Speaking for the Dead

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

No Name had indeed been a guest of Denver C.A.R.E.S. The van had picked up someone named Bob near where the body was found, someone who looked a lot like No Name. The records contained a last name and a date of birth. With that, Balbin was able to go back to the Denver police and match prints. The system isn't as flawless as crime dramas would lead you to believe; finding an unknown among millions of print records, especially when the prints are taken off a dead body, is a lot trickier than matching the same prints to a specific record.

Now that she had a positive ID, Balbin was able to search military and civilian records. She turned up traces of Bob's trail, but not enough to locate next of kin. 'Thankfully, he had a very unusual last name,' she says. 'Those are the names you love. So we started doing cold calls.'

She tried a listing in Indiana. A widow answered the phone. Her late husband had two nephews, she said. One was named Bob. Bob had married a woman named Sharon. They had a son. Then one day, Bob just up and left. Bob's mother had hired private investigators on several occasions to try to find him, but no one had seen him since the 1980s.

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.

Balbin found the surviving nephew and confirmed that the no-name found on Colfax was his brother. The decedent's brother and his mother made the funeral arrangements. The whole process, from discovery to burial, took less than three weeks.


He was found in a downtown alley at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday in April 2001. Hispanic male, early twenties, non-responsive but still breathing. He died at Saint Joseph Hospital five hours later. The toxicology report left no doubt about the cause of death: cocaine overdose.

A fingerprint check shook loose a minor arrest in Chicago. He'd told the police he was from Mexico, but immigration officials had almost nothing on him. He was undocumented, in every sense of the word, with multiple aliases and no certain identification or place of origin.

It could have ended there. Another nameless illegal dies a long way from home, covert and unmourned. But Balbin figured a man with so many names must have a real one somewhere, and a family that gave it to him.

A scrap of paper in his pants led her to the man who'd hired him to work a construction job. The foreman at the site didn't have much to offer. Balbin used a translator to talk to the workers. "Decedent said he was from Durango, Mexico, but nobody really believed him because his accent was more Puerto Rican or South American," she wrote in her report.

In Balbin's experience, such deception wasn't unusual. Some Latin American illegals would prefer that authorities think they're from Mexico, in hopes that they'd be deported there instead of their native country. It would be that much easier to come back.

If the man had a fixed address in Denver, the workers didn't know about it. They said he'd worked at the Regency Hotel at one point, but no one there could offer any information. A more promising tidbit was something the workers said about how he'd go to the Greyhound bus station to clean up on Fridays -- payday -- before going out on the town. That had probably been his routine the night he died: change clothes, buy drugs. He had to keep at least some of his stuff at the station.

Balbin went to the bus station and asked the clerk to open up the lockers that had expired the weekend the man died. One of them contained a suitcase with the man's name on it.

Papers in the luggage led the investigation to a former roommate of the deceased in Fort Collins. The roommate said the man was born in Guatemala but raised in Mexico. "He gave us what he thought was the guy's real name," Balbin recalls. "He said he kept to himself a lot of the time."

If the man was using the bus station as his closet and bath, then his boudoir was probably one of the nearby shelters. At Samaritan House, Balbin found an emergency-contact number he'd left for his father. The country code on the number checked out as Guatemala. The number, alas, was no good.

Balbin kept digging. The man had joined a union for his construction work. In the local's paperwork, he'd listed the city of his birth in Guatemala. The coroner's office prepared fliers in Spanish, distributed them around town, and arranged for a short clip about the death to air on Univision, the largest Spanish television network. They sent the fliers to the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles and asked for help locating his family.

Weeks went by. Balbin's original contact at the consulate didn't seem all that interested in helping. She called again, kept pressing until she found someone else willing to contact sources in Guatemala, maybe generate some publicity about the case.

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