Alone and Forsaken

How Orange County John Doe No. 04-01225-AB died and will be cremated along with his name

Photo illustation by Tenaya HillsSuperiorSuperWarehouseinSantaAnaiswherethethrifty and efficient find extra-large boxes of stretchy trash bags, 24-packs of toilet paper and whole pallets of paper towels. For John Doe—Orange County Coroner Case 04-01225-AB—it was where he died in the early hours of Feb. 11, 2004. They found him against its southern wall, half a mile from St. Anne's Catholic Church, 350 yards from a health clinic with a window graphic of a hand cradling a featureless human figure.

John Doe 04-01225-AB died alone, in the cold, on the ground.

Someone called the police. Investigators investigated the possibility of foul play and found none. And the coroner's office carefully readied John Doe 04-01225-AB for his final close-up: his autopsy. They do an autopsy in Orange County whenever someone dies outside of a medical facility without a doctor present, Supervising Deputy Coroner Joseph Luckey said. The job of examining John Doe 04-01225-AB fell to pathologist Dr. David M. Katsuyama. He made the standard Y-shaped incision in Doe's abdomen, with wonder in his mind. As a scientist, Katsuyama would have wanted to learn the weight of Doe's heart. It weighed 400 grams and, according to Katsuyama's report, had a "minimally thickened" right ventricular wall and an aorta that showed "severe atherosclerosis with extensive ulceration of the intima."

Katsuyama identified the cause of death as "coronary insufficiency due to advanced coronary arteriosclerosis," the manner of death as "natural." He also found Doe had "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," a combination of emphysema and bronchitis. And he uncovered some of the last details of John Doe 04-01225-AB's final hours.

John Doe 04-01225-AB died at 6:59 a.m. Feb. 11, 2004, after a night of temperatures dipping to 42 degrees. Nearby on Main Street, a gaudily lit Kentucky Fried Chicken beckoned anyone with a few bucks to burn. Other restaurants were nearby, but Doe died with only 2 to 3 cc's of material in his stomach. By contrast, the stomach of athlete Florence Griffith Joyner contained 250 cc's of material at the time of her death, according to Internet documents. John Doe 04-01225-AB died hungry.

Since his autopsy, his body has been refrigerated for a year, as required by law, while efforts have been made to find his relatives. Samples of his vital organs—his brain and heart among them—have been stored in vials of formaldehyde for an "indefinite" period of time for forensic purposes.

John Doe: Dead But the coroners are no closer to finding out who he was. It is a common end.

"We find homeless/indigent bodies quite frequently throughout the county," Luckey said via e-mail. After a recent rainstorm, officers found a partially skeletonized body near a storm drain. A different storm yielded a different body, found in an electrical breaker box behind a strip mall. There were 76 indigent deaths in Orange County last year, the coroner's office says, down from 104 in 2003. "Indigent" means that either the family of the deceased can't afford to pay for cremation or, as in the case of Mr. Doe, no next of kin can be located. He also joins the official number of people who have died in Orange County with "no fixed abode": 499 since 1992.

He is still homeless, still without kin, still dead. And as the first anniversary of his death passes, the coroner's office is making its final attempt to find John Doe 04-01225-AB's relatives by running his case "through the system" one last time, Supervising Deputy Coroner Larry Esslinger said. After one year, "by law, the coroner has the authority to send the body to be cremated," he continued.

For indigents like John Doe, one of the government's last official acts is arranging their cremation. The timing is uncertain, but the cremation of John Doe 04-01225-AB is imminent.

Funeral directors perform indigent cremations, even though they can lose several hundred dollars on the job. In cases in which the deceased has a Social Security number, county social services pays $425 toward the cremation and scattering. When no number or next of kin is available, the coroner pays the full amount.

At the crematory, Doe's body will be placed in a simple cardboard casket and incinerated at temperatures up to 2,100 degrees. His ashes, or cremains, will be transferred to a plastic urn and scattered off the California coast, possibly by Randy Bryan of Shannon-Bryan Mortuary in Orange, whom the county hires specifically for this task. Last year, Bryan scattered the cremains of three Orange County indigents off the Newport Coast from his 40-foot sailboat, taking the 10 pounds or so of ashes per person "a couple of miles out."

"I prefer that there are no other boats in sight, just in reverence to the deceased," Bryan said. No formal religious ceremony or utterances are allowed, due to the fact the decedent's preferences are usually unknown. But Bryan often allows for a small, silent moment of prayer, he says: a solemn last moment before he slowly scatters the ashes and they melt into the waters.

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