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ID-ing the Dead : Bodies of John and Jane Does Trigger Special Concern Among 34 Members of Coroner's Office

August 17, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 3, 1984, a man driving a car that had been reported stolen hours earlier in San Diego County crashed into two cars on MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach. The occupants of the other two cars were treated at hospitals and then released; the driver of the stolen car died at the scene.

The man was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed about 150 pounds. Deputy coroner Lystrup remembers that the victim's short hair made some people wonder if he was in the military, but "he did not have the 'Marine tan,' " the line across the arms showing where the fatigues are rolled. Nearby military installations checked their records against the victim's description, turning up nothing. Fingerprint checks proved unsuccessful.

One year went by. Two. Three. The victim's fingerprints were shipped off periodically to see if anyone had overlooked them. Nothing.

Finally, three years after the crash, coroner's investigators shipped the fingerprints of nine unidentified bodies to a new computerized identification system at the state Department of Justice. There was a match: Stephen J. Ivers.

Ivers, 19, was the son of a former assemblyman from La Canada who had been reported missing by his family earlier in 1984. But when he returned, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department closed its file. When he disappeared a second time, the family thought the file was still open so they did not report him missing again. As a result, investigators trying to match missing people with the body did not have a report on Ivers. Computerizing the fingerprints in the state made identification much easier, officials said. What would have taken weeks could be done in minutes, and there was less chance of a person's prints slipping through the cracks.

"The family is relieved," Ivers' father, Walter, said when the body was returned. "We've given him a good Christian burial."

The Ivers case illustrates the lengths the coroner's office goes to identify John Does and Jane Does, Beisner says. "We don't just say, 'Gee, nobody's called us and we can't identify the guy; let's get rid of him.' "We do exhaustive research into who this person may possibly be and try to locate relatives because psychologically that's important for relatives. If they suddenly found out that this person had been here and the remains had been disposed of, it could be a difficult thing for the families."

Still, each unidentified cadaver is treated in its own way. The younger a victim, the more likely the body will be kept in one of the 35 trays in the refrigeration room. Otherwise, after bones that can help in identification are removed, a body is usually turned over to a local mortician for cremation, with the county paying the tab of about $450. The ashes are kept for a year or two, but if there is still no luck in turning up a relative, they are scattered at sea. If a body is found with a crucifix or Star of David, indicating belief in a religion that specifies burial rather than cremation, the corpse is buried.

Pathologists, who are medical doctors, determine the cause of death. Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates is also the coroner, but he leaves it to his deputy coroners to certify the reason for a death: homicide, suicide, accident. It was Deputy Coroner Ellingburgh who determined that 87-4457 EL was a suicide.

The case involved a woman who was about 20 years old when early morning joggers on the beach at Dana Point found her body at the base of a cliff on Sept. 20, 1987. Investigators searching the top of the cliff found a pack of cigarettes, a soda can and phone numbers that were traced to a nearby hotel.

A hotel desk clerk told sheriff's investigators the woman had come in and asked if any tall buildings were in the area. She telephoned for a taxi and asked to be taken to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point, even though it isn't a high-rise. Part way there, she realized that she didn't have enough money to pay for the ride and got out, apparently south of the hotel.

No one saw the woman climb the fence near the edge of the cliff and no one saw her jump, but investigators found marks on the side of the cliff where her body hit on the way down to the beach. It was "very much a suicide," Ellingburgh says.

Near the fence, sheriff's deputies found a purse with a name embossed in gold. What looked like an easy case turned to mystery, however, when a trace of the name turned up the owner of the purse, very much alive in San Diego County. The woman "was surprised she was contacted," Ellingburgh says, and reported that the purse had been stolen about 10 years earlier by a person unknown.

Near the purse was a California road map, with a marker detailing freeways through San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, down into Orange County. Officials were unsure but thought the woman had been hitchhiking into the county.

The woman remains unidentified, another puzzle in the land of the dead.

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