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Life in a box: Late body-builder Bill Pettis died carrying most precious belongings

In the end, Bill Pettis was carrying his entire life story in a small tin box.

That box was tucked into a sodden duffel bag lying beside Pettis’ body, which was found lying face-down in Spring Creek in Swatara Township on Tuesday, Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick said.

Inside were photos of the 69-year-old Pettis as a young man, when he was a body-building legend – the man with the largest biceps in the world – at Venice Beach, Calif., during his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Hetrick said Friday. He said there were also pics of Pettis with his much more famous occasional workout partner Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick 

“He had multiple pictures of Venice Beach that sort of covered the history of his life there. You could see over the years that life had been tough on him,” said Hetrick, who ruled that Pettis died of accidental drowning.

The photos of Pettis and Schwarzenegger showed a true connection between the men, the coroner said. “They were looking in each others’ eyes. You could tell from the pictures that they knew each other.”

At the bottom of the box was a California photo ID card that investigators used to identify Pettis. They pieced together a soggy bus ticket that was found inside Pettis’ pants pocket. Pettis’ family had sent him that ticket to get home to Harrisburg, where he had grown up, for a sort of “quasi-reunion,” Hetrick said.

“I didn’t see any money,” he said.

A copy of “Our Daily Bread,” a Christian devotional, also was in the box of Pettis’ belongings.

There is no indication Pettis’ death was anything other than an accident, Hetrick said. Family members reported that Pettis was “suffering from some confusion,” he said. He speculated that Pettis might have slipped while trying to cross the creek, which is just 200 yards from Hetrick’s office in the county forensic center.

“As a kid, he might have played in that creek,” Hetrick said.

He said his post-mortem investigation showed Pettis, who was wearing a Venice Beach muscle shirt, had a physique far beyond that of the average 69-year-old man. “You could tell he was some kind of athlete,” Hetrick said. “Even at that point his body had an awful lot of muscle on it. At 69 years of age he was still well built.”

Pettis was wearing some distinctive, hand-made copper jewelry, he said. That same jewelry, he said, appeared in the photos of Pettis as a young body-builder.

Hetrick said arrangements are being made for a local funeral.

Unlike Schwarzenegger, Pettis was never able to turn his physique into a financial asset. He often flirted with homelessness. As Hetrick put it, Pettis fit into the category of the desperate people one sees on the street, then looks away.

Yet they, like Pettis, can have surprising back stories, he said.

“We have to realize that every one of these people who seem to be on the fringes of our society deserve dignity,” Hetrick said. “They have a history.”


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