Orange County Takes Responsibility for Dead Body Mix-Up

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

Orange County Civic Center sign

Orange County officials are accepting they are “financially and legally responsible” for the Sheriff-Coroner’s misidentification of a dead body that resulted in a family unknowingly holding a funeral for a stranger.

County officials say they paid over $20,000 to cover the funeral costs, but have not reached a settlement of the more than $3 million in legal claims from the two affected families.

“The County of Orange does not dispute that mistakes were made in connection with the misidentification of a deceased person,” said the county’s top attorney, County Counsel Leon Page, in a statement to Voice of OC.

“The County also does not dispute that it is financially and legally responsible for the consequences of those mistakes.”

“To make amends,” Page said, the county paid $20,559 to cover funeral expenses incurred by the family of Frank M. Kerrigan, the 57-year-old homeless man who was incorrectly identified in May as being found dead in Fountain Valley.

“However, the County has not been able to fully resolve and settle these claims, which primarily seek compensation for the claimants’ emotional distress, because the County also has a fiduciary duty to protect taxpayer money from exorbitant, exaggerated, and unsupported demands,” he added.

“In the event the County is ultimately unable to settle these claims, the County has confidence that a jury will be able to determine the appropriate amount needed here to fully compensate the claimants for their losses.”

The county has received three legal claims relating to the misidentification of the remains, which actually were those of John Dean Dickens. According to the Orange County Register, Kerrigan was later was found alive in Stanton, on the porch of one of the pallbearers from his mistaken funeral.

Kerrigan’s father and sister – Frank J. Kerrigan and Carole Meikel – and Dickens’ mother – Karen Bilyeu – filed legal claims against the county seeking $1 million each, in addition to the funeral expenses, to compensate for “severe emotional distress” they say they suffered and “will continue to suffer indefinitely in the future.”

According to a mediation brief by the families’ law firm, Easton & Easton, Dickens was an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran who lost contact with his family in 1987 after leaving on good terms.

He was staying on his sister’s couch and struggling to find employment when she asked if he could find somewhere else to live because she “could no longer afford to support him” with a second child coming, according to the brief.

Dickens’ family said he told them he would “call you or write a letter” when he got settled, but the family did not hear from him.

Their brief says county coroner’s officials, who are overseen by Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens, did not inform Dickens’ sister of the misidentification or the mistaken funeral involving Dickens’ body when they contacted her on June 29.

According to a spokesman for the coroner’s office, Dickens’ body was exhumed on Aug. 23, fingerprinted on Aug. 24, cremated on Aug. 27 and the remains were sent to his family in Kansas on Aug. 29.

On May 12, a mass and funeral attended by approximately 50 people were held for the body the family believed was Frank M. Kerrigan, and the remains were buried “a few paces” from Kerrigan’s mother, according to the brief.

Coroner officials originally told Kerrigan’s father he did not have to identify his son’s body because his identity was verified through fingerprints, according to the mediation brief.

Kerrigan’s father said he was told the body was found near a phone retail store in Fountain Valley and that an autopsy would be conducted before the family could claim the body. The younger Kerrigan was later found alive in Stanton on May 23, when his friend – a pallbearer at his funeral – found him on his porch, according to the brief.

The Kerrigan family called the coroner’s office on May 30 to report the error.

On June 1, coroner officials confirmed to the Kerrigan family they had misidentified the body interred at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange and that after running fingerprints through their system they identified him as Dickens, the brief says.

It said the coroner’s office said it did not get a match the first time it ran the prints, and then used an “8-year-old” driver’s license to compare the picture with the deceased person’s appearance.

The families’ lawyer questioned why coroner officials didn’t compare the thumbprint on Kerrigan’s driver’s license with the print from the body. The lawyer suspects “they never ran the fingerprints in the first place,” according to his mediation brief.

“The suspicion is that because the deceased was homeless,” according to the brief, “the body got perfunctory, bum’s rush treatment from the Coroner’s Office and they were satisfied with ‘close enough.’ ”

Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at joseochoa.voc@gmail.com.