The Nameless and the Dead

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

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.

The car that Dearman and Irish rode into death in was stolen near a freeway in Crosby, Texas, a small town on the outskirts of Houston, six days before the accident in San Francisco. Its owner told Houston police that she stopped at a gas station to get a soft drink and left the keys in the car. Witnesses described a man similar to Dearman as the suspect. They said he was alone.

A couple of days before the accident, Thom and Jamie Jerpersen's house in Atascadero was burglarized. Their dog Scruffy's silver tag was found in the Le Baron, along with shotgun shells also taken from their home, leading police to believe that at least one of the two men in the car was involved.

Dearman's family brought his body home to Louisiana. They have never heard of Irish or any of the other names attached to him. But the two men had at least one thing in common, and apparently it was enough to bring them together in the wee hours, in a stolen car with the headlights off: There were several empty Budweiser cans, a crack pipe, and a syringe in the car. Both bodies were polluted with cocaine.

"Glynn got into crack, and that was his major problem," says Lisa Holmes, Dearman's sister. "He'd tried to get off of it and couldn't. I've been through treatment centers with him. He hated it, but he couldn't stay away from it."

Holmes says the last time her brother was arrested, he was with a man who'd stolen guns and cars. Local sheriff's deputies were trying to connect Dearman to an auto theft ring, she surmises, and that may have been why he took off.

"Glynn never stole cars. He always took pickup trucks," says Holmes. "He wasn't into stripping them. He just used them to get from Point A to Point B."

It was 28 days before a computer finally matched Dearman's fingerprints to his records; a sheriff in Iberville Parish notified Holmes that her brother was dead. It cost Dearman's family nearly $1,000 to bring his body home and bury him. The emotional price was much higher.

"Glynn and I had had words, and he wasn't talking to me when he left," Holmes relates. Dearman had lived with her off and on over the years and usually listed her as the person to contact whenever he was in trouble. "I knew this time when they went after him that he wasn't coming back," Holmes says. "He didn't want to live the way he was living anymore."

The rap sheet on the name Leslie Irish tells the story of a man who came to San Francisco for the first time sometime in the 1960s; in 1967, he was arrested for disorderly conduct. He would have been about 23 years old, and likely lured by the free-love, drug-frenzied call of Haight-Ashbury and the passionate protest against the Vietnam War. The National Personnel Records Center has no listing for any of his aliases ever having been accepted for military service.

The Social Security numbers Irish had used at various times in his life were issued to other people. For a while anyway, he drifted like paper in the wind. In the mid-1970s, he was arrested in Los Angeles, and in Las Vegas after that. But since at least 1980, he seems to have stayed put in San Francisco. No one recognizes or remembers him anywhere near the two downtown apartments, one on Minna and the other on Leavenworth, where he supposedly lived, or the address on Carl that he periodically gave to police.

There is no listing for family or friends on any of his arrest records in San Francisco. The only connection he ever mentioned was that of a woman named Brenda Holmes, whom he listed as an ex-wife more than a decade ago. There is no record of either their marriage or divorce in San Francisco or anywhere in California. No one near the address he gave for this woman has ever heard of her.

When he died, he was calling himself Leslie George Washington, and he faced court dates for habitual stealing from newspaper vending machines in the city. He remained so unnoticed in an overcrowded system that a San Francisco Municipal Court judge issued a warrant for his arrest when he failed to appear in court nearly a month after he died. But, there was more to this life than a court record.

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.

Glass was a mechanic by trade and nearly always employed. But with a growing family, money was tight. Sandra and Leslie shared one of the two bedrooms in the home that their parents bought new but quickly outgrew. Eventually, they would share the bedroom with two more children.

Leslie Ward was smart as a whip and full of the dickens. The kids at school teased him because of his short stature and "girl's name." And when his older sister came to his defense, it only made matters worse. Still, Gursky says, "He was smarter than any of us. He could have been anything."

