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Speaking for the Dead

A Denver coroner's investigator tracks down the families of the forgotten.

2. THE PAPER ON MR. JONES

Many of the unknowns who turn up dead in Denver have done their best to leave their past behind. They might have families, but they didn't want to be found by them, and they have made it difficult for anyone else to find them.

Yet in an age of databases and electronic archives and Google, can anyone be entirely unknown? It's a basic tenet of Balbin's job that everyone has left paper somewhere, documenting his journey. Birth certificate, driver's license, voter registration, military discharge, hospital records, welfare check, property deed, rap sheet -- something, somewhere, points toward the elusive next of kin. It might be a family tree scribbled in a battered Bible or even a faded visitor log at a funeral home, listing the deceased among the mourners at his mother's death twenty years ago, and leading to surviving siblings. "Mortuaries," Balbin says, "are a wonderful place for information."

Unlike the forensic investigators on television, Balbin doesn't attend many autopsies. Unlike them, she doesn't have the luxury of working one case at a time and solving it in 48 minutes or less. Her average case takes four to six weeks to close, and she usually divides her day among ten or fifteen files. She works public records, interviews neighbors or co-workers of the deceased, visits the death scene, swaps notes with colleagues working other aspects of the case. A lot of her next-of-kin efforts involve long hours on the phone, cajoling distant bureaucrats to open up ancient files that might yield the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Pity the poor intern who comes to Balbin and says she just talked to the dead guy's boss, and he doesn't know anything about the guy's family. "He knows something," Balbin insists. "You didn't ask the right questions. Call him again. We're going to solve this case."

The information is out there. That's something Balbin learned when she was an intern herself at the coroner's office, back in 1995. At the time, she was a criminal-justice major at Metro State. The field of forensic medicine wasn't quite as hot then, pre-CSI, but Balbin liked to go to the library with her boyfriend, a medical student, and read up on unusual deaths while he crammed for exams. Both had worked as paramedics -- a useful bit of training that helped Balbin land a full-time position at the coroner's office a year after her internship. The boyfriend is now her husband, a doctor whose practice includes family medicine and urgent care. They have two children and are, by Balbin's account, among the world's most paranoid parents.

"We're very protective," she says. "I see all the weird ways kids can die."

Over the past decade, the rise of the Internet has helped Balbin immensely. Still, her toughest assignments often require old-fashioned gumshoeing, working the phones and the paper. Take, for example, the case of the drifter known as Mr. Jones.

He was found in an alley a block from Colfax and Pearl on Labor Day weekend in 2000, lodged in a window well at the back of an apartment building. Caucasian male, late fifties, discovered by a passerby. The body had been there several hours, long enough to be in a state of full rigor mortis. There was, as investigators say, "evidence of alcohol ingestion at the scene," meaning an empty pint bottle.

The unusual position of the body and some lacerations on his hand made the death appear suspicious. But after the autopsy, the ME concluded the death was accidental -- "probable positional asphyxia with acute alcohol intoxication." Drunk, he'd collapsed in the window well, his head down awkwardly, hindering breathing.

The man had a wallet and some paperwork from a recent visit to Denver Health. Not enough for positive identification -- investigators such as Balbin don't rely simply on what's in someone's pockets to ID them -- but enough to check his fingerprints with the Denver Police Department and confirm that he was who the documents said he was.

The good news was that they had a name and a paper trail that suggested the man had been in the Denver area for at least six years. The bad news was that the name was a common one. Not John Smith, but close enough: Michael Jones.

His minor arrest record failed to yield much information about where Jones was from. He was listed as a transient, with no address or employer. Medical records held a slim clue, the name of a mother in Odessa, Texas, along with a phone number, no area code. Balbin tried the Odessa area code and others; the name and number led nowhere. (Women's names are problematic, Balbin says, because they rarely stay the same throughout a woman's lifetime.)

Balbin called shelters and social-service agencies. She got a photo from the police to show around. She found bits of information but few solid leads. "People knew about him, but they didn't know him," she says.

Her search expanded. Working the paper trail, she found out that Jones had spent time in California, Louisiana, Texas and Ohio. The name that had supposedly been that of the mother in Texas turned up in other documents as a possible wife in California, but she, too, was a phantom.

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