The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : Hot on the Trail of the Next of Kin

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Doyle Tolbert knew who was dead (a middle-aged Studio City man) and why (suicide), but his sleuthing was just beginning.

As a Los Angeles County coroner's investigator, Tolbert had to track down the man's next of kin and notify him or her of the man's demise. His first visits were to the neighbors, who said the man had a son in the Marines, but they couldn't recall his name.

Tolbert noticed Marine tattoos on the man's body, and on a hunch checked to see if he hadserved in the Corps. He had. So Tolbert tracked down the man's 20-year-old records in St. Louis, which listed the name of the dead man's son as his dependent.

Other federal records showed that the son was also a Marine, assigned to Camp Pendleton. But when Tolbert telephoned the base, he discovered he was too late: The young Marine had been shipped out to Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf War and was to be part of the U.S. ground assault on Kuwait the next day.

Tolbert made a quick call to the International Red Cross, who found the Marine, notified him of his father's death, and got the grief-stricken young man on a transport back to the U.S.

Determining who died, and why, is just half the battle for the coroner's office. Coroner's investigators are obligated also to scour the ends of the Earth to locate relatives of the deceased. Although they do much of their legwork by telephone, the investigators say their brand of detective work can be as involved as a police inquiry into a murder.

"It's the same as a homicide investigation," Tolbert said. "Only we're not investigating the homicide, we're investigating who this person is, and who we should notify that they're gone."

In most of the 18,000 deaths per day handled by the coroner's office, finding the next of kin is fairly easy. They were present at the time of death, or lived with the deceased. But coroner's investigators are trained to find family members even when they're across the globe.

Tolbert has a standard list of things to do to track down relatives: Check if the deceased was ever arrested, because arrest reports list an emergency contact. Go through the Social Security rolls. Check magazine subscription lists, court files to see if the person has ever sued or been sued, missing-person reports that list a next of kin--although some missing-person reports are so old that the next of kin will have moved.

Sometimes such efforts are not enough. Sometimes the neighbors won't be able to tell investigators how to locate the deceased's family. Sometimes the deceased is from out of state or, commonly in Los Angeles, from another country.

In one case, Tolbert recalled, a native of Connecticut was killed in Los Angeles. Tolbert gave the information to a Connecticut police officer, who knocked on doors in the deceased's old neighborhood and eventually traced his parents to Canada.

For recent arrivals to the U.S., letters from family back in the homeland are one reliable way to track down next of kin, Tolbert said. Just send a message back to the return address.

Tolbert's investigations have led to relatives in far-off locales such as Cuba, Turkey and Vietnam. But the more mundane cases frequently require creative solutions too.

One body was identified through its fingerprints, but Tolbert discovered that the man's family had moved five or six times since he was fingerprinted.

He finally tracked them down in San Dimas--at an address listed on a parking ticket.

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