The Nameless and the Dead

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

Twelve investigators at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office handle the 1,700 dead bodies that come through the morgue at the back end of the Hall of Justice every year. They are on call around the clock to hospitals, crime scenes, and, occasionally, the water's edge. Death knows no boundaries, nor a schedule. Only one investigator is assigned to follow up the mysteries that can't be solved through initial investigation. It can take months to connect a dead person to his or her next of kin.

No one is particularly happy to meet the messengers of death. They work in a world void of good news. They don't flinch at the gruesome and don't give in to the emotional. Their job is to unravel the mysteries and find the answers; to link the unclaimed and unidentified dead to a life that may have existed only in the faraway past.

"We're not a bunch of ghouls down here," says Herbert Hawley, chief inspector in the Medical Examiner's Office. "We do this because we can do it with dignity. There's an easier way to make a buck."

Hawley is 6 feet 6 inches tall and speaks with the sort of reserve that comes from making a career in the field of death. It started by accident. A self-described "smartass" teen-ager, Hawley was bright enough to get out of high school early and unchallenged enough to get in trouble regularly. He signed up for mortuary school as a joke. Then, well, he got kind of interested in the whole thing. Following a short stint at a private mortuary and then in the San Mateo County Medical Examiner's Office, he came to handle death at the Medical Examiner's Office in San Francisco in 1978. He is now administrative coroner for the city.

It's not a pretty job. Inspectors spend their days poking at bodies, poring over personal effects, chasing leads, and analyzing microscopic details that may associate the dead with someone somewhere. Some, like Irish, remain, for months, as detached in death as they were in life. Sometimes, their identities are never determined at all.

Five years ago, a man who had laid claim to sleeping space outside the Medical Examiner's Office died. Hawley says that most of the people who work in the office knew him -- sort of. They stepped around him. They fed him. They knew his name was Chauncey. No one knew anything else about him. Chauncey had been arrested for public drunkenness. But he'd never been fingerprinted. He died, simply, as he lived, alone and known only as Chauncey.

Similarly, there was no address for the man called Leslie Irish or any of his other aliases. If he died with any possessions, anything that was important to him or might tell the world about him, it remains a mystery.

Irish has fingerprints on file, because he had been arrested. (Much to the chagrin of the medical examiners, not everyone is fingerprinted. Unless an individual has held a job that required a license or fingerprint check, has been in the military, or has been arrested, it's unlikely there are fingerprints on file anywhere. And even if there are, it doesn't mean those prints have made their way into a master computer.) The prints from Irish's corpse went through the routine procedure -- checked through San Francisco Police Department's identification section, which in turn links into a computer connected to other western states -- and turned up the aliases. After that, there's the U.S. Justice Department, which keeps records on missing persons. That assumes, however, that someone has been missed.

For all of the best efforts of a complicated system, sometimes things just happen by chance. For months, it looked as though the man called Leslie Irish would remain nebulous, a person with no certain identity.

Then, early last month, the tentacles of the Justice Department's vast computer system found a connection between the fingerprints from the man it knew as Leslie Irish and the name of a man whom Leslie had called his grandfather. In an arrest report in another city more than 20 years ago, Irish had listed J.H. Christman in the tiny town of Kelsey, Colo., as his link to the world.

The San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office sent a form letter to Christman in Kelsey, via general delivery. Christman has long since left this world. But it so happens that another grandson was named after him, and he lives in Kelsey. The postmaster assumed the letter was for the younger Christman, who called his aunt, who called her niece, Sandra Gursky in Missoula, Mont. Gursky, it turns out, is the sister of San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office Case No. 1454: the supposed Leslie Irish.

The man called Leslie Irish (and about 24 other names) is really Leslie George Ward. He was born to Vivian Christman and George Leslie Ward in Greeley, Colo., in April 1944. And the pre-dawn car crash on a San Francisco street was a violent end to a violent, tragic life.

This is his story, told by the family with whom he has been reunited in death:

George Ward left his two children -- Sandra and Leslie -- before they got to know him. When Leslie was 4, Vivian, their mother, married a man named Jake Glass; together, they had three more children.

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