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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
A set of cabinets in the file room of the Allen County Coroner’s Office holds records of the deceased from 1960 to 2000.

On the trail of the dead

Coroner’s office says kin get harder to find

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Michael Burris, chief investigator for the coroner’s office, has the task of finding the relatives of people who die in Allen County.

– The body of Thomas Haskins was a day away from being cremated – and his closest kin didn’t even know he was dead.

The Allen County Coroner’s Office had spent about 10 days searching for his family to tell them he had accidentally drowned in the St. Marys River. Investigators had interviewed Haskins’ friends, scoured the web for clues and asked the public for tips, to no avail.

This case was one of several in recent years that required an extensive search to find the relatives of people who died in Fort Wayne and the surrounding county, said Michael Burris, chief investigator for the coroner’s office. In two deaths, one this year and one last year, the coroner’s investigators have not been able to contact relatives, and those remains have gone unclaimed.

The coroner’s office does not keep count of how many cases require in-depth investigations to find family, but Burris, who became chief investigator in 2010, said he believes his predecessor did not have “anywhere near the number of cases that we have rolling in with unclaimed bodies or family that’s just not willing to step up.”

The search for Haskins’ next of kin started after he died the night of April 29 at St. Joseph Hospital. Earlier that day, the 52-year-old had gone for a swim in the river, and for some reason, he slipped underwater.

He stayed there for nearly 20 minutes – until rescue divers pulled him from the water downstream from the Main Street Bridge. Paramedics revived him, but he later died.

The fact that Haskins had a wallet with an ID card made it easy to figure out his name, but finding his family proved more difficult.

Burris searched the Internet, including Facebook, looking for information that might lead to a relative, but that yielded nothing. Haskins’ friends described him as a private person and told Burris they knew little about his past, except that he was from Alaska.

Burris requested Haskins’ birth certificate from Alaska officials and learned that his parents were dead. Using a website called FindAGrave.com, Burris found the burial sites of Haskins’ parents. But that’s where the search stalled, so the coroner’s office publicized what they knew about Haskins and asked for help from the public in locating his relatives. This generated a tip that Haskins had a brother and sister in Oklahoma.

With that in mind, investigators visited Haskins’ apartment on Wheeler Street, near Runnion Avenue, and went through his belongings. They came across an address book with a phone number for a woman in Norman, Okla.

Burris dialed it. Haskins’ sister came on the line. She broke down as they spoke.

“She was upset that her brother was deceased, and she made the arrangements to get him shipped back home” to Oklahoma, Burris said. “She was very happy that somebody let her know.”

Had the hunt for relatives not ended the day it did, Burris said, the coroner’s office would have used its authority to have the body cremated.

Attempts last week to reach Haskins’ sister were unsuccessful. Burris declined to release her name.

‘A brick wall’

Closure is achieved in the vast majority of coroner’s office investigations, but in the cases of Daniel Weihert and Robert Wheeler, their relatives, if they exist, have eluded investigators.

Weihert, 57, died of heart disease March 17, 2012, at his home on Taylor Street.

“Reportedly, there’s a half brother and a sister, but we were never able to locate them,” Burris said.

As for Wheeler, he lived in a halfway house before he died from a heart attack Jan. 19 at Lutheran Hospital. He was 73.

In both cases, the coroner’s office placed death notices in the newspaper hoping a relative would come forward. When no one did, the office had the bodies cremated.

“At some point in time you have to say, I’ve done everything I can do, and I’m still running into a brick wall,” Burris said.

While there’s no set limit on how long the coroner’s office will wait before opting for cremation, Burris said, “About a week is all we ever want to hold a body.”

The coroner’s office has a morgue in St. Joseph Hospital where up to eight bodies can be kept, but not indefinitely.

“Even in the cooler, decomposition will continue. So we have to do something with the body, either a burial or a cremation,” he said. “Cremation is so much cheaper.”

In the Fort Wayne area, a cremation typically costs $1,300 and a burial costs about $7,500. Under Indiana law, townships are responsible for the cost of burials or cremations when no family can be found.

Burris may eventually seek out a cemetery that will take the ashes of Weihert and Wheeler, but not quite yet.

“We’re going to hold onto them, … until we can find a final resting place for those remains,” he said.

Hundreds of deaths

Before coroner’s investigators can start looking for family members, they have to identify the body. In doing so, they use all tools available, including fingerprints, criminal histories, dental records and missing persons databases.

Despite those resources, there have been a few cases over the years when the coroner’s office has been completely stumped. To this day, the following deaths are mysteries:

•In 2002, a 1-day-old boy was found dead behind a house on Calumet Avenue.

•In 1999, a man’s body was found in Metea Park in Leo-Cedarville. He was in his 30s.

•In 1992, a woman’s remains were discovered in the basement of a home on Reynolds Street. She was in her 20s.

Each year, the coroner’s office investigates hundreds of deaths. Automatically, the office takes on homicides, suicides and accidents. But many cases are deaths from natural causes. Those kinds of cases are sent to the coroner’s office when a doctor will not sign the death certificate because the cause of death is not clear. That’s what happened in the case of Weihert, who died at home.

Then there are times, like in the case of Wheeler, when a person dies in a hospital, a doctor signs the death certificate, and the coroner’s office is asked only to help in finding next of kin. That happened seven times last year and three times so far this year.

Burris said such cases represent the majority of instances when the coroner’s office has taken pains to find relatives of the deceased.

In some cases, reaching family means overcoming great distances and cultural divides.

On Aug. 30, 2012, a Croatian native named Zlatin Petric had a heart attack while he and his roommate were moving in Fort Wayne. Medics took 55-year-old Petric to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Petric had friends in the city but no family. Using Facebook and a Croatian-language translation program, coroner’s investigators managed to correspond with his relatives overseas. They agreed to have his body cremated, and his ashes were shipped back to his homeland.

aingersoll@jg.net

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