CROOKSTON-A 34-year-old woman who had been living in a makeshift shelter near Crookston before her death Friday was "a ray of sunshine ... just vibrant and really alive," her companion said Wednesday. But she could not overcome years of alcoholism and mental illness.
Lee Tibbets, 57, called 911 when Erin Leigh Koplitz was unresponsive after taking pills that morning in the shelter they shared in a wooded area along the Red Lake River west of town.
"She just went so far under, she didn't wake up," Tibbets said, sitting in a motel room acquaintances had paid for.
Koplitz was taken to RiverView Health in Crookston, where she was pronounced dead, according to investigators with the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Her body was sent to the medical examiner for an autopsy, and the death is under investigation.
Tibbets and Koplitz, whom he considers his wife, had been living outside since May, "like two Adam and Eves out there."
"She loved me, just loved me unconditionally," Tibbets said. "And I her, but she just loved to drink. ... I couldn't say no to her for anything."
According to an online obituary, Koplitz grew up in Richfield, Minn., and lived in various cities across the state.
"Mental illness was a force in Erin's life that she dealt with every day," the obituary says.
Tibbets said he built the shelter years ago and slept and fished there. He had met Koplitz about a year ago at the Care and Share homeless shelter in town.
"She had half a gallon of vodka, and I was on a sober kick and trying to do what's right," he said.
But soon they were together and had committed to each other, though they never were married legally.
"We made vows before God," Tibbets said. "She is my wife, and she will always be my wife."
Koplitz was born in Eden Prairie, Minn., and raised by her father, Tibbets said. Her father did not respond to requests by the Herald to speak for this story.
"She grew up playing hockey and fighting," Tibbets said. "She was a skateboarding, hockey-playing chick, but also an alcoholic."
A free spirit who loved animals and homeless people, she enjoyed their life in the outdoors, which he described in idyllic terms.
"Everything was fine during the summer, like an extended honeymoon and fishing trip," he said.
But their life had a darker side. Court records show Koplitz had convictions for drug offenses, including possession of methamphetamine and unlawful possession of prescription drugs. Court records for Tibbets include felony convictions for drunk driving, assault and domestic abuse, though none in the time he said he was with Koplitz.
Originally from Idaho, Tibbets said he grew up on the street and could not say how long he had been homeless.
Appearing sober and lucid in his room at the Golf Terrace Motel on U.S. Highway 2, he said his own alcoholism kept him from tempering Koplitz's drinking.
"We were both alcoholics, and we fed off each other," he said.
Before Koplitz died, they had been binging on hand sanitizer, he said, and eating little.
"We were hitting that doggone hand sanitizer so doggone hard we weren't eating," Tibbets said.
The morning Koplitz died, she said she felt ill and wanted to sleep off her hangover, he said. She took four pills from medication she had for treating anxiety and stomach ulcers, fell into unconsciousness and never awoke.
Tibbets called 911 and said he followed her to the emergency room.
"I was in the ER and kissed her for the very last time, and I pray she went to heaven," he said.
This week Tibbets is living in a motel and considering a move to Moorhead.
"I've run out of places to stay down here," he said. He faults the local homeless shelter for not taking them in and not understanding life on the street. A "clashing of spirits" put the two on bad terms with the shelter's staff, but he said the stable environment would have saved Koplitz.
Sue Shirek, executive director of Care and Share, said she could not discuss individual cases, but she said the shelter sets rules to maintain the safety of the center. Clients could be turned away because the center is full, because the clients would be better served by other facilities or because of refusal to follow rules.
"We look at everybody's situation independently," Shirek said. "We have to do what we can to maintain the safety and security of everyone involved."
Matthew McWaters, whom Tibbets calls a "Christian brother," said he is trying to keep him off the street and stable.
"I know he wants to be sober," he said.
A local funeral home is cremating Koplitz, and Tibbets plans to sprinkle her ashes near their shelter after keeping a portion for himself.
"I want to spread her up and down the river and just bless her and keep wondering why alcoholism and homelessness is just a destroying factor," he said, sitting next to the recovery Bible that Koplitz left behind.
"If I were president of the United States, I'd pass a law called Erin's Law," he said. The law would call for better acceptance of addiction, "loving the alcoholic, loving the drug addict, rather than ostracizing them."