Speaking for the Dead

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

1. BORN ON THE MOON

On mourra seul, Pascal wrote. We shall die alone. But some die more alone than others.

In Denver, if you die unexpectedly, unattended by doctors or relatives, your death becomes a matter for inquiry by the Office of the Medical Examiner. And if you manage to die truly alone -- on the streets or under a bridge, without wallet or address book, without a single mourner or anyone to explain how you got to your lonely end -- then you become a special kind of problem.

&nbsp:
Anthony Camera
 :
It's a mystery: Coroner's office investigator Tracey 
Balbin gives the dead names and returns them to their 
people.
Anthony Camera
It's a mystery: Coroner's office investigator Tracey Balbin gives the dead names and returns them to their people.
Body of evidence: Chief investigator Don Bell 
considers notification a moral obligation.
Anthony Camera
Body of evidence: Chief investigator Don Bell considers notification a moral obligation.

You become the kind of problem that Tracey Balbin regards as a personal challenge.

Tactful yet relentless, Balbin is one of seven investigators in the Denver coroner's office. The group looks into more than 5,000 deaths a year, helping the medical examiners who certify the cause and manner of death -- much like the begoggled, latex-gloved sleuths on CSIand its endless spinoffs. But the job also involves identifying the dead and notifying next of kin, a process that's not always as straightforward as it sounds -- particularly in cases where family ties have been severed for decades. While the TV dramas focus on the whiz-bang technology involved in figuring out how someone died, shamelessly exaggerating the role of carpet-fiber analysis and luminol spritzing, Balbin and her colleagues often find themselves unraveling the mystery of how someone lived.

"Usually we can get the next-of-kin notification done fairly quickly," Balbin says. "But we've had cases that span years."

Only certain types of deaths are required to be reported to the coroner. Accidents. Suicides. Homicides. Deaths in the operating room, the ER, in jail or prison. Sudden death, or circumstances that suggest foul play or a possible public-health risk. Most of the reports are phoned in and turn out to be routine. But that still leaves around 800 "scene deaths" a year, in which the subject expired without an attending physician. And in about a quarter of those, Balbin estimates, there's some snag in finding the next of kin.

"In most cases, it's not an issue," she says. "There's family present at the hospital, the nursing home, the residence. Or if they weren't present, somebody has called them before we even get there. But then you get the people that no one knows. It's like they were born on the moon."

Finding the estranged families of even the most anonymous dead is one of Balbin's true talents as an investigator. Co-workers say she has a special gift for the task. This is not something she readily acknowledges; the 38-year-old mother of two would rather talk about teamwork, everybody doing their share, that kind of thing. But it's clear that she cares deeply about this part of her work. Over the past nine years, she's spent months chasing bare leads and cracking cases that seemed unsolvable.

"You get attached to your cases," she says. "It drives you crazy if you can't tie it up. I really do enjoy doing it, and if you enjoy doing something, you're probably going to be good at it. Maybe I've developed a flair for it, but it's a basic part of our job. The ability to track people, dead or alive, is a pretty good skill to learn."

Balbin can tick off a fistful of practical reasons why finding the next of kin is important. The investigators may need family to make a positive identification of the body, to fill in gaps in the medical history or to track down dental records. Although her office doesn't need permission from surviving relatives to conduct an autopsy, some notification on that point is considered a courtesy. And then there's the matter of funeral arrangements; the city can arrange for burial, but not cremation, without written authorization.

Yet there is another reason, a matter of policy and personal belief, that has helped fuel Balbin's determination. Families deserve to know, she says. They should hear about a death from someone in an official capacity as quickly as possible, before the media gets hold of it. They should have an opportunity to make their own arrangements for the deceased.

"We probably don't have a hard-core obligation under the law to make notification in every case, but we consider it a moral responsibility," says Balbin's supervisor, chief investigator Don Bell. "It can be the biggest holdup to closing a case, but we consider it as important as our other functions."

"There's no good way to tell someone that a loved one is dead," Balbin adds. "But everyone deserves to be notified."

The people Balbin finds offer every imaginable response to the news she brings, from the hysterical to the supremely indifferent. Some scream and curse and drop the phone. Or they say, "He's dead? So what? Why are you calling me?" Some have questions, endless questions. Others are just grateful for closure, relieved that the fractured story of a wayward father or sister or son finally has an end.

Balbin doesn't know what to expect when she makes the call. She's just doing her job. She speaks for the long gone and vanished. Even they have people, and their people deserve to know.

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.

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.

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."

3. THE MYSTERY OF THE HEART TATTOO

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.

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.

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.

4. THE MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY

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.

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."

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.

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.

6. UNCLAIMED

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."

The decision to stop chasing an unknown isn't made lightly. Files get reviewed, investigators meet and exchange suggestions. "When we get to the point where nobody has any idea of how to proceed," says supervisor Bell, "that's when we close it."

Yet out of thousands of cases, the defeats have been few. The information is out there, Balbin tells her interns; the family is only a phone call away. Okay, maybe a bunch of phone calls away. It's their job to give the dead names and then get the dead to their people, to send them out of this world with a little more dignity than they may have found in it.

"I get to the point where I get mad," Balbin says. "I'm getting to know this person, and it becomes a personal battle. I am going to solve this case. That's my personality. One of my problems is knowing when enough is enough."

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