Whispering Wind Bear Spirit: Two journeys cut short on one night in York City

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Messages between Whispering Wind Bear Spirit and their adoptive sister reflected a spiral into loneliness and self-doubt in the days before a bullet ended Bear's life.

Bear came to York County several years ago after leaving Michigan on a series of cross-country adventures. But by May 2021, Bear was homeless and questioning where they belonged.

“Everything I do is wrong, sis,” Bear wrote in a message to Jessica Slager. “I’m not helping anyone. All I do is f— up day in ‘n’ day out.”

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit cuddles a puppy at Nichole Jones' home near Spring Grove.

That was one of the last messages Slager received from Bear.

Bear's silence over a few intervening days seemed odd.

Then the York County Coroner's Office called.

“I look back at that message and I think, we had no idea she’d be dead the next day,” said Slager, who grew up with Bear in Michigan and still lives there.

That night: As it turned out, on the night of May 3, 2021, Bear walked toward a drawn handgun in an effort to prevent an act of violence during a home invasion and robbery at an acquaintance’s home in York City, court records show.

The teen holding the gun, Nicholas Strada, pointed the weapon at a group of people while his older brother fought with another man over a pound of marijuana in the brick row home along Smyser Street, York City Police alleged.

A cushion rests on the porch of a house at 305 Smyser St. in York on June 22, 2022. The address is where Whispering Wind Bear Spirit was shot and killed in May 2021.

Bear, at 41, defied an order to stay back.

The gun fired.

“Oh s—, I shot her,” Nicholas Strada exclaimed before he, brother Ryan Strada and three others fled, according to charging documents.

Bear fell to the floor and told a witness they’d been shot. That person called 911 while another witness stayed with Bear until medics arrived, York City Police said in court filings. 

Bear died nearly two hours later.

"Was what they were after worth the price [Bear] paid that night or the price anyone is now paying?" Slager asked. "I wonder if they feel sorry for their actions, or if they only feel sorry for their own current situation."

Nicholas Strada

Both Strada brothers were ultimately charged with second-degree murder along with counts of robbery, burglary and conspiracy. 

They appeared in the York County Court of Common Pleas on Monday, poised to plead guilty following negotiations.

Ryan Strada, 21, entered a plea to a felony count of conspiracy to commit robbery, admitting he discussed a plan with at least one person to go into the house and take back his weed or money. He also pleaded guilty to counts in three other cases against him.

The agreement called for an aggregate sentence of 10-20 years in a state prison. The murder, robbery and burglary counts were dismissed.

Ryan Strada

Nicholas Strada's hearing was postponed one week to give his attorney, James Robinson, more time to discuss the prosecution's offer with him. Robinson indicated an agreement for Nicholas to plead guilty would be ready by the new hearing next Monday.

Sad parallel: Bear’s loved ones, meanwhile, are left with the anger, disbelief and sadness of their loss. Bear was still in the process of finding themselves — a journey that led from Michigan to the Ozarks of Missouri and finally to that York City row home.

Slager feels a sad parallel between her grief and the future awaiting the Stradas. She lost her sibling. Now, the brothers will likely serve years in prison — separated from each other.

"Your sibling is the one person you should always be able to feel safe with," Slager said. "And whoever thought up this idea, the brother wasn't safe with them that night. They should be out enjoying their lives as siblings. They no longer get to enjoy doing that, and neither do I."

'Bear just wanted to be Bear': In the immediate aftermath of Bear’s death, various LGBTQ political groups used the killing to make public statements about anti-trans violence. According to police reports, there's no indication the killing was a hate crime.

But those who knew Bear said the truth was more complicated.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit strums a guitar at Nichole Jones' home near Spring Grove.

Bear didn't want to adhere to gender labels, according to friends and loved ones. They often presented as female, the primary gender Bear grew up as. Other times, they took on more masculine qualities.

