Saturday, January 31, 2009

An unknown for too long

This started out as a follow-up to a news brief: An accident victim, probably an illegal immigrant, left no ID and authorities couldn't figure out who he was. Several weeks went by, and I was asked to try to profile this man from the few clues he left behind. Before I could get the story in the paper, investigators solved the puzzle. It looked like we had no story -- until we learned that this guy hadn't been quite so unknown after all, and that the authorities had failed the man's relatives in the most fundamental way.

Mystery, then grief
Despite report, it took more than a month to ID accident victim
Date: Saturday, January 31, 2009
Edition: Palm Beach Section: Local Page: 1B

Byline: By Howard Goodman and Erika Pesantes Staff Writers

For five weeks the accident victim was an unknown -- a corpse in a cooler in the county morgue, case number 08-1379.

He was carrying no ID when he stepped in front of an oncoming SUV five days before Christmas on Military Trail west of Lake Worth.

No one recognized his picture when Gary Pace, a sheriff's investigator, took a photo door to door.

No one was asking about him or appeared to miss him, Pace said in mid-January, frustrated by a paucity of leads and haunted by the thought that a family somewhere -- in Central America, he guessed -- was missing kin.

Finally, this week, Pace and a Spanish-speaking assistant, working the numbers on the dead man's cell phone, found an acquaintance.

Their victim was Jorge "Jose" Francisco Velasquez, 30, a native of Guatemala, last living in a home along Haverhill Road about a mile from where he had been killed on impact.

Velasquez was not so unknown after all. His brother and other relatives had filed a missing-person report with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. That report was on file even as the sheriff's Vehicle Homicide Unit was trying to identify the victim. But no one connected the two.

Velasquez's brother, Norberto Velasquez, a nursery worker who lives west of Lake Worth, said he began wondering about Velasquez's whereabouts the night of the accident, Dec. 20.

Besides filing the missing-person report Dec. 26, Norberto Velasquez and a sister-in-law, Blanca Manuel, said they searched three hospitals for Jose Velasquez, a landscaping worker who had cognitive problems and was often disoriented. They checked the jail, though Jose Velasquez had never been arrested. They said they checked the morgue three or four times.

Everywhere, authorities said they had no information.

"I don't know how in the world this could have happened," said Sue Steel, a medical examiner's forensic investigator assigned to the case. "You just feel bad for the family.

"It's sad to think that they had to keep coming back here," she added.

Steel said it's the first error of this type she has seen and that the Medical Examiner's Office is
investigating. "I don't know if we didn't check all the places in the computer, or if we had the same person at the front desk, or what."

Sheriff's officials cited the complexities of matching various and often imprecise reports.

"Unfortunately, when you get into a situation with an agency this size, it takes some time for information to get to the right people," said Sgt. John Churchill, head of Vehicle Homicide Investigations.

In this case, descriptions in the separate reports did not match. The family, reporting Velasquez missing, described him as 4-foot-5, 150 pounds and 31 years old. In the accident report, Pace described the unidentified victim as almost a foot taller, 127 pounds and age 18 to 25, from information provided by the Medical Examiner's Office. His birth certificate shows his age as 30.

The missing-person report had a photograph attached. But computer databases don't do facial matches, Churchill said.

Under state law, Pace could not circulate a photograph of the accident victim taken at the Medical Examiner's Office. So his search was prolonged while he commissioned a sketch artist to create a likeness.

And before he could check out the victim's cell phone, he needed to find a proper phone charger, which also took time, he said.

During that time, Velasquez said, he prayed in anguish for his older brother: "Christ, if he's dead, may his body appear."

Velasquez said his brother loved cooking, especially beef stew, and comedy. He didn't know how to drive. Velasquez tried to teach him what traffic signals meant to keep him safer as he walked the streets.

Jose Velasquez had been here about a year and a half. In Guatemala, he had a wife and four children, ages 2 to 11, and a mother with a weak heart.

"She wanted to at least give him his last goodbye," Norberto Velasquez said. "And I promised her that I would send his body back home."

Sun Sentinel photo / Joe Cavaretta: Norberto Valasquez with his late brother's belongings.

No comments:

Post a Comment