A dead man was mistakenly identified as someone else when he was buried in the wrong grave, and his distraught sister Friday said the family is ready to file a lawsuit against the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner’s Department.
“We lost our chance to see him one last time,” said the sister, Diane Keaton. She told City News Service there was, “no viewing, no funeral, and other things we didn’t get to do.”
Initially, authorities thought that 57-year-old transient Frank M. Kerrigan was found dead near a Verizon store in Fountain Valley, but the mistake was realized when Kerrigan showed up at a family friend’s home following a funeral for Kerrigan.
John Dean Dickens, who was 54, was the dead transient found near the store, and his family intends to sue the coroner for the misidentification.
“We lost our chance to see him one last time,” Dickens’ sister, Diane Keaton, told City News Service. “No viewing, no funeral, and other things we didn’t get to do.”
Keaton said her aging and ailing mother has also suffered much “pain and suffering” since she was told of her son’s death and the way he was misidentified.
Orange County sheriff’s Lt. Lane Lagaret, the department’s spokesman, said he could not comment because of pending litigation.
Keaton said the coroner’s office told her family that they had two options — they could have the body shipped back to them at their expense or they could have the body cremated and the ashes sent to them at no cost.
Keaton said a family friend told them it would cost up to $5,000 to have the body shipped back to Kansas and they could not afford that so they opted for cremation.
Keaton was also upset that coroner’s officials were not fully forthcoming about the circumstances of her brother’s death. They were not told about the mistake in identification.
When Keaton was sent a form to fill out for the cremation she noticed that the location of death was at a Verizon store in Fountain Valley and she recalled reading about Kerrigan’s misidentification.
“I said, `This is my brother they’re talking about,’ ” Keaton said. “I woke my mom up — it was midnight — and I said, `This is JD.’ “
Keaton was also upset that coroner’s officials did not immediately provide a cause of death though they knew it was from an enlarged heart and cardiovascular disease. She said that runs in her family and that her brother had heart problems growing up.
“If the media knew what he died from, the (Kerrigan) family knew, the attorneys knew, then we should have been told as soon as we asked,” Keaton said.
Dickens’ family thought for years he might have been in witness protection because they could not find any trace of him since he left them in 1987. His mother hired a private detective at one point but Dickens had lived in so many states it was difficult to know where to start to find him, she said.
“As the computer age came I was online looking for him, but he was completely off the grid,” Keaton said.
Last year, the family got word Dickens had been in Orange County Jail, but by the time they called he had been released, Keaton said.
Keaton regrets how they parted, though at the time it appeared they were on good terms.
Dickens had done a stint in the military and was looking for work, but couldn’t find a job, so one day when things just got too tight she told her brother he needed to find another place to live.
“At that time we were barely making it and my husband was working for peanuts,” Keaton said. “We even had our electricity turned off. I said, `I hate to say this, but you can’t stay here if you can’t find work.’ He left on good terms, and said, no problem, I’ll contact you when I get settled in. Thinking back on it I regret that decision to this day.”
Dickens had a passion for music and when tested as a child had a high IQ, Keaton said.
“He would help me with my homework. And he had a great sense of humor,” Keaton said. “He made friends with everybody.”
The Kerrigan family has filed a $2 million claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the county.
Francis J. Kerrigan, 81, of Wildomar and Carole Meikelof, 56, of Silverado were mistakenly told May 6 that their son and brother, respectively, had been found dead.
Riverside County sheriff’s deputies called the elder Kerrigan on May 6 and told him to contact the coroner’s office in Orange County about his son, according to the claim.
When he was told by Orange County authorities that his son had died, he says he asked if he had to identify the body, but was told it was unnecessary since the identification was made through fingerprints. He says he was also told he could claim the body after an autopsy.
He and Meikelof went to the Verizon store in Fountain Valley where the body was found and “erected a small shrine in his memory,” according to their claim.
A funeral Mass at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange was “attended by approximately 50 people, including family and friends who came from Las Vegas, Washington State, Ontario, San Diego and Santa Barbara,” and the body was buried at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery near the younger Kerrigan’s mother, according to the family’s attorney, Matt Easton.
Frank Kerrigan was close to his mother and his mental health issues took a turn for the worse after her death, the family’s attorney Matt Easton said. The episodes of homelessness increased about that time, he said.
The elder Kerrigan and his daughter are both seeking $1 million, plus the $20,768 the family spent on the funeral and burial.
The family assumed Frank Kerrigan was dead until May 23, when his father “received a telephone call from a family friend who had attended the funeral (saying) that claimant’s deceased son had just shown up for a visit,” according to the claim. “Stunned, claimant realized that the son that he had recently buried was alive, and that the coroner’s office had misidentified someone else’s body as that of his son.”
The family’s attorneys notified authorities of the mistake on June 1, Easton said.
In an email to City News Service, Easton said his clients “continue to be appalled by the coroner’s self-serving, disrespectful conduct toward the misidentified decedent and all parties involved.
With each step, they seem to make matters worse and continue to show a lack of care or concern for the proper handling of this body and the situation as a whole.”
— City News Service