So, due to an oversight on my part, I accidentally told half a story with my last blog post- a story about a man who managed to fake his own death. It was a case I ran across during my internship in Arizona. I wrote about it at the time and I had gone back into my old archives to find the sordid tale and post it here- in response to all the requests I’ve gotten to PLEASE tell the story about the guy who faked his death.
Well, I found the old journal entry- but the story of the faked death was tied into a much longer, elaborate tale…. and to be honest… much like motherless siblings up for adoption, I just couldn’t bear to separate them. Moreover, having just suffered another profound personal loss… a heart-break that I’ll likely never get over… I dunno, the whole thing just felt very… appropriate. So here it is-
NEXT OF KIN: Men who F&^k Chickens and the Women who Look for Them
The files have little red flags on the margins. The case numbers are written on the whiteboard in the middle of the office, under a heading that reads, “No NOK!” in big, block letters. Each one represents months of fruitless labor, endless hours on the phone and surfing the internet more than a ‘tween-girl “Twilight” fan. Each little red flag is a story, an epic… a colossal pain in the ass.
One of the functions of the coroner’s office is finding and notifying the dead person’s next of kin.
Sounds simple doesn’t it?
But to say that the investigators at a coroner’s office locate and notify next of kin is something like saying that the guys at NASA like to look at stars… there’s a little more to it than that
I can’t speak for most American cities- never having lived in them, but it seems like THIS city has an inordinately large homeless population. This might be a skewed perspective on my part. I imagine people who work in an insane asylum feel as though the entire world is inundated with whack-a-doodles. My friend who is a night security guard at a 24-hour grocery store swears, hand-to-God, that this town is populated by pot-heads who are addicted to Totino’s Pizzas. It could be that my city has a profoundly affluent population who are all well adjusted, generous and loving individuals… if so, I’ve never met them. In my experience, our streets are littered with disenfranchised, homeless drug addicts who are all estranged from their families and have never met a single one of their 13 children by different women. What can I say- these are my people… the people I come in contact with… the people that I meet each day . Rich people who have lots of money don’t need my services. They know exactly where their families are… they’re all poised over the death-bed, wondering who’s going to get that antique Tiffany watch when grandma finally kicks it.
Finding Next of Kin is of debatable significance, according to this profession. One side of the argument states that if someone WANTED their family to be made aware of their death- they would have kept in touch with their “kin” in the first place. Tracking down the rumored one-night-stand offspring of some sleazy tool we found under a bridge with a dirty needle in his arm … it takes up resources and time. Especially when we aren’t even certain if the alleged spawn actually exists. Sometimes the only clue we have to go on is a story from a guy named Bobo who lived behind the Good-Times hamburger-stand on Broadway- Bobo once heard our dead guy talk about being from Minnesota? Michigan? An M-state anyway. He said he had a kid back there. The kid’s name was John or something… Jane, it could have been a girl… Bobo ain’t sure, if you buy him a vanilla shake he might remember more.
By now, there’s a good chance the kid (if he/she exists) is going by the mother’s last name… or is going by the name of some other guy entirely who adopted him/her later in life. A human family can break apart in a million different ways, how much effort can a government agency REALLY commit to retracing every thread of that fracture?
Government agency answers: That’s what the interns are for!
My first Next of Kin case was a monster. I have to admit, even now I’m amazed at the task I was presented.
The decedent was homeless and decomposed, which made him my kind of guy right off the bat. He had been found in a condemned house downtown- surrounded by trash and drug paraphernalia. My first week as an investigative intern, he had already been a corpse for a couple of months. (A bad sign. The more time goes by that no one misses the decedent, the less the likelihood they have any family at all). My handler, Tina, shoved the case-file at me and gave a clipped, businesslike lecture on finding Next of Kin.
“This case is solvable!” she declared with irrefutable certainty. “This guy was only 62 years old. (‘only 62?’) and we have a birth certificate. I’m going to let you figure this out for yourself.” With that she shoveled the already substantially thick case file into my arms and bade me return to my desk. Tina was a big believer in the honor… no… the SANCTITY of the Next of Kin search. While some investigators closed “kin-less” cases with very little regard or concern, Tina never put them down and refused to admit defeat.
