Speaking for the Dead

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

From talking to Rice's parole officers and hunting through their records, Balbin was able to find the marriage certificate. With help from the Las Vegas coroner's office, she scored the ex-wife's Social Security number and other vitals. Fortunately, the woman had worked in the Nevada gaming industry, which does almost as thorough a job of backgrounding its employees as the CIA. Balbin found her in Texas. Rice's son, now nineteen, was about to get married. He'd been six years old the last time he saw his father.

"We explained the situation to him, that it was our job to find him," Balbin says. "We gave him the story of what happened."

The process led to calls between Thatcher and her brother's son, their first contact ever. Sometimes the next-of-kin hunt ends up inadvertently reuniting families. Sometimes people contact Balbin's office in search of missing persons, and it's easier for the investigators to track down the missing and prove to the family that their relative is alive than to try to match their information with some unknown in the morgue. That doesn't happen often, Balbin acknowledges, because the investigators don't have the time to mess with missing-person reports, but it has happened.

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.

Thatcher later came out to Denver to visit her brother's grave. "It was sad to me that he'd died as invisibly as he lived," she says. "He lived his whole life pretty darn invisible to everybody. He died a homeless man, with no name, no possessions and no family. That was really hard for me."

She's grateful for Balbin's work on the case. "Tracey's determination to find a family member meant closure for me, and it helped me heal," Thatcher says. "It meant the world to me. I know what it's like to be left hanging. I remember calling the prison, trying to find out about Brucie, and nobody ever calling me back. Tracey cared."

A county court jury found Officer Devinny guilty of careless driving. He was fined $100, suspended from the police department and eventually fired. He's currently appealing his termination before the Denver Civil Service Commission. A decision on the case is expected this month.


Once a year, on average, investigators are unable to identify a body found in Denver. The remains are too badly decomposed, or it's a newborn found in the trash, or someone -- the deceased, or the person responsible for his or her demise -- has managed to obliterate the history of the body in question.

Descriptions of fourteen adult unknowns are listed on the website of the Office of the Medical Examiner (www.denvergov.org/Coroner/template15569.asp). The list is a twenty-year litany of bad ends to hard lives, men perishing in vacant lots and snowdrifts, in storm drains and near boxcars. The lone female in the group was in her fifties or sixties, had dentures, and was found behind a dumpster in 1983.

The most recent case is already three years old. He was an emaciated, nearly toothless middle-aged transient, found dead of pneumonia in February on the bank of the South Platte, in a shelter made of branches and twigs. No papers, no print matches, no leads.

The others are just as frustrating, each in their own way. The male found on another section of the river in 1999, whose ethnicity could not be determined because the entire body had been burned. The tall, skinny black male with several tattoos on his right lower leg, possibly nicknamed Kinky. The remains of a white male found in the basement of a vacant building on Broadway, four blocks from the State Capitol, that had become a hellhole of the homeless; he'd been dead about a year by the time the body was recovered. "I imagine people were sitting there, drinking next to a decomposing body," Balbin says.

She's haunted by the unknowns, even ones dating back to her early days on the job or her internship. The Hispanic male in his early twenties, found in an alley in west Denver in 1997 -- where is his family? The white homicide victim from 1995 who didn't look older than thirty, with good teeth and no tattoos, and nobody knows anything about the guy?

Balbin's office has had only one unknown case cleared since posting the list on the website several years ago. The rest remain, a silent reproach, a reminder that not every mystery can be solved. Another page lists 25 cases, dating back to 1993, in which investigators have turned up a name but no next of kin. Jerry Downs. Jesus Ojeda. Gene Billy West. Mary Piggee. Mean Lim IV. Juan Jimenez, who had sixteen other aliases. Jabr Radrejua. Gerald Smith. Ray Marrow, who has a son somewhere, but nobody can find him.

No investigator likes to shelve a case before putting a name to a body and finding the next of kin. Closing the book on an unknown is one of the toughest things Balbin has to do.

"It gets overwhelming," she says. "We don't have the time, the staff, the money to do everything. Spending six months on a case is excessive. When I have to let it go, I feel like I'm giving up. But it's not fair to your current cases."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest