COLUMN ONE : The Search for Names of the Dead : Orange County has a striking number of John and Jane Does who were neither poor nor loners. Many left clues--a room key, a bus ticket--that torment investigators trying to find out who they were.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She hails a cab, asks to be driven to the nearest cliff and decides it is time to die.

At the coroner's office, they lay her young, slender body on a slab in a metal chamber. The place smells. It's cold.

A week goes by and nobody comes to claim her. A month. Two. A year.

Although they are sympathetic enough at the coroner's office, they decide one day that they need her space. A crematory is called. For $425, which is paid by the county on her behalf, her ashes are placed in a cardboard box. The box is deposited on a rent-a-boat, motored out to sea off Dana Point, and in a ceremony that is as lonely as was her death, a man casts her remains overboard and tells her to rest in peace.

Whoever she is.

In the last decade, at least 33 people have died in Orange County who have met, or will meet, similar fates. Other counties have more unclaimed bodies. But many of Orange County's Jane and John Does are striking because they do not appear to be transients who lived solitary, anonymous lives.

By comparison, 26 people who died in Los Angeles County in 1993 have yet to be identified. But Scott Carrier from the Los Angeles County coroner's office said investigators suspect that nearly all the county's Jane and John Does are illegal immigrants whose relatives and friends fear coming forward, or transients who long ago unplugged themselves from the world around them.

"For some reason Orange County has always been a place where people from other parts of the country come to die," said Joseph Luckey, a veteran Orange County coroner's investigator who has been identifying the dead since his tour as a mortuary sergeant in the Vietnam War.

Many of the Does who lie unclaimed inside the beige coroner's building on Santa Ana Avenue were people who appeared to have money and connections to the outside world. They had extensive dental work. They wore brand-name clothes. They had bus tickets, maps, motel keys, scraps of paper with phone numbers or some other clue that suggested the beginning and middle of their lives wasn't nearly as empty as the end.

Among them: a man who spent his last day at Disneyland, an elderly woman who enjoyed crossword puzzles and a woman who wore a ring made of human hair.

They died and no one noticed.

Such tantalizingly promising clues and a hatred for unsolved riddles drive coroner's investigators, most of whom see it as their mission to bring a vestige of dignity to the Does' deaths. All told, about a dozen coroner's investigators in Orange County must divide their time between the identifiable dead and the Does. If they can spare the storage space, they will keep a Doe for a year and beyond before sending the body for cremation.

"Nobody should have to die that way," said Cullen Ellingburgh, a longtime investigator with the Orange County coroner's office.

Ellingburgh seems to be a man who isn't easily offended any more by what people do to each other. But he regards it a cruel form of irony that the fates would allow someone to die anonymously. Heaping insult onto injury for him and others in his line of work is the niggling taunt that there is somebody out there who knows what they don't.

"A person doesn't just walk around on this earth for 20 or 30 years and not run into somebody along the way who wouldn't want to know that they're dead," Ellingburgh said. "Everybody has a mother, right?"

For those who try to identify the Does, the presence of the unclaimed in the bowels of the coroner's office provides further evidence of how harsh and impersonal society can be. Amid the nauseating odor of formaldehyde and the clank of metal crypts, the soulless stares are a reminder that life can be an imperfect stage where one's exit can be as unheralded as one's entrance is applauded.

"It does get discouraging," allowed Cherry Goodman, a soft-spoken senior investigator who measures her words and emotions with care. Until recently, she had taken on the Doe list as her personal project.

"They're mysteries," she said. "We have one case where all we have of the person is six teeth. And of the six teeth, only one has identifiable characteristics."

It seems improbable that--in a society so addicted to computers and forms in triplicate--a person can die without a name.

It's also a disturbing testament, Ellingburgh said, to a culture that is increasingly alienated. Gone are the times when families kept intact and in touch, when there were enough safety nets to catch those who fell.

