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Dead and Disconnected

The sad, frustrating case of John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe (and other abandonments)

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William Cody Waldron's birthday came and went two Mondays ago, on Sept. 23. If he is alive, he is now 71 years old and, quite likely, drunk. But chances are he is not alive. Chances are, he is mystery corpse "John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe," found burned beyond recognition on March 14 in a swampy homeless camp 100 yards off of 14th Street in Eureka where it dips into Cooper Gulch. Jail- and hospital-release papers, a prescription bottle and other items at the site strongly suggest it was Waldron's camp. But agents at the Humboldt County Coroner's Office have yet to positively identify the body. They continue to try, but in the meantime the body has had to be cremated. And the ashes must be buried — and will be, just as soon as there are enough other indigent remains to fill the eight urn spaces in "Lawn Niche 10, Row 10" of the county's two-acre indigent burial ground at Ocean View Cemetery.

There will be no markers on this shared grave — just the same unwatered grass that lies over the rest of the county plot, which is in an older section of the cemetery developed before the advent of automatic sprinklers. It turns green when the rains come and yellow when they don't.

There are a few other John and Jane Does in this plot. But most of the indigent interred here have their own names listed in the cemetery's records; their next-of-kin simply didn't have the money to pay for their cremation — $695 to $2,100, these days, depending on the mortuary. Or, they had no next-of-kin.

These county-buried indigents are not the only decedents abandoned by fortune or by kin. In a spare crypt inside a private mausoleum a short walk from the pauper's ground at Ocean View rest, indefinitely, the urns of 60 former loved ones whose kin paid Ocean View to have them cremated but never came back for their ashes. In storage units, closets, garages sit yet more forgotten urns; sometimes, someone turns them in to the coroner's office.

These tales of abandonment vary by degree: Too poor. Elderly and alone in the world. Forsaken. Forgotten. Unknown.

This is the story of a dead man who at the moment is all of these — John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe — and of a deputy coroner's effort to figure out who he is. It's a frustrating case with few good leads and a lot of dead ends. Even the one strong lead, that this Doe might be William Cody Waldron, if proven correct likely won't release the remains from their pauper's grave. Waldron's disconnection from the world seems to have begun long ago.

A cabby driving down 14th Street saw the flames and smoke coming from deep in the gulch that early March morning and radioed City Cab dispatch, which has a hotline to Eureka Police and Humboldt Bay Fire. It was 3:48 a.m. Soon, firefighters were pushing through a dense tangle of alder, vines and brushy undergrowth, their feet sopping in the wet ground. The fire was a burning camp. They doused it with hand tools and buckets of water from the nearby stream. Then they saw the charred human body. They called the police department and the coroner. By 4:20 a.m., Coroner Dave Parris had made the rough slog to the camp and was jotting down initial observations. But it was too dark and swampy; the scene investigation was postponed until daylight.

Deputy Coroner Charly Van Buskirk got the call at 6:26 a.m. to go out there. Now it was his case.

On a recent Tuesday in the coroner's office on I Street in Eureka, Van Buskirk sat in the small office he shares with two other deputy coroners, Roy Horton and Trevor Enright. All three were busy with phone calls, Van Buskirk's mostly inquiries about two unrelated overdoses during the previous night.

A wooden artist's model slumped in one corner of his desk, next to a small, plastic skeleton. A postcard with a Mickey Mouse skull-and-crossbones logo on it was tucked into a mirror on the wall beside him; the same logo was on his computer screen. The wall in front of his desk held a whimsical whale batik created by a friend of his. Behind him a black-and-white photograph loomed: the Golden Gate Bridge under construction in the 1930s. Van Buskirk, a burly middle-aged man with brown eyes and a cheerful face dominated by a walrus moustache, said he likes it because it's a period piece — and because the bridge was built in less than five years. That's fast for the size of the undertaking, and he's a man who appreciates efficiency.

In between calls, Van Buskirk recounted the details of the lingering Waldron case — it's been six months, and still no breakthrough. He referred frequently to a thick report on his desk and flipped through photographs on the computer that he and Enright took at the scene.

After he got the call that March morning, Van Buskirk, Enright and Eureka police officers met to study maps and satellite photos to see if they could find an easier way into the gulch than the approach from 14th Street.

"That didn't help," Van Buskirk said. "At 9:07 a.m., we decided that was the way to go in and we all met at the 14th Street dip and went in."

The one-person camp was well-established. There were ditches diverting the gulch's numerous streamlets around the camp. The charred body — on its back, one leg folded up as if relaxed in sleep, one arm reaching up as if to touch the sky, or a face — lay on what appeared to have been a sleeping area; there were burned bits of a tent, mattress and wood pallets. Nearby, a cooking area had four cook stoves and a number of propane bottles — including one attached to a stove that had exploded. A sauce pan hung from a rope. Plastic bins held more items. And all around were personal touches. A birdhouse. Candles. Angel figurines attached to sticks. Small American flags. A compass. Plastic decorations, including two big green frogs. And, at about chest level, a web of strings strung between leaning alder limbs around the camp. The strings had newspaper clippings attached to them with clothespins, bag clips and document clips — "articles reporting tragedies around the country," said Van Buskirk. "Deaths. Car accidents."

