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The Nameless and the Dead 

Connecting the unidentified dead with their relatives is no easy task -- especially when John Doe has 25 aliases

Wednesday, Jun 5 1996
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The second report crackled across the police radio three minutes after the first, with barely a pause in the action. It was shortly before 4 a.m. last Nov. 16, and San Francisco Police Officer Raymond Gee had just told the dispatcher that his squad car was making a U-turn on 29th Street, heading west in pursuit of a 1988 Chrysler Le Baron. The police and the Le Baron's driver had passed each other heading in opposite directions. Officers noticed that the Le Baron's headlights were off. The driver of the Le Baron noticed the police and took off.

The dispatcher dedicated a separate radio channel to the event, officially designating that a pursuit was in progress.

It wouldn't last long.
The chase went only a block and a half before the Le Baron plunged into the side of a Muni bus at Noe. There were no skid marks, no indication that the driver, Sherill Glynn Dearman, had ever touched the brakes. Radio chatter about license-plate numbers and locations stopped with the single sound of a cop witnessing the crash. "Oh-UH. ... The car hit a bus really hard." And then the call for an ambulance.

It's likely Dearman saw the police first, which could explain why he hit the gas. He was a career petty criminal; perhaps he thought that his recent history and the stolen car he was driving were enough to send him away for a long time. And he'd already decided he wasn't going. Dearman had told his family time and again that he wanted to come to California. He'd always said that when it was his time to go, he preferred to die in a car accident. He never believed he would make it to his 40th birthday. He was right. He died a month shy of 40.

The Le Baron was no match for the 1976 Flyer bus. Muni driver Jerry Wiseman was not seriously injured, nor were the handful of Owl Service passengers.

But Dearman didn't die alone. There was another body in the car. Both driver and passenger in the Le Baron were so trapped in a web of twisted and tangled metal, however, they had to be cut from the wreckage. The steering column hung to the ground on one side of the vehicle. The front end was slammed back into the body of the car, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to an accordion.

Dearman's passenger died as indefinitely as he had lived, leaving behind a plethora of identities, the muddled trail of a decidedly ambiguous life. At the time of his demise, authorities couldn't say with certainty who he really was. He joined the club of the obscure, those who become more connected in death than in life.

They meander through life's triumphs and tribulations alone. But in death, they become the center of attention of a network of people whose job it is to put the puzzle pieces together, to link the dead with the living. And for some, it is the only time anyone cares about their fate.

The justice system officially named the man killed in the passenger seat of the stolen car Leslie George Irish. That was the name he gave the first time he entered the vast computer realm of criminal records after an arrest in the mid-1960s in Texas. It was not his real name and he was not from Texas. During the nearly three decades that followed, he danced in and out of the path of police for disorderly conduct, petty thievery, and an array of other misdemeanor sins. Nearly every time, he was booked under a different name; he died with 25 aliases, three Social Security numbers, and five birth dates, all between 1945 and 1949, most of them April 20 or April 22.

Irish left few clues to his life, other than the diary of hard times recorded on his face. His blue eyes were at half-mast, sunken into layers of creases resting atop sallow cheeks. He had no scars, except for the deeply etched lines that drooped like well-worn paths to the corners of his mouth. His face was framed by thick, shaggy hair the color of dark peanut butter. He had perfected a harsh look of determined misplacement, simultaneously scary and sad.

The city's medical examiners determined that his brain weighed 1,350 grams but nothing of what it recorded during at least 47 years of life; that his heart weighed 360 grams and was functioning normally when he died, but not whether it had ever loved or been broken.

No one knows precisely how or why Irish wound up in a stolen Le Baron that night with Dearman; the night his disconnected past would attract the flashlight beam of a gumshoe named Spillane.

San Francisco Police Inspector Jim Spillane makes his living filling in the blanks of the city's seamier stories on the night shift. He's a Boy Scout cop with a no-nonsense style and a kind face that suggests a quieter line of work. He's met a lot of losers and seen a lot of drifters, but a stiff with 25 aliases and no apparent connection to this planet -- well, that's actually a new one.

"It is pretty unique, the number of aliases this guy's got," says Spillane. "Someone can give virtually any name they want. And all subsequent arrests get keyed back to that first name whether it's him or not."

He'll revisit this one a few times, between piecing together other stories behind different sets of chalk outlines and listening to snitches spin their yarns. Dead John Does aren't exactly the top priority in an urban police department, especially when they got that way in an apparent bungled getaway. Nevertheless, Spillane will chew a bit on this Mr. Doe. It's too hard not to. Spillane's got a family. And regardless of who else this man was, he was somebody's son, maybe somebody's brother.

About The Author

Lisa Davis

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