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Sense of Injustice Fuels Family's Quest

Grief: Relatives not notified of man's death say coroner's office should have tried harder to find them. Courts have disagreed.

July 26, 1996|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He carries his anguish and his anger in fat manila envelopes stuffed into an old-fashioned briefcase. His frustration grows as he opens each packet, spreading coroner's reports, copies of California laws, transcripts of court hearings, lawsuits.

Alderic R. Jensen's voice breaks and he chokes back tears when he pulls a glassine bag from one envelope and lays out several pieces of identification belonging to his son, Alderic R. "Raymond" Jensen Jr.

How, the elder Jensen wants to know, could his son--a disabled veteran carrying so much identification--accidentally die in his Hollywood apartment without the county coroner's office notifying relatives in Rhode Island and Florida? Why, he wants to know, doesn't California require county coroners to make out-of-state notification?

"They knew he was Alderic R. Jensen Jr.," said Jensen, 67, a retiree from Delray Beach, Fla. "Why didn't they do what is right?"

Jensen said he has been caught in a bureaucratic and legal nightmare for six years, since he discovered in June 1990 that his son had died five months earlier.

The father is waging a so far losing battle to get the coroner's office to acknowledge that it made what he sees as an error in failing to notify him of his son's death.

Throughout his ordeal, he said, he could not understand how the county coroner would not have sent a letter to a North Providence, R.I., address on a Rhode Island identification card his son carried.

That house is now owned by another son, Robert, whose tenants would have notified the family, Jensen said.

Robert Jensen, who accompanied his father on a recent trip to Los Angeles, angrily pointed out that his brother was found "in his home--his castle--with a manager who knew his identity. He pays his rent every month, he has a bank account, he receives a disability check every month. He's a person.

"Then they just totally disregard that?" he asked. "That's what's wrong."

As the Jensens found out in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the county, California law only requires a coroner to use "reasonable diligence" to notify next of kin within the state. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin ruled in 1994 that the coroner's responsibility to notify relatives stops at the state line. An appellate court upheld that decision last month.

Coroner's officials, however, say that their efforts often exceed what is required by law and that "conflicting information" in the Jensen case stymied their efforts.

"We do everything we can do with the information we have," said Craig Harvey, the Los Angeles County coroner's chief of investigations. "We find next of kin in Vietnam, Turkey, Mexico. We pull every resource we can to get people help."

The problem in this case, Harvey said, was that Raymond Jensen also carried a California driver's license and a Social Security card identifying him as his brother Robert--a quirk that relatives could not explain.

The Jensen family ordeal began in January 1990, when Raymond Jensen, 39, tried to move a refrigerator in the studio apartment he rented on North Hudson Street.

According to a coroner's report, apartment manager Dorothy Bircher and maid Marie Watson went to Jensen's apartment Jan. 22 and found him in a walk-in closet beneath an overturned refrigerator with his neck wedged against a wall. An autopsy report said it would have been very difficult for him to breathe with his neck in that position, and gave "positional asphyxia" as the cause of death.

Meanwhile, Jensen's parents in Florida and his siblings in Rhode Island became concerned that they had not heard from him. The elder Jensen and his wife began making calls, especially to Social Security offices because Raymond Jensen received a monthly disability check.

Nearly half a year went by before a Social Security clerk in Florida looked at a computer screen and told the father and his wife that their son was dead. The Jensens checked with the Los Angeles County coroner's office, confirmed the death and learned that their son had been cremated.

"My wife was devastated to learn that Raymond had been cremated," the elder Jensen said.

Jensen said he came to Los Angeles immediately "to take my son home, give him a funeral." He said the first coroner's investigator he talked to told him his son had no identification--and rudely added that if he didn't like the way things were done in Los Angeles, he could write a letter to his congressman.

Jensen said the coroner's office had earlier contacted the Veterans Administration to see if his son qualified for a veteran's burial allowance. The V.A. noted conflicting Social Security numbers on the request, and asked the coroner's office for next-of-kin information. Coroner's officials said they had none to provide.

"We wouldn't have been pursuing the Veterans Administration if we had known the next of kin," Harvey said.

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