Leslie was also a kind of larger-than-life character, a performer who entertained anyone who would listen with all sorts of fictional tales about his family and their various adventures. In Leslie's case, the truth was more painful than fiction.

Glass was not a drinking man, but he was a violent one. He abused his wife and his stepchildren as a matter of routine -- especially Leslie, who was increasingly precocious.

"I can remember him [Glass] throwing my mother down and slamming her head on the floor by the hair," says Gursky. "He battered and beat Leslie within an inch of his life."

It's not the sort of thing that goes without notice. But in a small town in the early 1950s, it wasn't the sort of thing anyone made his business.

"I witnessed one of the beatings he [Glass] gave that child, and I will never forgive myself for not stopping him," remembers Bonnie New, Leslie's aunt. "He [Leslie] had been told not to go downtown. But he asked his mom, and she said it was OK.

"Well, he went downtown, and Jake [Glass] saw him, and that's why he got the beating he did. Leslie never told that 'Momma said it was OK.' "

Leslie was both devoted to and forgiving of his mother, which seemed to infuriate his stepfather further. Leslie's mother would sometimes take things from her husband -- once it was a coin collection -- and give them to her son to sell for money. Leslie took the rap for both of them.

Regardless of their home life, Leslie's mother was always impeccably dressed and full of vigor. She and Leslie shared the same gift for storytelling, and both viewed the world as a stage.

Leslie's mother left his stepfather at least twice during his formative years, taking her children to Phoenix and Denver, once having joined a Jehovah's Witnesses church trip. But they always returned home to Greeley again.

The annual Independence Day celebration in Greeley was a big deal. The rodeo went on for days. There was a big barbecue, western dances, and, every year, the carnival came to town. When Leslie was about 13 years old, he left with it.

After nearly a year, he returned home. It wouldn't be for long. The beatings continued, and Leslie became more difficult to handle. Sometimes the police would bring him home after curfew; other times it was petty shoplifting. His own temper was beginning to grow.

In 1959, when she was 16, Leslie's sister, Sandra, ran away from home to escape their stepfather's abuse. Leslie left a few months later, with a failed attempt to enlist in the Army. Brother and sister had never talked about their plans, never said goodbye to each other, or to their mother.

The Army found out that Leslie was only 15, and that was the end of his designs on military service. It was also likely the beginning of what would become a string of aliases and doctored birth dates.

In 1965, two years after they divorced, Jake Glass shot and killed Leslie's mother and then himself in the parking lot of a Denver bowling alley. She was there with a boyfriend, who was wounded in the incident. Leslie's 5-year-old half-brother, Douglas, witnessed the whole scene.

Leslie had never met Douglas and didn't learn of his mother's death for several years. By that time, he was using the name Lawrence Fulton.

Sometime earlier, Sandra Gursky and her family had seen her brother, for the first time in years, on television. He was a contestant on a game show called Who Do You Trust? He was dressed in a hat and cape, recited poetry, and said he lived in Greenwich Village. And he was using the pen name Leslie Irish, a tribute to his Irish mother.

Leslie had adopted a different path, far from the military world he once wanted to join. By this time, he was big into the hippie movement.

Shortly after his TV appearance, Leslie came to visit Gursky, who was living in Cheyenne, Wyo., at the time with her husband and 1-year-old son. The toddler took an immediate liking to Leslie, and especially to the long feather he wore in his wide-brimmed hat. But Gursky noticed something else. Her brother was popping pills constantly, and his unpredictable personality reflected it.

"When we were kids, we were so close because we were both trying to survive the violence," Gursky remembers. "I always believed he was so gifted and that it was all thrown away or destroyed."

Leslie also visited his grandparents at least once during the late '60s. They didn't know quite what to make of his velvet pants and big hat. He scared them, especially since it was the first time he'd asked for money. Sometime after that, his grandparents received the same clothing in the mail from a prison in California. His family still doesn't know what crimes Leslie committed to land there.

