Speaking for the Dead

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

Then Balbin learned that Mr. Jones had been in the military -- a break in many cases, but in this one, the paperwork was in some confusion. What she wanted most was to find out where Jones was born. A birth certificate would yield the names of his parents, and some states also list the number of siblings living in the house. Veterans Affairs records seemed to indicate that Jones was born in Conway, Alaska, but that turned out to be a typo for Conway, Arkansas. And that turned out to be where he'd enlisted.

Undaunted, Balbin attempted to work forward from his discharge in 1964. She called officials in Texas, trying to persuade them to track down shelter files from the 1960s. When that didn't work, she still had one more lead to chase. Contrary to the military record, a booking sheet she'd turned up indicated that Jones was born in Ohio.

Go ahead: Call Ohio, population eleven million and change, and ask for the birth certificate of a man named Jones. See how far you get.

Anthony Camera
It's a mystery: Coroner's office investigator Tracey 
Balbin gives the dead names and returns them to their 
Anthony Camera
It's a mystery: Coroner's office investigator Tracey Balbin gives the dead names and returns them to their people.

Records clerks aren't eager to share vital statistics with third parties, even if they're on official business. But Balbin can be astonishingly persistent. "Sometimes they absolutely refuse, or they want a release from a relative," she says. "I explain to them that if I knew who the relative was, I wouldn't need the birth certificate. I tell them someone has died and I'm just trying to find the family. If I can talk to a supervisor, we can usually get it. It takes a lot of arguing, but it's important."

Balbin got the birth certificate. Armed with Jones's mother's name and year of birth, she started checking voter-registration records, utility records and other locators. She lucked out with police in the Toledo area, where the mother had been a complainant in a criminal case. The address on the police report was a house the mother had purchased in 1984, then sold a few years later. The house had traded hands several times since. Balbin found the woman who'd bought the house from the mother; she recalled that the seller's husband had died years before. The seller had moved in with her daughter, the buyer said. She couldn't recall the daughter's name, but -- miracle of miracles -- she did have an address.

After eight months of dead ends, Balbin found herself on the phone, calling the number that matched the daughter's address. The phone was answered by the daughter's daughter -- Mr. Jones's niece. Yes, her octogenarian grandmother was home; she was working in the garden. Balbin asked to speak to her. The old woman was summoned, and Balbin informed her that her son had died in Denver.

From what the mother said, Balbin gathered that Jones had been drifting for decades. She had seen the type before, the ones who come out of the military and can't seem to adjust to civilian life. The family hadn't heard from him for years, but they had never stopped hoping that he might end his drinking and his wandering. The body was still in storage; they wanted to claim his personal effects and take him back to Ohio.

"They wanted to know him," Balbin says. "They wanted to know what he'd been doing, where he had been, how he was living. It closed a chapter for them. They were able to move on."


Most death investigations begin with a name, even if it's Jones. But some transients have no identification at all. In such cases, Balbin has to start with what the body itself can tell her.

Three years ago, Balbin was confronted with a no-name who, at first glance, had a lot in common with Mr. Jones. White male, late fifties, found behind an office building on East Colfax. No trauma, acute bronchopneumonia with hypothermia due to exposure. Evidence of alcohol ingestion, an empty 40-ouncer. The man had some paperwork from Denver Health, but investigators quickly learned it didn't belong to him.

'You see that a lot,' Balbin notes. 'They borrow each other's stuff, exchange pants or something.'

Investigators took his fingerprints and sent them to the Denver police. No match. They moved on to state records. Still no match. Then the national database. Zip, zilch, nada.

'We're four or five days into this, and we still don't know who this guy is,' Balbin says. 'There's a golden window of time. Once you search the national database for prints and you don't get a hit, you start getting worried.'

From the condition of the teeth, the clothes, the hands and other signs, Balbin can usually get some idea of how long the person has been living on the streets. No Name appeared to have knocked about for years. The most intriguing clues the body had to offer were some faded tattoos of military insignia and one of a heart with two names: Bob and Sharon.

Balbin knew better than to assume that No Name was Bob; the names could be those of his children. Still, she had nothing else to go on. She brought in activists in the homeless community to view the body. She started asking around the neighborhood. She took a morgue photo to folks at the Denver C.A.R.E.S. detox facility, on the chance that one of their vans might have picked him up at some point -- and finally caught a break.

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