Since 1992, the county coroner has investigated seven Does, the victims of car accidents, violent crimes, suicides or causes unknown. Several were too young to have died at all, Ellingburgh said, let alone to have died abandoned. In their quest to learn the Does' identities, investigators employ every means known to forensic science. Sometimes, they resort to such not-so-scientific means as consulting psychics. They have been known to chase long-shot leads on decade-old cases, in part, because, though the faces of death are all too familiar to them, it bothers them to bury someone without a name.

Ellingburgh, who can recite intimate details from years-old cases, still refers to one Jane Doe, a freckle-faced teen-ager who killed herself in 1987, as "my girl."

Luckey affixed a sketch of one of his Does to his tape dispenser. He still wonders: Was there something he missed? Another phone call he should have made?

Another investigator, Maureen Albrecht, still doesn't understand why a woman killed on Mother's Day, 1989, has yet to be identified.

"It's strange, but in many of these cases you do wonder why somebody doesn't come forward," said Ellingburgh.

Sometimes Ellingburgh wonders if maybe the Does' spirits won't be able to rest until their relatives are told of their fate. He believes in God, he said, and would like to think the Does are destined for a better place. But any place is better than where they've been.

*

If Jane Doe 87-4457EL and John Doe 92-6012LY had known what was to become of them after their deaths, maybe things would have been different.

On Sept. 20, 1987, a strawberry-blond teen-ager stacked her belongings neatly at the top of a 150-foot cliff near Dana Point Harbor, pointed her size-6 shoes west and stepped off.

On Oct. 14, 1992, a man in his 20s or 30s apparently treated himself to a day at Disneyland, then hurled himself off the roof of the 13-story Inn at the Park hotel in Anaheim. His silty, cream-colored remains reside in a cardboard box on a special shelf at Lesneski's Mortuary in San Clemente.

The two cases baffled coroner's officials who felt the bodies would not remain Does for long.

"They should have been missed," Ellingburgh, the deputy supervisor, said. "They were young and looked cared-for."

John Doe, clean-cut, short-haired and baby-faced, might have passed for an accountant on vacation. Of average height with a good build, he wore cut-off jeans. Stuffed in his pockets: two Greyhound bus tickets dated Oct. 13, 1992, one from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, another from Los Angeles to Anaheim. Also: the stub from a one-day passport to Disneyland, "the happiest place on earth," the stub said. It was dated the day of his death.

Examining his teeth--one of the first steps in a Doe investigation--coroner's officials were encouraged by what they saw: seven fillings and a crown. If he had been a transient, he probably would not have had such dental work.

They dispatched copies of his fingerprints to the state Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hoping for a match. They sent Teletypes to police departments in the western United States, urging them to check missing persons' lists.

With the help of an anthropologist, they estimated his age based on the size and shape of his bones.

They called Greyhound, but found out he paid cash for his tickets so there was no record of his name. They searched the hotel registry, but he never checked in.

Elizabeth Tang of Anaheim and her husband may have been the last people to speak to John Doe.

An hour and 20 minutes before his death, they strolled through a park near their home and saw him sitting on a bench in a gazebo.

"He just wanted to talk," Tang remembered recently. "He seemed educated; he wasn't a bum. He was so despondent. I said to my husband, 'God, I hope he doesn't go and do something.' "

His last words to the Tangs: "God bless you."

Hers to him: "You, too.

Said Tang, "You'd think that somebody would be missing him somewhere."

You'd think the same about the young woman who took her life near Dana Point Harbor.

At 4 in the morning on Sept. 20, 1987, she called a cab from the Hampton Inn in Mission Viejo.

She asked the cabby to drive her as far as $18 would take her. He let her out at the intersection of Cove Road and Scenic Drive, where she handed him a $10 bill and eight ones, and walked to the nearest cliff. Standing at the ledge, she would have seen nothing--there was no moon that night--and heard only the wet smack of the Pacific against the rocks below.

Said Ellingburgh, who handled the case, "She was still alive for some time at the bottom of the cliff, because she had made angel wings with her arms in the sand, you know, like children do in the snow."

But there were no angels at the base of the Dana Point Harbor cliff that morning, and none would appear later.

Not a single lead would ever come in.

*

The inch-thick file that belongs to another Jane Doe, 90-1853LY, weighs more than any other, but that has only added to the frustration.

