Lawsuit says a third man was involved in Orange County coroner's body mix-up

Lawsuit says a third man was involved in Orange County coroner's body mix-up
Francis Kerrigan and Carole Meikle, center, and their lawyers Ryann E. Hall, left, and V. James DeSimone, contend the Orange County coroner switched one dead homeless man's body for another to cover up a botched death notification last May. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner has yet to explain how authorities identified a homeless man found dead behind a phone store last May as 57-year-old Frankie M. Kerrigan — who turned up alive a week after he supposedly was buried.

The coroner later admitted a blunder and said that the body was actually that of John Dickens, 54, another homeless man. Dickens' body was exhumed, and his cremated ashes were sent to his family in Kansas.


Now the Kerrigan family contends that the body actually found was that of a third, unidentified man.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the family alleged that coroner's officials substituted Dickens' body for that of an unknown man to cover up their botched identification.

Dickens' body was chosen because he resembled Kerrigan and the coroner believed "no one would care because the deceased were homeless," the lawsuit said.

"John Dickens' body was not the body recovered at the Verizon store, instead an unknown third individual was found deceased at that location," the lawsuit alleges.

"It's a horror show on top of a horror show," the father, Francis J. Kerrigan, 82, said in an interview at his lawyer's office Tuesday.

The coroner did not respond to message seeking comment. Last July, a spokesman said an investigation into the incident would take as long as a year, and the results may never be made public.

Frankie Kerrigan became mentally ill and homeless in his 40s, but the family stayed close, his father said. Frankie is currently sheltered and doesn't understand what happened.

Francis Kerrigan and his daughter, Carole Meikle, said they don't know whose body was pulled from the bushes behind the Fountain Valley phone store last year, or why officials identified it as their family member's.

But they say that so many questions have arisen with the identification, they are convinced the victim wasn't Dickens.

A Fountain Valley Fire Department incident report described the dead man as age 65, weighing 250 pounds, and police said he was found next to a wheelchair.

Employees of the phone store said the man, who had been hanging around the store for several days, was short and "thick," with long dark hair and used a wheelchair, Meikle said.

Frankie Kerrigan, 57, weighed at most 170 pounds, had short light brownish-gray hair and "didn't use a wheelchair. He could walk 50 miles," Meikle said.

The clothes she provided for the funeral fit the body, but were too small for a 250-pound man, she said.

The coroner told the elder Kerrigan that his son's fingerprints matched the body, and the office told Meikle they found her brother's identification card — obvious untruths, the family members said in their lawsuit.


Meikle said she raced to the scene after the death notification and found a disturbing tableau. "There was blood everywhere and dirty blankets," she said. "They didn't even clean up."

During a brief viewing before the burial, Francis Kerrigan said he didn't question whether it was his son. "I had a 100% belief in the truth of what they said that my son died that day," he said, tears welling up.

"Somebody made a deliberate decision to deceive this family," said attorney V. James DeSimone, who brought the suit on the Kerrigans' behalf.

The family had a Catholic funeral and buried the body near the grave of Frankie Kerrigan and Carole Meikle's mother.

"That was sacred ground to us. I had to tell 50 people who came to the funeral … and relive the shock of this 50 times over," Meikle said. "The death is still real to us. Now he's arrived back and we're still in the grieving process."

Meikle said the sheriff identified the body as that of Dickens the day after Frankie Kerrigan surfaced, before disinterring the body. A spokesman publicly admitted the identification switch only weeks later, after the family decided to go to the media, Meikle said.

Francis Kerrigan and his daughter said they believe "this would have never happened to a citizen of Orange County" who wasn't mentally ill and homeless. The lawsuit alleges a civil rights violation against the coroner for allegedly denying the family a proper investigation because of Frankie Kerrigan's status.

The suit accuses Orange County and the Chapman Funeral Home of negligence and intentional inflection of emotional distress and seeks a jury trial. The family earlier filed a $2-million claim against the county.

Twitter: @geholland