They had also self-described in the past as “two-spirit,” an Indigenous umbrella term often used to describe someone who encompasses both male and female genders simultaneously.

“Bear just wanted to be Bear,” said Chris Miller, who stabled horses at a farm near Spring Grove where Bear lived for about a year.

Based on these interviews, the Dispatch chose to describe Bear using “they/them” pronouns.

The coroner’s office is often in the position to dive into deceased people’s lives, as was the case with Bear. Finding next of kin was difficult, at first. According to Slager, that’s because Bear’s mother and stepfather are dead and their biological father was estranged.

But York County Coroner Pam Gay said a number of friends came forward via social media to take responsibility for funeral arrangements.

“To us, it seemed like she was loved and appreciated by a lot of people,” Gay said. “That was obvious.”

(From left) Jessica Slager and Whispering Wind Bear Spirit pose for a silly selfie while on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 2016.

Ultimately, Bear's remains went to Slager in Michigan, bringing Bear to a tragic full circle on their journey.

Shared memories: As an adult, however, Bear forged close relationships with people both online and in places they lived.

A few loved ones who spoke to The York Dispatch shared memories of Bear. Slager was one. Another was Tammy Johnston, a Florida woman Bear met via Facebook and developed a close friendship with, to the point where Bear affectionately called her “Auntie.” The third was Nichole Jones, Bear’s ex-girlfriend and operator of the Heart Sing Horse Journeys nonprofit near Spring Grove. 

The three collectively evoked an image of Bear as artistic and musical; eccentric yet practical; kind and generous. 

“She’d give you her left arm,” Johnston said. “I know people say that a lot about people, but she’d literally give someone her left arm.” 

Bear was a lover of little things, whimsy and spiritualism and a traveler with a sense of wanderlust and a thirst for tracing their familial heritage. They came to adopt the nickname Bear as a sort of neutral middle ground with their gender identity. 

Growing up: Slager and Bear grew up in Portage, Michigan, just south of Kalamazoo on the state's southwest side. Bear was about a year older and wore hearing aids after an early bout of meningitis left them hard of hearing, Slager said.

As kids, the pair spent a lot of time playing outside. They took karate classes, went to tribal powwows and spent long nights watching the TV shows "ER" and "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman." At one point, Bear became obsessed with "Phantom of the Opera."

The siblings were "polar opposites," with Slager saying she was more of the shy, quiet type while Bear was always more gregarious.

(From left) Whispering Wind Bear Spirit and Jessica Slager, as teenagers, pose together for a photo at a neighbor's swimming pool in Michigan in 1994.

Bear carried around a backpack, a habit that lasted through adulthood, loaded with all the supplies Bear thought they might need — pens, pencils, notebooks, treats, handkerchiefs, a needle and thread and so on.

“She was always kind of this borderline collector," Slager said, "because she thought she would need things for later."

High school in the 1990s was difficult. The two went to a large school, Slager said, and they stood out as eccentric, Bear especially, and with a weird wardrobe style, making them targets for bullies. 

Bear struggled with classes. They lost focus due to many factors — most acutely, their hearing loss and bullying from other kids — and eventually dropped out. They later went back and completed their GED, Slager said.

As a young teen, Bear also seemed to begin considering their gender identity. One time as they were practicing karate, Bear asked Slager a question.

"What if I was just your brother, instead?" Bear asked Slager.

As Slager recalls, “She was like, ‘I feel like I’m a boy stuck in a female’s body.’”

Journeys: As an adult in their 20s around the early 2000s, Bear left Michigan and moved to Missouri to see a friend. In the process, they met a guy in the Lake of the Ozarks area and stayed with him for several years, apparently, including helping him with his food boat on one of the lakes.

Bear legally changed their name to Whispering Wind Bear Spirit in Phelps County, Missouri, with a judge granting the petition in February 2008, according to court records.

The couple also appeared in a video titling itself as a trailer for a reality TV show based on the man's food boat.

