Family members who buried the wrong body after the Orange County coroner’s office mistakenly identified a man found dead in Fountain Valley as their homeless relative have filed claims against the county totaling more than $2 million for “severe emotional distress.”
Meanwhile, Orange County officials said they have identified through fingerprints the man buried in an Orange cemetery but were not releasing his name because they were trying to notify his family. The body will remain interred there until the family is contacted and decides how to proceed, said sheriff’s Lt. Lane Lagaret, a spokesman for the coroner’s office.
The mix-up began May 6 after a man was found dead behind a Verizon store in Fountain Valley.
According to the claims, which are possible precursors to a lawsuit, Frank J. Kerrigan, 82, of Wildomar received a call from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department telling him to contact the Orange County coroner’s office about his son Frank M. Kerrigan, 57, who is mentally ill and had been living on the street.
When Orange County authorities told him his son had died, he asked if he had to identify the body and was told it was unnecessary since the identification had been made through fingerprints.
“When somebody tells me my son is dead, when they have fingerprints, I believe them,” the elder Kerrigan said. “If he wasn’t identified by fingerprints, I would have been there in a heartbeat.”
The younger Kerrigan’s sister Carole Meikle, 56, of Silverado went to the spot where he supposedly died to leave a photo of him, a candle, flowers and rosary beads.
“It was a very difficult situation for me to stand at a pretty disturbing scene. There was blood and dirty blankets,” she said.
On May 12, the family held a $20,000 funeral that drew about 50 people.
“Someone else had a beautiful send-off,” Meikle said. “It’s horrific.”
Earlier, in the funeral home, the elder Kerrigan had looked at the man in the casket and touched his hair, convinced he was looking at his son for the last time. “I didn’t know what my dead son was going to look like,” he said.
The body was interred at a cemetery in Orange about 150 feet from where the elder Kerrigan’s wife is buried.
Eleven days later, however, Kerrigan got a call from a friend, Bill Shinker.
“Your son is alive,” Shinker said. Frank M. Kerrigan was standing on the patio.
“Bill put my son on the phone,” the elder Kerrigan said. “He said, ‘Hi, Dad.’”
The family’s claims, dated Friday, seek $1 million each for Meikle and Frank J. Kerrigan, plus the funeral costs.
Doug Easton, a Costa Mesa attorney hired by the elder Kerrigan, said coroner’s officials apparently weren’t able to match the corpse’s fingerprints through a law enforcement database and instead identified Frank M. Kerrigan by using an old driver’s license photo.
When the family told authorities he was alive, they tried the fingerprints again and early this month learned they matched someone else’s, Meikle said.
Lagaret said in a statement Saturday that the Sheriff’s Department is conducting an internal investigation into the mix-up and that all identification policies and procedures will be reviewed to ensure no misidentifications occur in the future.
Lagaret said the department extended regrets to the Kerrigan family “for any emotional stress caused as a result of this unfortunate incident.”
However, Easton said Tuesday that the case is an example of how “the homeless really get the short shrift here in Orange County.”
“What that tells me is they just gave a perfunctory cursory test here and basically said ‘Good enough,’ which they wouldn’t have done for me or you,” Easton said. “They would have been more thorough, more careful about what they did. The conclusion I draw is that this man was homeless and therefore was treated as kind of a throwaway kind of person. To his family, he wasn’t.”
“We lived through our worst fear,” Meikle said. “He was dead on the sidewalk. We buried him. Those feelings don’t go away.”
The mistaken death identification led the federal government to stop disability payments for the younger Kerrigan, Meikle said. The family is working to restore them.
Meikle said her brother chose to return to living on the street, though Easton said the family has told him about the funeral and outpouring of support.
“They seem to have had a little bit of an impact in helping him connect a little more frequently lately,” Easton said.
The Associated Press, City News Service and Daily Pilot staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.