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Their true names die with them

This dispatch is adapted from The Homicide Report, an online project by Times staff writer Jill Leovy to report on every homicide victim in Los Angeles County, including the many whose deaths go unmarked in any other public forum or medium.

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“Is the name really Ramirez?”

In response, a detective shakes his head and shrugs. “It is now,” he says dryly.

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For some homicide victims, the most fundamental fact -- who they were -- is as much a mystery as the identities of their killers. A report from the Los Angeles County Coroner Department or an arrest form may end up being the only official record of their lives, even if the name on it isn’t the right one.

In a polyglot place like Los Angeles, the word “marginal” doesn’t even begin to capture the netherworld some homicide victims lived in. Many people here reside far removed from the formal structures of civic life. They include illegal immigrants, lifetime criminals, the poor and indigent. Their names, ages, loved ones and personal histories can be elusive in the best of circumstances.

But keeping track of them is made even more difficult by official mangling of ethnic names, particularly in police records.

The most pervasive problem surrounds Spanish names.

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Latin American name conventions differ from those of the United States. Drawn from many countries, with varied and irregular spellings, U.S. surnames form a diverse pool. A Bill Bratton or a Wolfgang Puck or a Tom Cruise is recognizable even without a middle name.

But in Spanish-speaking countries, there are relatively few surnames to choose from and spellings don’t vary much. Names like Rodriguez, Garcia, Hernandez, Perez, Sanchez, Aguilar, Diaz, Gonzalez, Martinez, Morales, etc., are so common that used alone, they do little to pinpoint any one individual. A Jose Rodriguez vanishes amid throngs of Jose Rodriguezes.

This problem is solved by the use of two legal last names in most Spanish-speaking countries--a father’s last name as a primary surname, followed by a mother’s maiden name. Many people also have middle names that help make their first names more distinct; thus, a Maria is Maria Elena.

The practice cuts down the possibility of replication, said Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Spanish professor at USC. Diaz gave the example of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez: His surname is Garcia. His mother’s maiden name is Marquez. He is never called simply “Garcia,” Diaz said, because then he would be indistinguishable from other writing Garcias, including the Spanish poet -- and homicide victim -- Federico Garcia Lorca.

An exception is made when one last name is uncommon, Diaz said. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada can go simply by Fox because there are not that many Foxes with whom to confuse him. And poet Garcia Lorca is often called simply “Lorca” because this is the more unusual of his two last names, Diaz said.

These conventions are consistent and well-established abroad. But in English-speaking America, they go haywire. Diaz, the professor quoted here, is actually named Roberto Ignacio Diaz Esteve, but he dropped his mother’s maiden name after leaving Cuba because it confuses people here. Other Spanish speakers hyphenate their last names in the U.S.

Asian names pose similar challenges. LAPD Officer Jason Lee, for example, is really named Lee Chang Ha. The name works in Korean because Chang can be written using different characters, and adding Ha makes it even more distinct. But in English, confusion reigns. Lee, who does community relations work among Korean immigrants, advises people with Asian names to hyphenate their first names and what English speakers take to be a middle name when in the States, for example a name like his would be Chang-Ha Lee. He also tells them to always carry identification, so authorities don’t mistake them for someone else.

Without his police ID, Lee said, even he runs the risk of being “just another Asian guy -- 5-8, 150, black hair, brown eyes” -- lost in a sea of indistinguishable Lees.

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Despite the fact that the population of Los Angeles is heavily Latino and foreign-born, the Los Angeles Police Department has not adapted its procedures to foreign names.

The LAPD’s most basic arrest form -- the “5.10" -- is designed according to English name conventions. It provides spaces for “last name, first name, middle name,” a format that all but guarantees a Spanish name will be botched, because it won’t fit into the spaces.

The department says it trains around this issue. But not surprisingly, officers queried in the field described making it up as they go along. Some said they hyphenate Spanish-speakers’ names. Some said they use one or the other last name. Some said they put one of the last names in the “middle name” slot.

Often, extra last names end up filed as aliases. This means that even if people aren’t lying to police about who they are, their police records will carry a whiff of shadiness because it appears that they adopted fictitious names.

These problems are compounded for illegal immigrants. Police records are often the only official documentation.

Cheryl Campoy, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, jokes that the California criminal justice system is like a clerk at Ellis Island who carelessly Americanizes the names of immigrants on intake forms. But her quip is essentially true: Whatever an officer has scribbled into the three blanks on the 5.10 form becomes a person’s legal name if no other record is available. It’s the name that sticks forever after, following people through the courts, to prison and, if they never have other valid California identification, to the grave.

Of course, police and prison officials need to know with whom they are actually dealing. Confronted with thousands of Jose Garcias, not to mention records rife with false names, aliases and bungled names, police rely less on names than they do on computer databases of fingerprints, photos, scars and tattoos.

But this matches people only with records, not necessarily with true names. If they are killed or die in other ways, tracking down next of kin can be difficult.

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Without two properly recorded last names, coroner’s investigators are sometimes left with the unenviable task of trying to find the relatives of a “Garcia” or “Rodriguez” in one of a dozen Spanish-speaking countries where tens of thousands of people bear the same name.

Last year, the unclaimed remains of 879 people were transferred to the Los Angeles County morgue to be held for a year before burial in what is quite literally an anonymous pauper’s grave, as one LAPD sergeant put it.

Only some of these people were homicide victims, and there are numerous reasons why remains are not claimed. But coroner’s spokesman Craig Harvey said name confusion is probably one reason. Family members sometimes surface long after the fact, seeking missing relatives whose names are difficult to match to the official record. If someone named Jose Aurelio Garcia Rodriguez has been incorrectly filed away under Rodriguez or some other name, the Garcia family may never find him and his remains would go to the county’s mass grave, Harvey said.

And unlike the poet Garcia Lorca, whose remains were slated for exhumation from the mass grave in which he lay, the unknown homicide victims of Los Angeles County vanish forever in death: Their bodies are cremated, and their ashes are co-mingled.

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The Homicide Report is at

https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/homicidereport/


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