Van Buskirk brought up one photo showing a large collage of newspaper clippings mixed with childish drawings, all covered in colorful stickers — hearts, smiley faces, crosses, rainbows, butterflies, flowers, stars. Some of the drawings had fat, pale blue writing on them, including a recurring phrase: "blessed miracles." These clippings were all news reports of child deaths. A missing boy found dead. An infant killed by her mother. Children perished in a fire.

There were loose papers strewn around the camp, as well, with other people's names on them. A lot of these, said Van Buskirk, looked like children's homework. It's possible the loose papers were simply part of the camp owner's fuel stash.

Another batch of papers, however, yielded the most promising clue as to who the deceased might be. They were the only papers protected in plastic, and they all had the same name on them. They included jail release papers and medical release papers dated Aug. 31, 2012. These contained the same birth date. On the medical release papers, from St. Joseph Hospital, someone had written: "Special advice for William Waldron: Stop drinking or you will die."

Van Buskirk also found a prescription bottle for Vicodin prescribed to Waldron by an emergency room physician.

Fire department personnel gathered everything up and hauled it out.

Van Buskirk answered another call and talked for a while with the mother of one of the overdose cases. He is one of four coroner's officials who try to make the final connections for those who die unknown. Beyond collecting evidence at the site of death, the coroner and three deputy coroners reach out to friends and acquaintances, scour databases both public and private, and prowl the Internet. Usually, their searches are swift and fruitful. Sometimes, though, they are more like the saga of John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe.

After they left the swamp, fire crew took the personal possessions to the coroner's office and the body to the hospital to be X-rayed for bullets and signs of blunt trauma; none were found. A pathologist did an autopsy. A blood sample was sent to a lab to run a drug toxicology screening. The body's lower and upper jaws were removed and sent to a local forensic dentist to chart the teeth. Another blood sample was preserved for DNA analysis — it would be sent to the California Department of Justice if the dental charting yielded nothing.

Then the body was refrigerated at the coroner's.

And Van Buskirk's search began, much of it at his computer here in the coroner's office.

He focused on two main tracks: looking for Waldron's next of kin, with whom the body's DNA sample could be compared to see if there was a match; and for Waldron's dental records, to compare with the body's dental chart.

First he checked with the jail, where he learned that Waldron was well-known: He'd been arrested multiple times yearly between 2002 and 2012 — 14 times in 2012 alone — mostly for being drunk in public and mostly by Eureka police. But the next-of-kin space on each booking document was blank. Addresses in Eureka and Fortuna that Waldron had given were dead ends. And it was the same story with the hospital's records. Van Buskirk called the few Waldrons in the local phone books; nobody claimed him.

Van Buskirk broadened the search. He looked up Waldron on a private database named TLO Online Investigative Systems. The database compiles information from over a person's lifetime: phone numbers, criminal records, utility records, vehicle and property records, housing records (including evictions, liens, foreclosures), court records, emails. It isn't complete, however, and can suck in bad information with the good. Buskirk gleaned a list of names and phone numbers connected with Waldron from that site.

"I cold-called about 15 to 20 people," he said. None of them knew Waldron. "So then I checked with the public guardian's office. The public defender. Probation and parole. Conflict counsel." None had records of a next of kin for Waldron.

He checked the state's electronic death registration system to find death certificates of any Waldrons who died in Humboldt County. There was one — Jerry Waldron. Van Buskirk called Jerry Waldron's daughter; she said William Cody Waldron was no relation.

"So I discussed it with Coroner Parris and we decided to put out a press release," he said.

The release, dated March 22, described the fire incident, noted the need to find Waldron's next-of-kin to help identify the body, and asked that anyone with such information contact Van Buskirk.

One guy called to say he worked with Waldron at a resort in Honeydew in the early 1980s. He thought Waldron was from the Bay Area. A woman called who said she was an "heir searcher," and that she'd found records of a same-age Waldron born to a woman named Violet; married to Christin J. Owen in San Mateo in 1971; and divorced in 1976.

Those leads, though promising, took Van Buskirk to more dead ends. He asked the U.S. Social Security Administration for help. On April 8, a woman in that office sent a letter to Waldron's last-known address. On Sept. 11, Van Buskirk heard from her that the letter to Waldron had come back unclaimed. She told him she had the name of a possible next of kin, but no address.

In the meantime, Van Buskirk filed a death certificate for the dead man, using the name John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe to distinguish him from other John Does, and on July 30 the body was cremated at Pierce Mortuary (the county contracts with several local mortuaries for cremations).

Van Buskirk hasn't given up. He is calling every dentist listed in local directories to find out if they have dental records for Waldron; recently he enlisted the help of the Humboldt-Del Norte Dental Society.

And if it turns out the body is not Waldron? Then it will be up to the state Department of Justice's missing/unidentified persons unit to find a match for the dental and DNA information. The mystery will have doubled — a barely known man gone missing, an unknown man found dead.