“Everyone came from SOMEWHERE” she would insist, “No one was born on the moon!” A local newspaper even did a story on Tina and her NOK cases once. This paper rarely compliments anyone and more often delights in exposing the incompetence of any government agency. But even they had to bow in respect to Tina’s relentless pursuit of the truth.
I sat down with the case file and started reading. We didn’t really have a birth certificate, rather we had a replica issued by the county government in Indiana where the decedent had been born. It listed his city of birth and his parents names. That was it.
The search was horrific. I remember spending hours on the phone with every civil office in Indiana, then Florida, then Tennessee… tracking down marriage licenses, birth certificates, divorce records. I called every homeless shelter in Phoenix asking for names, dates, hints. Did anyone know this guy? Talk to him? Did he mention kids? Wives? Parents? Who the hell was this guy and where had he been? What had he been up to?
The first person I remember finding was his mom- an easy task because she was dead too… and therefore had stopped moving around and wasn’t going to get remarried or change her name again. The next person I found was his Dad- who was also dead (I couldn’t loose!). From there I found his Dad’s second wife- who directed me towards our decedent’s brothers and sisters. I remember speaking with the older sister, who took the news as well as could be expected. I have no doubt that she cried- but not while she was on the phone with me. She told me our dead guy had been married twice and had two children, one from each relationship,a boy and a girl. Neither child was aware of the existence of the other. She also mentioned that one of her siblings had launched a search for this prodigal brother. Now, they knew. Of course, legally speaking, we hadn’t notified Next of Kin until I made contact with the adult children of the decedent. That’s the steel-walled truth of the matter. I still had to find at least one of those kids
“If you find the children…” the sister pleaded quietly, “would you give them our number?”
The trail went on and on. Sometimes I hit upon a hint- a moment- a name or a phone number which sprung up like a land-mine and I was certain that the next phone call would conclude the whole mess, but it never did. After a month, I finally ended up on the line with… (stay with me now) the decedent’s second wife’s ex-husband’s sister in law… and that’s how I found the dead guy’s daughter. After making contact with the 23-year-old- a girl who was now going by a different last name and never met this man who had married her mother on Valentine’s Day in 1980- I stepped around to Tina’s cubicle, head held high and proud, and slapped the file down on her desk.
“Found the daughter, notified her.” I stated, my voice ringing in triumph.
Tina even didn’t look up from the papers on her desk.
“And that’s enough for you?” she muttered.
I don’t know what I said in response, some inane drivel about one child being just as good as 2, but I remember Tina looked up, leveling her piercing stare on my quickly withering exultation.
“If he was your father… wouldn’t you want to know?”
I picked the file up and went back to my desk.
Ultimately, I found the entire bunch. The son was my age, married, and had kids of his own. I gave the “kids” the aunt’s phone number, and at their request… gave them each other’s phone number as well. I don’t know what happened after that, because that time, when I slapped the file down on Tina’s desk, I left it there. (okay, I didn’t slap it down that time… I made sure to bow every three steps of my approach and laid it before her like I was offering a freshly slain goat to an old-testament god.)
Tina picked the file up and thumbed through my notes as I described the conversations with each family member. She held the file up to me, and for a moment, I wondered who the hell else there was to find.
“Go ahead,” she said, a spark of maternal pride glimmering in her eye, “You closed it, you get to take the red tag off it.”
I reached forward and pulled the little red tag off the case-file. Tina held out her hand, and I gave her the tag. “There now…” she said, “doesn’t that feel better?” I nodded, and without skipping a beat, Tina pressed the little red tag on the corner of another case file that had been sitting on her desk. She held it out to me and without looking up, commanded “Now do it again.”
I’ve saved lives.
I’m not bragging in saying so, I was a paramedic, it’s what I was trained to do. And if I hadn’t been there to save those people’s lives- someone else would have been there… another paramedic, probably a better one. There were a lot of calls that I was proud of, and just as many that I still think about today- calls I’m ashamed of, where I could have, SHOULD have done better. Yes, calls in which I can say that I killed someone- or at least, didn’t help their chances of surviving. Someone else may have done better, they may have done worse. The patient may have died anyway even if I had been a pre-hospital genius. And the lives I saved- well… who’s to say that it’s because of anything I did? Could be they would have pulled through no matter which hapless moron had been jabbing them with needles.
