The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a county coroner’s contract to provide training across California despite the department misidentifying a homeless man’s body in May, resulting in a family unknowingly holding a funeral for a stranger.
Supervisors made no mention of the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner’s Department’s (OCSD) misidentification of the dead body when deciding Tuesday to renew the department’s training contract. The agreement between OCSD and the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) was approved with no discussion from the public or board, along with the rest of the consent agenda, in a single motion.
According to a press release, the Sheriff-Coroner’s Department has opened an internal investigation to determine what caused the misidentification and will be looking at its policies to see if any change is necessary.
OCSD runs the California Coroner Training Center which has provided coroner training courses in California since its establishment in 2004. According to the department’s website, since its opening the center has trained 1,410 death investigation professionals “from virtually every county in the state and parts of Nevada and Arizona.” The department has had a training agreement with POST since August 2013, and renewed it annually.
The contract between the Sheriff-Coroner Department and the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training will total up to $168,371 in revenue from training cost reimbursements for OCSD. The agreement begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2018.
Orange County coroner staff incorrectly identified a dead body near a telephone retail store in Fountain Valley in May, stating he was Frank M. Kerrigan, a 57-year-old homeless man who was later found alive in Stanton.
The body was buried by Kerrigan’s family in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange where it will remain until his actual family is contacted or “all efforts are exhausted,” according to a statement OCSD sent out on Twitter Monday afternoon.
The Sheriff-Coroner's Department said in their statement the man who was buried has now been “positively identified by fingerprints.”
Kerrigan’s family spent $20,000 on the stranger’s funeral expecting it was their own son. They later learned he is alive after his friend, who was a pallbearer at his funeral, called Frank’s father to let him know his son was on the porch of his old home, according to the Orange County Register.
The coroner’s office discovered they had incorrectly identified the dead body when Kerrigan’s family told county officials he was alive. The department re-entered the dead man’s fingerprints in a database June 1 and found they were someone else’s.
“Upon being made aware that an error was made was [sic], the staff at the Coroner Division have worked diligently to rectify the situation,” the statement read.
The department’s spokesman Lt. Lane Lagaret said in an email dead bodies usually are identified by fingerprint, dental records, DNA, visual identification by a friend or family, or by a driver’s license or identification card in their possession. Lagaret, citing the ongoing investigation, refused to say whether the department took fingerprint or DNA evidence before incorrectly identifying the man.
Officers mistook the person’s body for Kerrigan because of a similar-looking ID, according to the Register. The paper said the family's lawyer, Doug Easton, said staff at the coroner's office said an initial finger print check through a law enforcement database didn't show a match. That's when an old driver license photo was used for identification. After the family notified county officials Kerrigan was alive, a second fingerprint check matched someone else.
The Sheriff-Coroner’s Department said it “extends its sincere apologies for any grief incurred.” The Kerrigan family plans to sue the department for violating Frank M. Kerrigan’s civil rights by not making a sufficient effort to determine if it was his body because he is homeless, the Register reported.
Kerrigan’s sister told the paper federal agencies are withholding his disability payments because they believe he is dead and are working to sort out the issue soon.
According to the Register, Kerrigan has returned to living on the street and refused offers for shelter.
Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern.