "Were they to do this to any other minority group, there would be a national outcry."
In Nashville, Police Commander Andy Garrett said there was no reason for panic, pointing out that violence among homeless people in his city is more common than random violence against them.
"Have we had a person hit a homeless person before? Yes. Does there appear to be a pattern? No, thankfully," he said.
Tara Cole's mother, Pearl, said she believes her daughter — a bright, free spirit who loved music and wanted to record in Nashville and who was so fond of animals she wouldn't kill spiders — didn't die in vain.
"Everyone who met her knew that something was different about her," she said. "She did have an impact on those around her. I know something good will come of this."