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Speaking for the Dead

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

The strategy worked. His parents saw the man's picture in a Guatemalan newspaper and went to the government, which called the consulate, which called Balbin. The body was cremated and the remains sent home, along with his luggage.

"It's satisfying when you solve one of these cases," Balbin says. "It involves so much work, so many closed doors. This one was very rewarding. It shouldn't have been solved."

5. THE INVISIBLE MAN

He was not someone who attracted attention, except from the police -- and even they didn't notice him when it might have mattered. In his very last encounter with the law, the cop didn't see him until it was too late.

He was crossing South Colorado Boulevard around midnight on October 6, 2001, when the patrol car struck him. The impact severed his legs and sent his body flying 414 feet -- 294 feet in the air, another 120 feet rolling on the pavement.

The driver, Denver police officer Christian Devinny, was responding to a call for backup from other officers sent to quell a noisy party. The accident investigation produced conflicting accounts of how fast Devinny had been going -- one expert estimated he was barreling down Colorado at between 75 and 90 miles per hour -- and whether he'd had his emergency lights and siren on. The 31-year-old officer had been involved in five minor traffic accidents in the previous four years. Several of the incidents consisted of other drivers hitting his vehicle while it was parked or stopped; in one instance, he'd hit a slow-moving car while doing 70 on an officer-in-distress call.

The man he killed was dressed in black, highly intoxicated and walking in a dimly lit area with his back to the traffic. He was "in a place where pedestrians should not be," Devinny's lawyer would later say. But now he was part of a high-profile case, no longer invisible, and the newspapers were clamoring for his name. The coroner's office wanted to find his family first.

The man had only one piece of paper on him -- a summons from the Denver police. But the citation led to his police record and a positive ID: Bruce Rice, 49. Rice hadn't lived long in Denver, and what living he'd done here had been on the streets, battling his alcohol problem. Yet Balbin soon picked up a promising paper trail, the kind of trail a man leaves behind when he's spent substantial portions of his adult life in prison.

Rice had lived in Florida and done time in Virginia and Nevada for robbery, grand larceny and parole violations. Pre-sentencing reports and parole officers' notes hinted at family connections long broken. In 1984 Rice, then in his early thirties, told his keepers it had been ten years since he'd spoken to his mother; she had since died, as had his father.

One file made mention of a wife, but the address was fifteen years old.

According to the records, at least one family member, a sister named Lisa Thatcher, had visited Rice in prison in Nevada. Using motor-vehicle databases, Balbin was able to track her to an apartment complex in Alexandria, Virginia.

One evening Thatcher came home and found a message from her landlord asking her to call the Denver coroner's office. "I called back right away," she recalls. "I was certain they had the wrong person. I didn't know anyone in Denver."

But she did. The maimed body in the morgue had been her brother Brucie. He was fifteen years older than Thatcher; when she was born, he was already a teenager, experimenting with life on the street. She had gone with her mother to visit him in prison in the early 1980s and had come away thinking he was the coolest brother in the world.

"He was tall and wore those muscle Ts," she says. "He had a big black panther tattooed on his arm, and he had longish black hair. I was so impressed."

In 1985, Thatcher moved to San Diego. A few years later she learned that Rice was in prison in Nevada and arranged to visit him there. He was smaller than she remembered, but he had a great sense of humor. He was thrilled to see her and told her all sorts of stories about her family from before she was born.

She wrote to him regularly for a couple of years. But her life was on the outside, and his was behind the walls. She went to Thailand as a teacher in the Peace Corps and lost track of him for a while. When she returned, she wrote to him, hoping to reconnect. The letter was returned to her by the prison mailroom. He'd been released. That was all she knew for months, until Balbin called her.

Thatcher asked lots of questions. She told Balbin that her brother had a son. All she knew about the mother was her nickname, Sunny, but she did have a photo of the boy with some writing on the back that indicated his date of birth.

"The son would be considered the legal next of kin," Balbin explains. "So we started looking for a birth certificate, a marriage record, anything that could lead to him."

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