It's rare to not solve a case like this.

"I've been with this office since 1990," Van Buskirk said. "In that time, we've only had 24 cases where we couldn't identify a person."

But what happened that early morning in the swamp?

The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be inhalation of products of combustion — carbon monoxide and other toxins released from burning plastic — indicating Doe did not die before the fire started. An arson investigator concluded the fire likely started in the cooking station, said Van Buskirk.

Investigators think Doe was standing when the fire started, or just before; under the prone body they found string and two large gorilla clips — the sharp-edged, metal kind that would have been uncomfortable to sleep on, Van Buskirk said. Perhaps he had been putting up more newspaper clippings.

"There are two scenarios we've come up with," Van Buskirk said. "One is, the fire starts, he's overcome by products of combustion and he falls over. The other is that he passes out, drunk" — and knocks over a propane stove, starting the fire.

Van Buskirk noted that the position of Doe's limbs — the arm thrust upward, the bent leg — did not indicate anything about what he might have been doing before he died; fire animates a dead body, moves its limbs.

The toxicology report revealed the dead man had a blood alcohol content of 0.32. No other substances were detected.

The high blood alcohol content would be consistent with a man like William Cody Waldron, who between 2002 and 2012 had more than 500 contacts — some resulting in arrest — with the Eureka Police Department, according to police spokesperson Mary Kirby. Jail booking records show he also was picked up a few times by county Sheriff's deputies and Arcata police. With scant exception, the charges were "drunk in public."

Humboldt County Sheriff's Lt. Dean Flint, who began working in the county jail in 1987 and now oversees its staff, remembers Waldron. Some people called him Wild Bill.

"I was just with a bunch of guys, talking about the old days in the jail, and his name came up," Flint said over the phone one recent Friday. "Someone said, 'I heard he died.' We haven't seen him in a long time."

The last time Waldron was booked in the county jail was Dec. 14, 2012, for public intoxication and probation violation. In his mug shot, he looks grim and shaggy. His Santa-bushy beard is gray, his blue eyes are sunk deep and there's a hard set to his mouth. Flint, on the phone, described him as being lean, muscular and street savvy. He said Waldron once told him he'd been a boxer. But Waldron wasn't mean. Flint's voice softened as he recalled a typical interaction at the jail with Waldron.

"He was pretty gruff sounding, and sometimes he could be pretty belligerent when he was brought in," Flint said. "He'd say, 'I'll fight all you guys!'" and bunch up his fists. "Then he'd wink at you and slap you on the back. But if you were new and didn't know him, it could get your adrenaline up."

When he sobered up, Waldron would rise and say something like, "Hey, knuckleheads," to the staff. He'd wink at the female officers and tell them they were pretty. "But it was never inappropriate," Flint added. "It was more like, 'Hey, you sure have a pretty smile,' or, 'I'm sure you have a lucky man at home.'"

Waldron was smiley when he wasn't drunk, Flint said. He wasn't the sort of guy who'd spit on you or blame you for his troubles. "And when he would leave it would not be unusual for him to say, 'Sorry if I was a jerk last night.' And you don't get that a lot."

He was courtly and even sensitive, it seems, when he wasn't fist-bunching, fall-down drunk. But who knows why he lapsed in and out like that, why he frayed his connections until they broke?

Maybe somebody will come forward, someday, who can tell us.

Meanwhile, the remains that the county coroner's office think are Waldron's will rest in the county burial ground at Ocean View Cemetery, sprawled across a knoll in southwestern Eureka.

On a warm, sunny, eucalyptus-scented day in September, cemetery administrator Don McCombs strolled toward a sweep of lawn — the county's plot — passing first by a row of large, granite mausoleums. He paused at the last mausoleum. Inside it are stored the urned remains of 60 people whose families paid for their cremation but never returned for them. The oldest dates back to 1934. McCombs has tried everything to repatriate them — even mailing them to their kin's last-known address. They all came back, unclaimed.

McCombs, a tall, middle-aged man with a full cap of brown hair and sad brown eyes, is troubled by these abandonments. And by others stuck in similar post-death burial-limbo — at mortuaries, at the coroner's office, in storage units and emptied houses. Once, he stumbled upon the urn of a friend's remains, in a house he was considering buying.

"What people don't realize," McCombs said, "is cremation isn't the end-all. You have to do something with them once they're cremated. And if you don't do it, it becomes somebody else's problem."

His 60 urns will stay in the mausoleum indefinitely. But the roughly 100 abandoned urns at the coroner's — some from the days when the coroner kept cremains for families to pick up, others turned in by community members — are finally getting buried. Veterans' remains go to the Igo Veterans Cemetery in Redding. The rest go to the county plot.

Every time McCombs opens a new eight-urn niche to bury indigents in the cremation section of the county plot, he opens another eight-urn niche beside it and fills it with those old coroner's urns. They, too, will get no markers.

And there they will stay. In the orderly but crowded company of others abandoned, or poor, or alone, or — as in the case of John Cooper-Gulch-Swamp Doe — possibly forever unknown.

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