It had been a long day and night as we scratched off a rather substantial list of abandoned buildings, musty underpasses and urine soaked doorways on our clipboard. We’re rubbing our tired eyes and cautiously monitoring the digital clock on the dashboard that’s progressing slowly past midnight. We were winding down, slogging our way toward our 2 AM version of the quitting whistle.
“Damn! I forgot! You know that guy who sleeps in the lawyer’s courtyard? I got to show you something that’s been on my mind.”
By now, my co-workers have learned my little quirks and idiosyncracies. You can’t spend the amount of time together that we do without understanding each other. Either through collaborative respect or personnel management, they indulge me. Sadly, they also know I’m going to do whatever I want anyway and that I tend to get a second wind when the moon rises high in the sky.
Without lifting an eyebrow, Travers bites. “Sure. Whatcha thinking?” He can tell this is going to be the start of some flight of fancy.
“It’s been on my mind for a little bit. Let me show you something.” I explain.
Really, it has been on my mind since 2008, when the authorities pulled the body out. In January of that year, construction workers demolishing an old housing development discovered a severely decomposed corpse in an upstairs apartment. There were the tangible signs of squatting: dirty clothing, old food containers, a cooler. The only problem was there was no identification. Initially, the authorities could not even identify the gender of the rotted body. As the report says, “Estimated date of death: 3 months to three years prior, skeletal remains.”
I kept an eye on the case. As anyone in social services knows, everyone has a story, a history, a name and a family. In a city that celebrates death with second lines and all-night drinking binges, I fully recognize that no one dies alone, except those without a name. It’s bothered me for several years.
The database is called NAMUS — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It’s the final resting place for the anonymous dead. When the proper authorities are unable to locate the next of kin or the circumstances of death prove too challenging, the case is entered into this grim database. I keep an eye on it periodically, continuously hoping we might be able to shed some light on the darkest details of one’s demise.
As this gentleman was clearly homeless when he died, it seemed possible that we might know him. The good people at the LSU Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons took the time to complete a digital post-mortem facial reconstruction. The re-created face was familiar and I remember the gentleman well. He was tall but hunched over, a description matching the autopsy’s finding of a degenerative bone disease in his spine. I remember him being quite mentally ill, disorganized, and a little paranoid. Somewhere in our dozen file cabinets is a lengthy assessment, the information needed to lift this man from anonymity. However, I got nothing. For the life of me I can’t even remember what letter his name begins with.
“So what are you saying? The guy’s not dead? What’s it got to do with my lawyer’s guy?” Travers asks.
“I’m saying he looks exactly like him. They could be brothers! Easily!” I plead.
Travers remains unimpressed so I print up the photo. We go directly to the doorway where the man is sleeping.
The problem with the guy in the doorway is he wants nothing to do with us. He’s deeply paranoid, distrustful and requires a little relationship building. That’s fine and good, but I want a name or something I can work with. But most importantly, I want to convince my co-workers that they’re related.
As Travers starts his rap about housing and being of general assistance, I’m holding up a digital copy of a dead guy. Travers’ eyes dance between the horizontal homeless guy and a piece of 8 x 11 copy paper. I know he agrees when he starts to smile.
Knowing that mental illness has a highly genetic component and that it’s not unusual to have siblings on the street, we have an interesting lead.
But it all starts with a name.