Finding Next of Kin, though, was a different experience from any I had encountered on the ambulance. As a paramedic, there was always a certain detachment, a healthy lack of interest. I didn’t want to know the people on my stretcher. Nothing I did ultimately mattered anyway. The sick would stay sick- a trip in my bus was simply one moment in a lifetime of bad choices that certainly wouldn’t alter because of another visit to the emergency department.
At the coroner’s office, in finding that man’s family, I felt as though something had altered, something had changed, something had been healed and reconciled. Oh sure… maybe that brother and sister would talk and realize that they hated each other. Maybe the kids would have been an enormous disappointment to their aunts and uncles. Regardless of the results, I felt I had given them something they deserved- something they had been denied by the body in the cooler downstairs. If nothing else- they had the truth now. And that’s one inheritance everyone’s entitled to… the horrible, wonderful, miserable, redeeming, condemning truth.
The second week of my internship at the coroner’s office, my life fell apart. For anyone who wasn’t present for the melt-down, you can read the chronicle of the tragedy in the blog entry “I got yer number” a couple of entries back.
Months later, I was still ghost-walking… I was this immaterial phantom drifting from one responsibility to the next. I know in that time I must have eaten, I must have found a new job and gone to work when required to do so. I must have slept. I must have carried on- but I have no recollection of any of these activities. The only thing I remember clearly is the red tags- the only thing I cared about was the red tags. Each new search presented to me was an obsession that I embraced with every synapse still firing in my devastated brain. The people at the coroner’s office marveled at my uncanny ability to locate a lost son or daughter, an alienated mother, an unsuspecting sibling. Case files would be wordlessly slapped down on my desk, the assigned investigator knowing that if there was anyone at all to locate- it would be done within the week. One day I solved 3 cases in one afternoon, two of which involved hunting down family members in foreign countries.
I wish I could say these were selfless acts…. they weren’t. The sense of resolution I got was addictive. In my own emotional state, where so much was misunderstood and unsettled, I became the voice of finality, the voice of completion…
Not that everything always went smoothly. One man I called up to tell him his brother had died in our jurisdiction about a week before- and he responded in a fashion I had never experienced before or since.
“No he didn’t-” The guy countered.
“Uh… yes he did?” I said, frantically shuffling through my notes to make sure I had called the correct number… always a concern.
“No, he didn’t!” He snapped with unwavering certainty.
“Yeah, he did…” I snapped back- thinking this was the fiercest 1st stage of denial I had ever seen.
“Look, I don’t know what you THINK you KNOW,” the guy sneered at me, “but my brother died in Louisiana 5 years ago.”
“Um… are you sure?” I asked, the flood of implications threatening to knock me out of my chair. The first and foremost of which being: If this guy is right, I wonder whose body is in the cooler downstairs.
Well, it turns out he wasn’t right. His brother saw Hurricane Katrina as the perfect opportunity to escape from a wide array of financial problems. Our decedent had faked his own disappearance, left everything behind, and restarted his life as a drag queen in Phoenix. I had to resist the school-yard urge to taunt the brother with “I TOLD you SO!” or “Nanny-nanny boo-boo” when the truth came out.
Then her file came to me.
She was old, in her eighties. She had been homeless up until the age of approximately 75- at which point she had been rescued by a local mission and spent the remainder of her days in a low-income housing building. She lived there for almost ten years- right up until the day when she collapsed in the elevator- leaving nothing but a mystery and an apartment full of cheap jewelry behind.