“I’m a thousand miles away from home,” Bear said in the November 2011 video. “I'm a Yankee — don't hate me."

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit appears in a November 2011 YouTube video while living in the Lakes of the Ozarks area of Missouri.

While living in Missouri, Bear met Johnston in a Facebook group and the two became fast friends. 

Though they never met face-to-face, the two connected and talked just about every day, Johnston said.

"It made sense when we clicked like we did then," Johnston said. "We always had a very strong connection from like moment one, it’s like we knew each other forever."

The relationship with the man was toxic, Slager indicated. Eventually, a friend from Michigan went to Missouri, got Bear on a bus, and brought them back to Michigan, she said.

Bear apparently didn't stay long.

They left Michigan again in 2014 and moved to Pennsylvania with another online friend who lived in Glen Rock. That lasted for about five years. The siblings stayed in contact all through Bear's travels, at one point vacationing together in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

"She really liked that traveler lifestyle, I think," Slager said. "That’s why she didn’t want to come back or even say, like, ‘I don’t have a permanent place to stay right now.’ I think she kind of kept that to herself."

A photo of Whispering Wind Bear Spirit as they ride in a car.

'So much pain on the inside': Bear also met and became friends with Jones.

The two started a romantic relationship, and Bear moved into Jones' home near Spring Grove for about a year, Jones said, from 2019 until they broke up near the end of 2020.

Jones described a plethora of Bear's qualities. She said Bear had an affinity with animals, was good with growing plants, good at handiwork and crafts, loved cooking and Skor chocolate bars, wrote poetry and could play several instruments.

"He would put his head down and feel the vibration because of being deaf," Jones said. "That was Bear, like, so much pain on the inside."

After Bear left the farm, they were apparently homeless for some months. Several sources said they briefly stayed at the Lifepath Christian Ministries homeless shelter in York City, though staff wouldn't confirm the information due to privacy concerns. At some point, someone there invited Bear to stay at the house on Smyser Street, shortly before the May 3 shooting.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit drills into wood while working on a project at Nichole Jones' farm near Spring Grove.

Slager, Johnston and Jones all described Bear as possessing an innate sense of fairness and peace, the kind of person who would step toward a gun to stop a fight. 

“She was not going to sit by and see somebody hurt when they’re there,” Johnston said. “That’s exactly the kind of character she had. Her very pure soul and kind heart is what literally cost her her life.”

Selflessness or depression? Jones believes Bear died “a warrior's death” that reflected their selflessness.

But Slager noted that selflessness likely reflected their depressed mental state.

“She probably did this because she thought she could save him, or anybody, at any cost, and she thought her life was worth less than somebody else’s,” she said. “That’s what killed me for a long time.” 

Police alleged Ryan Strada led Nicholas Strada and four friends in a plan to take back the pot he believed that Oscar Fink, the man living in the house, had stolen from him.

Witnesses told police Ryan Strada went in through the front door and zeroed in on Fink, and they started tussling. Nicholas Strada followed him in with the gun drawn and then pointed it while ordering people in the house to stay back, according to the criminal complaint. 

The interior of a house, 305 Smyser St., sits vacant in York on June 22, 2022. The address is where Whispering Wind Bear Spirit was shot and killed in May 2021.

Bear, though, stepped forward while reportedly trying to stop the fight. Witnesses said the gun in Nicholas’ hand fired and shot Bear. He looked surprised, they said, and uttered, “I shot her.” 

The Stradas and three of their friends then allegedly fled the house while the fourth stayed behind, according to the criminal complaint. 

The bullet had torn through Bear's abdomen and damaged their liver, and they died at WellSpan York Hospital, investigators said.

"I also think about the gunman and how scared he was with the bravery [Bear] displayed, and his weakness showed in his actions of pulling the trigger," Slager said.

(From left) Whispering Wind Bear Spirit and Jessica Slager sit together at a restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 2016.

