TRAVERSE CITY — A man described as a “hoarder” was found dead in a burned-out Garfield Township mobile home so packed with odds and ends that his escape from the blaze may have been blocked, authorities said.
Neighbors called John David Norberg, 50, an “all-around nice guy” and a “tinkerer” who was seldom seen without a smile as he rode his bicycle to and from Cherryland Mobile Home Park on Garfield Avenue.
“He wasn’t a mean person or anything,” said Mark Shelton, who lives in a nearby mobile home. “He liked to have a drink. He liked collecting stuff; he was a ‘pack rat’ kind of person. He had an eye for the odd.”
Authorities found Norberg’s body today after fire crews extinguished a blaze that singed towering treetops ripped through his mobile home. Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department Assistant Chief Terry Flynn said the fire was reported at 7:35 a.m. and consumed half the trailer by the time firefighters arrived.
“Neighbors indicated there may (have been) somebody inside,” he said. “The victim was found 4 to 5 minutes into the fire and determined to be dead.”
An investigation by Metro Fire, Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department and a state fire marshal is ongoing. Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Meachum said a cause of death hadn’t been determined and a forensic autopsy in Grand Rapids is scheduled for Friday.
Most of the fire centered in the trailer’s front living room section that was stacked with boxes and items Norberg collected. Flynn said the resident was a smoker and a “pack rat” who lived in a home with old wiring, so determining the cause was difficult.
“They’re leaning toward an accidental or not intentional (cause), but want to do a little more digging,” he said. “They have a real good indication where it started.”
Flynn said Norberg’s body was found in the back bedroom and showed no signs of burns. He said investigators don’t know if Norberg tried to escape, but potential escape routes through the side and front doors were blocked by items packed around the door frame and fire, respectively.
Neighbor Bobby Rose said Norberg’s living room was stacked with “boxes upon boxes upon boxes.”
“He was a serious hoarder,” Rose said. “All he had in his place was a little tiny path to get to the bedroom where he passed away.”
Cherryland owner and manager Richard Stiner said Norberg moved into the Garfield Road park in 2007 and was a “good tenant.” Several neighbors said Norberg once worked in an advanced technical job before he suffered a brain injury. He gathered items from dumpsters and scrap yards to fix or collect them.
“He was a tinkerer,” Stiner said. “He was quite a well-educated man and he would see things and think he could do something like that.”
Christin Bailey said Norberg mostly kept to himself and she would often check on him. She said she was putting her daughter on the school bus when she saw flames from his trailer.
“He didn’t deserve that,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to get out.”
Shelton said he looked outside when he heard sirens about 7:30 a.m. and saw flames go “sky-high” from the trailer. He immediately worried about the “all-around nice guy” who lived there.
“Between the smoke and the flames I instantly knew he was in there and it wasn’t good,” he said. “I just had that eerie feeling.”
Flynn said the fire was extinguished about two minutes after firefighters arrived. Investigators spent most of today sorting through the charred remnants of Norberg’s belongings to determine the cause.
Rose, who lives next door, is friends with Norberg’s mother and said he served as a “link” between the two. He said authorities asked him to identify Norberg’s body after it was removed from the smoking home.
“He looked like he was finally at peace,” Rose said.