Homeless man sent gifts to family just before his death

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PORT RICHEY – John Edward Ludwig spent much of his December making Christmas cards for his family and friends.

He took the photographs, processed the cards at a local pharmacy and called his parents and 16 siblings to confirm addresses so he could mail them.

The 27-year-old sent the cards before Dec. 5, which is when he and two of his pit bull dogs were struck and killed by a car crossing U.S. 19.

No charges have been filed in the case, which remains under investigation, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Hundreds of friends and family members attended Ludwig’s funeral, as well as a candlelight vigil in his memory.

“We counted almost 70 at the candlelight vigil, so we were amazed, and at the funeral there were probably 200,” said Ludwig’s mother, Debbi. “He’s got a large family, and friends down that way he met through the years, and friends he met in Spring Hill. We were just totally floored.”

A common thread in descriptions about John Ludwig can be seen on the Christmas cards he made, which began filling his family’s mailboxes shortly after his death.

One card has a photo of his three dogs – Nitro, Kayla Marie and Ellie – sleeping in a bundle on the floor above the banner: “The Ludwig Family.”

“He loved his dogs,” said friend Andrea Valuri.

He loved his dogs so much he chose to sleep in a tent in the woods off U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, to shelter the pit bulls where rental properties could not.

Debbi Ludwig said she learned of this situation the day after her son’s death, and how he was not splitting rent on an apartment in Spring Hill as he had been previously.

She said she and her husband, Steven Ludwig, who also is John Ludwig’s father, learned of their son’s living circumstances while visiting the intersection of U.S. 19 and Applegate Drive. There was a memorial and flowers in the place he died.

“I guess we were looking for closure,” Debbi Ludwig said. “And here come these people with flowers, and we walked over to console them because we didn’t know if someone they knew had been in an accident, and we said, ‘Who are the flowers for?’ They said, ‘For the homeless man that got hit.’ And I said, ‘He’s not homeless. He’s renting a room with a friend.'”

The visitors told Debbi and Steven Ludwig their son had been sleeping in a tent near the Spring Hill Burger King restaurant on Commercial Way. It was one of several locations they regularly met John Ludwig while visiting him from Port Richey, Debbi Ludwig said. And because her son made money walking dogs near there, they never suspected he was homeless.

“That kind of sunk our heart, because he didn’t have to live like that,” Debbi Ludwig said, adding she thinks he chose the lifestyle to care for his pit bulls, and use disability assistance money he received more benevolently. “Johnny did what Johnny wanted, and he wanted his freedom, and we tried to respect that as much as we could, but we tried to keep an eye on him every month.”

Debbi Ludwig said it was hard for them, and John Ludwig’s 17 brothers and sisters, to learn of his living conditions.

“It was kind of, ‘What do you mean that he’s homeless?'” Debbi Ludwig said. “He didn’t want us to know that he was pitching a tent, and I think he knows we wouldn’t be happy about that.”

Steven Ludwig said John was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was one of 16 children they adopted.

Altogether John had 17 siblings, Debbi Ludwig said, because the couple had one biological child.

“He was so different than how the doctors said he would turn out,” Debbi Ludwig said, adding her son was home-schooled, and musically and technologically inclined. “I think he beat all the odds.”

Debbi Ludwig said the family has no ill-will toward the motorist who hit John and his dogs and believes it was an accident. They just want to know how it happened.

“I wish some eyewitnesses would come forward, because it doesn’t sound like there are many,” she said. “It was shocking to hear. I think it was pretty tragic. He went back and forth (on) that crosswalk all the time. People we talked to said Johnny always used the light, so it’s hard for us to understand how Johnny got hit.”

The motorist involved in the accident could not be reached for comment.