In addition to the Strada brothers, the four friends were arrested and charged in the case.

Oscar Cook, 20, of Spring Garden Township; Jaden Landis, 19, of Manchester; Michael Stewart, 23, of Harrisburg; and Phillip Sullivan, 19, of York Haven, each face counts of robbery, burglary and conspiracy. They all have court hearings scheduled for September.

'I don't have pronouns': Following the autopsy, the coroner’s office identified Bear as female, a conclusion based on discussions with friends and loved ones during the investigation. 

“She identified as female, and that’s how we referred to her,” Gay said. 

Slager and Johnston also used female pronouns when talking about Bear. Jones mainly relied on male pronouns or the more generic “they/them” based on Bear’s apparent preferences during the time they knew each other. All three spoke, though, with the caveat that Bear really didn’t want to adhere to labels.

“Bear would say, ‘I don’t have pronouns, you can call me whatever you want, ‘Hey You.’ I’m just Bear, or Fire Bear and Little Bear,’” Jones said, noting Bear was not transgender. 

Johnston said Bear often described feeling simultaneously male and female.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit reads a book while sitting on a couch at Nichole Jones' home near Spring Grove.

“She just was who she was,” Johnston said. “She’d be like, ‘I’m a two-spirit, I am both, so it doesn’t really matter if you call me he or she. I am just who I am. I’m just Bear.” 

She explained Bear identified primarily as female when they first met via Facebook and didn’t really start openly embracing this more label-free persona until years later. Johnston speculated that Bear likely thought people wouldn’t be accepting. 

Since childhood, Slager said, she knew Bear didn’t always feel like a girl or feel feminine, and that they sometimes said they felt like a boy. Slager recalled how Bear lit up during one of their last times together when Slager called them “bro.”

“If she had said to me, ‘I really want you to change the pronouns,’ I’d have been, like, ‘Give me a minute, I will try,’” Slager explained, saying she’s used to saying “she” since that’s how they grew up. “Because she didn’t take offense to it, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to be like, ‘This is my brother.’”

Slager said Bear’s shift into a more masculine identity started in that last year, around 2020 into 2021. Bear had also learned at some point they were intersex, a general term for people with differing sex traits or reproductive anatomy. Slager believed Bear’s condition was primarily hormonal.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit shows off a beard they grew in a message to Jessica Slager in November 2020.

Outwardly, Bear began growing out facial hair at times, beards and mustaches. They also appeared to dress in more masculine or androgynous ways while living and working at Jones’ farm from about 2019 into late 2020, and while the two were in a relationship around that time. 

Jones believed Bear’s pendulum began to swing more masculine following a physical trauma from the prior relationship in Missouri. 

“That the female part of them died. That’s what they said,” Jones said.

Messages left with acquaintances in Missouri were never returned, nor were attempts to reach other family members. Bear’s biological father could not be reached for comment after an extensive search for him. Residents of the Smyser Street home where Bear lived briefly and died declined to comment on the case.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit kisses a horse at Nichole Jones' farm near Spring Grove.

Not alone: Bear was hardly alone in defining and redefining their gender identity.

“The idea of our gender and sexual orientations is rather fluid throughout our lifetime,” said Tesla Taliaferro, president of the Rainbow Rose Center in York County. “It’s not necessarily something that a person defines and then sticks with their entire life. They might expand how they understand themselves, or how they understand their relationship with others.” 

Taliaferro recommended identifying Bear with they/them pronouns because Bear never stated a personal preference. He said those pronouns can work in situations where a person doesn’t know another person’s preferences, and it’s safer than making assumptions. 

Jessica Slager shows a tattoo she dedicated to Whispering Wind Bear Spirit on her shoulder.

Whether Bear may have eventually come to state preferences as far as their gender and pronouns, Slager said that thread was lost last year.

Bear died, still searching.

“It was kind of slowly escalating,” Slager said. “But she didn’t live long enough for us to know where that was going.”

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.