The investigator who took the initial report didn’t delve too deeply into the story of how the dead woman came about her circumstances- which, I suppose, is how the case file came to me. Pretty much the only thing we had on this woman was a sufficiently strange name- the kind that made you think, “Well… how many people with THAT last name can be wandering around the world?” (As it turns out… plenty)
I started with calling the apartment complex where our decedent lived. For the sake of expediency, let’s call the dead woman “Elsa”. I asked the apartment manager if she knew Elsa at all, and if she didn’t -did she know of anyone who DID know Elsa well? In response, I was put on the phone with Elsa’s neighbor and best friend- who had all the prime info- having shared many a long chat with our elusive decedent. This neighbor didn’t exactly paint a pleasant life for Elsa- quite the opposite actually:
Elsa was from Germany and came to America a very long time ago. She had been married to a man for a few years. The marriage did not end well. Neighbor didn’t really know much about the break-up, as Elsa would get extremely choked up whenever the topic arose- and as decorum dictated, the neighbor would then change the subject. What we did know was that Elsa had a son who was stolen from her. After the divorce from her ex-husband, Elsa was unable to financially support both herself and the child. In an unprecedented show of charity, the ex-husband offered to take the boy until Elsa got on her feet. Elsa agreed to this arrangement- and never saw her son again. The ex-husband, who was a Texas state trooper, not only never returned custody… but also forbade Elsa from ever having any contact at all with her child.
The rest of the tale consisted, essentially of Elsa’s downward spiral into alcoholism and homelessness. She was found half-dead on the streets of Phoenix and social services took over… placing her in the apartment building where we found her.
My heart broke for Elsa. I couldn’t imagine. And learning of her heartbreak in such close proximity to my own, I instantly felt a profound connection with her. Abandonment… betrayal… a loss so gut wrenching she had disintegrated into addiction and the subsequent oblivion… it sounded so familiar. I myself was polishing off almost a bottle of sake a night and had recently been adding a vicodan or two in order to ensure sleep. I didn’t want anything other than release from waking life- for the grid-locked fist of reality to let me leak out from around it’s fingers and just fall… fall… fall…
“I’m gonna find him for you, Elsa… ” I quietly vowed to her- to myself- “I will find your boy and make sure he knows you loved him.”
At first everything went fine- went great. I traced Elsa back through the western states- from homeless shelters and arrest records to Amarillo, where I managed to finagle a copy of her divorce decree from 1953- which stated not only her son’s name, but also his birth-date and an address where the whole family was living at the time. In addition, the divorce decree stated the particulars regarding Elsa’s allegations against her ex-husband. He had been cheating on her, he had beaten her on several occasions, he had kept her living in a constant state of fear and intimidation. The divorce decree initially awarded custody of the boy to Elsa, but an addendum had been made approximately 2 years later- in which custody was reassigned to the ex…. apparently Elsa hadn’t shown up for the hearing… nothing more than that was indicated by the paperwork. The ex got custody because he was the only one in court.
I remember thinking that with the discovery of the divorce and custody decrees- everything would be easy. However- i liken the gradual decline of the investigation to the experience of hearing a song shift from a major to a minor key. With every new fact that I found- the overall tone of the story became increasingly more… ominous. I traced the kid (who was now 48) into the 4-corners area… with some difficulty. I had his name and birth-date, so he should have been fairly simple to locate, but he wasn’t. I discovered his father had left the state patrol and died in 1980- no obituary. It was a struggle to even figure out where Elsa’s son had gone after leaving his home state of Texas. The major down-turn happened when I did a criminal check on him. A respectably long rap sheet unfolded on my computer screen. I scanned for the general nature of his offenses- my eyes finally snagging on the last few arrests: domestic assaults.
My heart sank.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find out about this guy. I think I had idealized him as a good-natured sort who had prevailed against his ass-hole of a father to become a relatively decent human being… with a wife, a couple of kids and a mortgage payment. I imagined that he always wondered what happened to his mother- and thought about her when he gazed lovingly upon the sleeping heads of his own offspring. I would swoop in, Hollywood style, and solve that great, lingering mystery in his life. I was Mother Teresa, I was Princess Diana, I was Jesus, I was Elvis… but no… I was, quite frankly, disgusted.
“The sins of the fathers… will be visited upon the… offspring? the sons? the children?”