Gursky still has the letter her brother wrote her eight years ago, the last time she ever heard from him. In it, Leslie stated that he had gotten away from the drugs that nearly destroyed his life. He was trying to start a rock 'n' roll art gallery on Polk Street called Starz, he informed his sister.

"Though you and I faced a little hell as children, we both got away from it in our own way. ... I've paid for my path many ways, as I'm sure you've paid for yours," Leslie wrote. "When I look back, I remember kites we flew in childhood summers, mud pies, being paid to pick potato bugs in mother's garden. I don't try to remember bad things about mother or our past."

"To understand my direction, you would really have to see through my eyes."
"The heart is a good thing and should be used fairly to judge the past."

Even the dead have a hard time finding a home in San Francisco.
Once upon a time, around the turn of the century, there was a cemetery at what is now Lincoln Park, near the Legion of Honor museum. It was also home to a potter's field, where those who died without means were laid to rest above the crashing waves of the Golden Gate.

That's before it became prime real estate.
In the 1970s, San Francisco gave up its potter's field and adopted a policy of cremating the unclaimed and unidentified dead, with a few exceptions. Honorably discharged veterans, for instance, are buried by the federal government at a national cemetery in Gustine, Calif., about 120 miles south of San Francisco. The Catholic Diocese of San Francisco buries indigent members of its flock at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.

The rest, those who remain unclaimed like so many sweaters in a lost-and-found box, move to Evergreen Mortuary in Oakland after 30 days; there, they are cremated and returned to the Medical Examiner's Office in small black boxes. Their lives are reduced to a name or a case number printed on a neat white label on the front of each box.

Leslie Ward, in death, may have found something he never had in life. For the last six months, he has been a member of a community -- the unclaimed dead, resting quietly on shelves in a dusty basement room in the Hall of Justice, a floor below the very busy and very contentious world of the living. Leslie's neighbors on that shelf are a varied bunch, the remains of random people who have one thing in common: They all died alone. And now, they are all waiting to go to their final destination.

Were it not for the bizarre chain of events that led to the form letter reconnecting Leslie Ward with his family, his ashes would have been sprinkled in the Pacific this December per department policy.

Instead, his remains have been sent to his sister.
"I've agonized over this," she explains. "I wonder if I really should bring him here. He seemed to love it there [in San Francisco]. It would be nice if there was something that showed that he lived.

"They were sent to me. Selfishly, for me," she says, her voice breaking into painful sobs. "Because I was never able to take care of him when he was alive, I want to take care of him now. I was his older sister, and I never could help him."

The remains of the other 180 people on the shelf in the Medical Examiner's Office stay there for a year, waiting for someone to claim them, too.

Once a month, Capt. Ron Ihle takes the ashes of those whose shelf life has expired out to sea.

Ihle sails The Orca, a 70-foot yacht owned by Evergreen, under the Golden Gate Bridge and off into the sea, about five miles off the coast of San Francisco.

On a clear day, you can see the Faralons and the Marin Headlands in the distance. On other days, only the shape of the land is visible through the heavy mist that descends on the boat.

The Orca is a gallant old lady that takes storms well. She's equipped with all the latest navigational gadgets, air conditioning, and a full kitchen. On other days, The Orca is used for dinner cruises and to take Sea Scouts out on their adventures.

Ihle slows the engine while Richard Cunningham, his first officer, begins moving the blue plastic crates that contain boxes of ashes toward the back of the boat. They are heavy and not moved without some struggle.

Both Ihle and Cunningham are dressed in their uniform black jackets, Ihle's with epaulets on the shoulders. The event is official without being ceremonious. Cunningham assesses the wind direction, leans over the side of the boat, and methodically pours the remains of his charges into the white, foamy wake.

The brownish-gray ashes float on the water for a few moments before sinking slowly into the sea. There is neither eulogy nor ritual in this final farewell.

"We're not sure if they were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or whatever," says Ihle. "I'd hate to be saying a prayer and putting my beliefs on someone who didn't share them.

"We figure they came into the world quietly and they should leave the same way.

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