LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Most of the attention around the local Acme market this week has centered on one of the three winning tickets in Wednesday's $448.4 million Powerball lottery that was sold at the store.
But adjacent to the Acme is a small patch of wooded land on Route 9 South that 81-year-old Korean War veteran John Karpinski calls home. Karpinski said he left the Atlantic City Rescue Mission about six months ago because he was uncomfortable staying there.
As a light rain started to fall Friday afternoon, Karpinski sat in his plastic lawn chair next to his yellow shopping cart outside the dilapidated shed where he sleeps.
"I never killed anyone in the Korean War, but I saved the lives of three men," he said as he raised his hand to his forehead and saluted.
As he spoke of his war service, his words turned to the family he wants desperately to reunite with in France. He would board a plane today, but he was robbed and all of his identification was taken from him, he said.
Karpinski said he doesn't begrudge the winners of the Powerball jackpot - a group of 16 coworkers from the Ocean County Vehicle Maintenance Department - who bought their ticket adjacent to where he has sought refuge. If it had been him, he said, he would buy a plane and fly home.
"I'm just trying to get to France, and I haven't been able to do that," he said.
Now, Karpinski has his turtle, Sophie, whom he claimed after the animal walked past his shed one day. Sophie crawled around the Dollar General shopping cart Friday afternoon on a carpet of vegetables Karpinski fed to her.
Local people check on him often, he said. One of them is Little Egg Harbor resident Roman Isaryk, who pulled up in the parking lot in his SUV on Friday to see whether Karpinski needed anything.
"You all right over there, John? You good, sir?" Isaryk yelled out of his vehicle window.
Karpinksi nodded, smiled and raised his hand to his forehead to salute Isaryk.
"Every time I see him, I give him a few bucks. It's not right, a veteran living out here like this. It's disgusting. He's been out here too long," Isaryk said.
John Mauser, of Freehold Township, Monmouth County, agreed. Mauser befriended Karpinski after his family saw him walking and stopped to help him.
"Then my parents would help every time they could. They told me the story, and I started getting active to help him. I love the guy because for someone who has absolutely nothing, he acts like he has absolutely everything," Mauser said.
As often as he can, Mauser drives more than an hour south to check up on Karpinski. Sometimes Karpinski is hard to track down because he's a free spirit, so Mauser said he usually ends up driving around town for a few hours to find him.
He's a very happy man and very humble, and the only thing he's ever asked for is tobacco for his pipe, Mauser said.
Mauser said he began searching for information about Karpinski in his quest to help him, and he found family members on Facebook and made contact with his daughter and son.
"I've been speaking with his daughter in France back and forth for the last two months. I try to arrange it every time I go down there so they can Skype on my cellphone. We usually go over to the McDonald's and get something to eat and they speak in French," Mauser said.
After Mauser saw Karpinski's veterans service identification card, he and his parents said they contacted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA representatives confirmed they had a file on Karpinski, but they could only discuss the specific information with family members.
"I go down and ask him if he's eaten, and there are days when he hasn't eaten or he has rotten food in his shopping cart. I have pictures that I sent to the VA of the inside of the shed where he sleeps, and it's awful. No human should live like that. It's hard for me to walk in there, and it's hard for me to leave him there when I go down," Mauser said.
Little Egg Harbor Mayor John Kehm said he was unaware Karpinski was living near the Acme Market store, but he said the township is willing to help.
"We need to find out what his needs are and see what we can do to help. If he really wants to go back to France to be with his family, then we can look into that about helping him with a ticket," Kehm said.
Contact Donna Weaver:
@DonnaKWeaver on Twitter