SALT LAKE CITY -- A homeless man whose rags-to-riches story made international headlines suffered a devastating family tragedy decades ago that may have led to his life on the streets of Salt Lake City.
A friend tells the Deseret News that Max Melitzer's wife and two friends were killed in a 1990 car crash. Melitzer was driving and, according to Karol Behling, hasn't been the same since.
Behling says Melitzer was deeply affected by the death of his wife, Janice, and his life as a transient seemed to begin after the accident. Last week, a private investigator tracked down Melitzer to deliver the life-altering news of a sizable inheritance left by a brother who died last year of cancer.
Melitzer has since left Utah to reunite with family in New York, whom he hadn't been in contact with in months.
Behling's deceased husband, Steve, knew Melitzer for more than 20 years.
"He was very much in love with his wife, I believe. And it was really hard for him -- one, to have her gone and, two, to have been driving," Behling recalled Tuesday. "I'm sure that affected him a lot, and I'm sure he missed his wife a lot."
In July 1990, Melitzer was driving through Wyoming when he lost control of his car, killing his wife and two passengers, the Deseret News reports.
Behling said she recalls Melitzer lost his apartment after the crash and bounced from place to place between Ogden and Salt Lake City.
Behling last saw Melitzer in December, when he visited her husband in the hospital. She said she was surprised to hear Melitzer's family was looking for him, because he never spoke of having any family.
"I hope this works out. And I hope his family is truly interested in him because he's a good guy," Behling said.
Melitzer's family recently hired a New York law firm in an effort to locate him, and the law firm contracted with investigator David Lundberg.
Neither Lundberg nor the lawyers have disclosed the amount Melitzer will receive.
"He'd have money where he could take care of himself or hire someone to take care of him," Lundberg said. "Apparently, he does have some emotional issues. The family just wants to make sure he's set up and he's taken care of."
Others who know Melitzer say he was an example to those around him.
"He takes donations of bread and other things like that, and he tries to donate them to my ministry," said Jason Florez, who runs the homeless ministry at Mountain View Christian Assembly of God church in Sandy. "He just happens to be one of the purest hearts of all the homeless people we bring in and come and see."
Florez gave one of the critical tips Lundberg that led to finding Melitzer at Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City last Saturday. He said he saw a television news report highlighting the search for Melitzer.
"I was sitting next to my wife, and I couldn't even talk. I said, 'That's Max,"' Florez recalled.