I’m not sure how the quote goes. I think it’s a Bible verse, but I can never be sure. I was told a lot of things were in the bible that turned out not to be. My mother was a big fan of claiming every admonishment that came out of her mouth was a direct excerpt from the holy scriptures- probably because she learned early on that it was the only way to keep me from arguing with her. At any rate, the sentiment was clear and applicable- it seemed the guy I was looking for had turned out to be a wife-beating dead-beat… just like his Dad.
Despite this revelation, I continued the search. I had a job to notify the Next of Kin… regardless of who they were or what they’d done. So I phoned the sheriff’s department in the last town listed on the guy’s rap sheet.
I asked the woman who answered all my typical questions after giving my typical introduction. The instant you tell someone that there has been a death and you’re trying to find the family in order to make notification, they become the informational equivalent of an easy lay- a dirty slut who can’t wait to give it all up. This woman was no exception.
“It looks like the last contact we had with him was at the ********** motel- that’s the address he gave as a residence.”
“Oh yeah baby”… I thought… “that’s it… keep going…”
However, what I actually SAID was this:
“Just out of curiosity… what was he contacted for? What were the circumstances?”
“Ummmmmmm… ” I could hear her clicking down the screen of her computer “… Criminal sexual penetration…”
“… um… what?” I stuttered.
She repeated herself “Criminal Sexual Penetration- but there was no arrest, he was just contacted…”
I thanked her numbly, hung up the phone and stared at the screen of my computer, wondering exactly how to phrase the supplemental report that I had to write about this “progress” I’d just made on the case. Chuck, the investigator with whom I was working that day, wandered around the corner of my cubicle and asked me what was up.
“Well… I got a lead on that case… The guy was contacted by the Farmington police department in 2008 for….” and I couldn’t quite get the words out.
“For….?” Chuck prompted.
“Criminal sexual penetration.”
Chuck was silent- a confused crease folded into his face.
“Of what?” he finally asked.
“I don’t know… Chickens?”
Chuck shook his head “Seriously,” he marveled, “I’ve never even heard of that… Criminal sexual penetration… what the hell?”
“Yeah, and he WASN’T arrested.”
Chuck wandered away, mumbling incredulously- “Chickens… criminal… Jesus…”
It’s funny in that not funny way.
Carl Sandburg once wrote:
“Hey man, I don’t care who you are; I know a woman is looking for you.” it’s from his poem “Haze”. When first I heard it, some drunk guy was reciting it at the top of his lungs in a bar in Chicago. I remember that line gripped me-
” I don’t care who you are…”
I think there are two kinds of lost- there’s the lost when you don’t know where you are- and then there’s the lost when no one’s looking for you. According to his criminal history, this guy beat his girlfriends, did drugs, drove without a license, failed to appear for his court dates and sexually penetrated… something…. criminally. But I was still looking for him… which meant somehow he was worth looking for. Whoever the hell this guy was- he deserved to know that his mother loved him. And maybe- knowing that would settle something for him – heal something in him.
A week passed- then a month. The trail ended at that motel- where Elsa’s little boy had done something so debauched they had to invent a whole new classification of offense for it…. and still didn’t know whether or not the act was actually illegal. The social security number got us nowhere. The birth-date got us nowhere. It’s like he evaporated that night. I searched the jails, I searched the parolees, I searched the escaped convicts in every state- and never found him. BY then, my own life had started to knit together around the scar that faded beneath the fresh coat of paint each new day brushed over it- and my fervor to find Elsa’s son dimmed to a flicker. He was a mystery only addressed when nothing else was going on. But the fact is- I was out of options. The bag of tricks was empty. Some wounds never disappear completely- things remain unresolved, The fact is- some shit you just have to live with.
Elsa’s case was closed, she was buried in the state plot by social services. The widely held belief amongst the coroner’s office is that Elsa’s son is buried in a shallow grave in the ******* desert somewhere, having violated the wrong chicken in the wrong town- where such proclivities aren’t tolerated. But we’re still on the lookout for him, in case you happen to stumble upon a Robert, son of Elsa, from Amarillo Texas. Robert would be about 50 now, who was once almost arrested in Farmington New Mexico for most likely fucking a chicken, let him know… you know a woman who’s looking for him.