A 39-year-old gay Atlanta man died homeless and alone, likely killed by an early-morning train along railroad tracks that cut through an LGBT nightlife corridor along Cheshire Bridge Road where he sometimes spent time.
Eric Salvatore Mattson died in a gruesome accident sometime after 6 a.m. on July 5, according to an Atlanta police incident report. He was killed just three days shy of his 40th birthday on tracks near where he lived outdoors. A passerby spotted Mattson's body from Piedmont Road and called police.
The former retail employee who once worked in Lenox Square Mall kept clothes and other personal items in a nearby storage unit, but had been homeless in the months leading up to his death, according to longtime friend Jennifer Schwartz.
Mattson was likely struck and killed by a CSX train. He suffered severe cuts to his head and legs and one of his feet was severed from his body, according to the police report. The impact apparently knocked Mattson out of his shoes, which were found in the tracks about 100 feet from his body.
Police found Mattson's body in a pool of blood clad only in underwear. A cellphone was in his gray shorts, which were also left on the tracks. Police homicide detectives responded to the scene but closed their investigation when the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office later ruled Mattson's death an accident.
The discovery of Mattson's body was reported by WSB in July, but police had not yet identified the victim. He was later placed in Lakeside Memorial Gardens in Palmetto as part of Fulton's indigent burial service.
Schwartz created a Facebook memorial for Mattson, installed a memorial near where he was killed (second photo) and recently reached out to Project Q Atlanta to share his story and put a name to the man who died in July.
Schwartz met Mattson in 1997 when the pair worked in nearby clothing stores in Dothan, Ala. They became fast friends and started a friendship that lasted for nearly 20 years.
"The first time I met him, he bounced. He didn't walk. He bounced over and we became best friends," she said.
"I feel like I met a friend of a lifetime. You know the type that you know there will never be another one like it. He was my go to friend," she added.
Mattson's death as an unemployed homeless man struggling with drug addiction stands in stark contract to the fun-loving friend she knew, Schwartz said.
"He was trying to get it together. He was a very strong person but the streets were stronger than him," Schwartz said.
Mattson had been couch surfing among friends for months since he lost his latest job and apartment, she said. He became homeless when the friends he was staying with sold their house. He had his clothes and other belongings in a storage area near where he was killed and lived out of that and on the streets, she said. During better times, Mattson frequented Jungle, Heretic and other nearby gay bars and clubs.
"Everything he did in his life was around that area," Schwartz said.
Yet Mattson died nearly anonymously and mostly invisible.
"He was so special and wonderful and he meant something to me," she said.
'He was so beautiful inside and outside'
Schwartz, who now lives in California, and Mattson were inseparable after their friendship blossomed in Dothan. But both wanted out of small town Alabama and they made their first pilgrimage to Atlanta in 1997.
"We were so young and I remember us getting into my car and we drove to Atlanta. He had braces he was so young," she said.
"We always had dreams of moving out of where we were from and we both ran when we could. I ran out [to California] and he ran to Atlanta," she said.
Mattson – estranged from his family – bounced from Atlanta to Mobile to Miami and eventually returned to Atlanta, Schwartz said. He also struggled with drugs, she said.
"He was the most wonderful person but he didn't let a lot of people in because he had been hurt a lot in his life. Once he let you in, you were his. He would tell his closest friends that you are mine – past, future and present," Schwartz said.
"Once you were in, he showed you who he was. He was the mot fun person and he cared about you. He was there for you. He was loyal. I found a connection with him that is still there now," she added.
Mattson studied fashion at Georgia Perimeter College, which is now a part of Georgia State University. He worked in retail clothing stores and often used his expertise to gently critique outfits Schwartz wore when the two spent time together.
"He would have a fit if you put something together that he didn't approve of. It was so cute. He was so funny, so crazy. Anything could be fun when we got together," she said.
Schwartz said Mattson would struggle with being alone during holidays.
"He was so beautiful inside and outside, but he had this pain on him like a blanket. The only way he knew how to deal with it was to push it down. But that wasn't him. His choices were wrong, but he had so much pain," she said.
"Underneath I knew the real person and some people couldn't see that. They saw a homeless guy but he wasn't," she added.
Schwartz said that when Mattson was employed, he pulled himself together, was nattily dressed and tried to improve his life and fight his addictions. But losing his last job in late 2015 threw his life back into turmoil.
"He was very sweet and caring and thoughtful. He had a lot of pain on him. If he didn't have that pain, he could have been amazing and not dead on the tracks," Schwartz said.