Stepping onto Pacific Coast Highway on April Fools' Day, 1990, she was struck first by a Mazda MX-6, then a Lincoln Continental. She died instantly. She was 18 or 19, maybe 20.

She carried no identification and no credit cards. But what she did have seemed unique: a ring made of human hair, a smooth black stone, and a motel key inscribed with No. 218. Most promising: When a sketch of her was published in local newspapers, several Huntington Beach residents said they had spoken with her. Her family lived in Virginia, she'd told them.

Coroner's investigators immediately contacted Virginia newspapers. They dispatched descriptions and sketches nationwide. They bombarded missing children's organizations.

Responses numbered into the hundreds.

One man was convinced he used to work with Jane Doe at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Her name was "Charlotte" and the likenesses were uncanny: She wore a ring of human hair and at one time she had had four front teeth knocked loose by a boyfriend. But the real Charlotte turned up alive.

The list of possible leads went on: She's "Maggie" from the trailer park. No. She's "Linda" from church. No. She's "Jackie," said the Missing Children's Clearinghouse. No again.

As investigators followed up each lead, six months slipped by. A year. Nothing.

"You don't realize how many people out there are unaccounted for until you go through something like this," said Luckey, the chief investigator on the case.

He even went so far as to quiz his kids' high school friends to see if they knew anything about Jane Doe. He hung a copy of her sketch on his refrigerator at home until his family insisted he take it down. At work, he kept another sketch of her on his tape dispenser.

"I had pictures of the wife and kids on my desk, and next to them, Jane Doe," said Luckey, a father of four who said he couldn't help but think of his own daughter while working the case. "I wanted to keep her face fresh in my mind because we do become very busy around here."

When a psychic came forward and suggested Jane Doe was from Florida, Luckey appealed to 18 Florida newspapers to run an article about her on the second anniversary of her death. Some did.

Two years later, her identity is still an unknown.

"That really hurts me when you say that," Monique Colyar said recently when told that Jane Doe was still unidentified. Colyar took her in for a night just days before the accident. "I thought that long ago somebody would have claimed her. . . . Maybe if I had listened to her more closely."

She might also have been identified if investigators could have worked on the case exclusively, investigators say.

But death comes to 15,000 Orange County residents a year, 8,000 of whom are investigated by the coroner's office. That means 22 coroner's cases a day, every day, and so time must be rationed.

"When I first got into this business I thought that when you got one of these cases you worked on it until you identified the person," said Ellingburgh. "But that's not realistic in this day and age."

*

The people who deal with Jane and John Does can hardly believe such a phenomenon exists.

"I know families break up and there are all kinds of circumstances out there," said Ellingburgh. "But I can't imagine the same thing happening in my family. Can you?"

Sometimes people aren't identified because they don't want to be. A man in Orange County once signed his suicide note with a false name, but investigators traced the gun he used.

Sometimes geography is to blame. The coroner's office once had a John Doe until investigators discovered his belt buckle had only been given to people who worked on Alaskan oil rigs. When an article about the man was published in Alaskan newspapers, someone recognized him.

Sometimes survivors don't want to come forward. They've had a falling out with the person who died. Or they assume someone else will identify the body.

At the moment, the remains of eight of the latest Does are tucked away on a shelf at Lesneski's Mortuary, including the man who spent his last day at Disneyland. After 18 months in the coroner's freezer, he was cremated March 10.

All eight eventually will be taken three miles off Dana Point and buried at sea. Before each burial, Edward Lesneski or his son, Mark, will recite a prayer.

"Whether it's a John Doe or a John Rockefeller," said Edward Lesneski, "they're people. They deserve some light at the end."

Unlike other metropolitan areas, which dispose of unclaimed bodies after a few months, sometimes weeks, morticians in Orange County hold the Does' ashes for at least two years in hopes that somebody will come forward. The law doesn't require it; they do it by choice. The finality of burial merits the delay, Ellingburgh said.

Once the Does' ashes have been scattered, all earthly traces of them will be wiped out, he said. As if they had never existed.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°