Fox16 Investigates: Unclaimed Loved Ones Left in County Coroners’ Care

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Some county coroners across the state are dealing with a problem of bodies piling up in local morgues because the deceased have no money or kin, or at least any willing to claim them. 
 
The only thing certain in life is death comes for us all. And for many in Pulaski County, they will eventually cross paths with Coroner Gerone Hobbs or a staff member in the county coroner’s office. 
 
Hobbs can often remember the names and faces of those he meets following their final moments, and over the past decade Hobbs has had to come to terms with another cold truth aside from the reality of death. 
 
“I just didn’t realize people could be so cruel,” he said, recalling a case from 2008. “The family members had been crying. Then when I started to talk about funeral home decisions, they dried up their tears and told me, ‘You have my loved one – do what you want with her’.”
 
An old law on the books required counties to care for paupers, those who have died without money or kin, and by default that has come to include those without family members willing to claim them for a variety of reasons. 
 
“They’re dead — they’re yours. I don’t have the money. I didn’t like them when they were alive, so why should I take care of them now,” said Chief Deputy Coroner Julie Voegele regarding the reasons family members have given her over the past years. 
 
Two Attorney General opinions have been requested by officials in the past 10 years regarding this issue. In both the 2006 and the 2015 opinions, the Attorney General noted there appeared to be no law on the books that specifically made unclaimed bodies the responsibility of the coroner to dispose of despite finding that the county’s quorum court appeared to have the power to do so. Both opinions suggested further legislative clarification was needed for definitive answers.
 
Hobbs said he agrees counties should take care of paupers, but he believes the lack of clarification is where the situation can get murky.  
 
“There are legitimate cases where a person can’t be identified, they have no family and no estate,” Hobbs said. “In those cases, we completely understand and want to take care of those individuals. However, it can’t be a system where families just decide they don’t want to take care of their loved ones and leave it to the counties to arrange.” 
 
Since 2011, the Pulaski County Coroner’s office has had 40 bodies left in its care. It has cost the county roughly $10,000 to arrange for cremation services through local funeral homes. 
 
Moore’s Jacksonville Funeral Home currently contracts with the county to help it dispose of the disregarded deceased. 
 
“It’s about a two and a half hour process to cremate,” said John Harris, owner and director of Moore’s Jacksonville Funeral Home. “It’s kind of a sad state of affairs, that we’re having to do this because the families are abandoning these people. 
 
Once the process is complete, Hobbs puts them to rest in a locked closet in his office. 
 
“This is their final resting place, and it dates back to 2000,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll stand back there and wonder why.” 
 
There are 117 boxes some with names, many with family, none forgotten by those who work just a few feet away. 
 
“I have certain ones I picked up in 2003. One case I think of often. He’s still there. I didn’t know him alive,  but I’ve known him dead,” Voegele said. 
 
Right now, Hobbs has eight unclaimed bodies in the freezer and only nine shelf spots are available. At this point, none of those individuals are unidentified, they are simply unclaimed. 
 
“The 2015 budget was burnt through in February,” Hobbs said. “And we already have eight unclaimed deceased from this year. That would basically be all of 2016 budget, too.” 
 
As budgets continue to tighten, Hobbs believes legislators need to clarify the law on whose responsibility the dismissed departed truly are. Hobbs would like to see lawmakers outline repercussions for families who leave loved ones to decay on the county’s dime. 
 
“I think the verbiage needs cleared up,” Hobbs said. “I think there needs to be a means to recover the costs to the county by identifying any property the deceased has and placing a lien on that. Once the county had been reimbursed for its costs, then the rest could be turned over to family.” 
 
Hobbs is already working on his own methods for having family members come claim their dead, including legal action at the local level. He also plans to upload a database with the identities of unclaimed loved ones currently in the Pulaski County Coroner’s care to the government website.
 
“Things in the future are going to change,” Hobbs said. “We’re going to clear up any confusion about what the county’s responsibility is. We’re here to care for those who are in dire situations. Those who truly can’t be identified or don’t have any family.” 
 
Fox16 requested documents for some of those in the wall of cremains. Some of these bodies have been in the coroner’s custody for more than a decade. So a number of individuals had either moved, cut off their phones or their whereabouts were currently unknown. 
 
We were able to track down the sister of Rita Bates who confirmed her sister had died. But she said she was unaware her sister’s body was still in the coroner’s custody and said no one had contacted her about the issue. 
 
However, coroner’s records show that a coroner staff member made a note in Rita Bates’ file from April 2014, saying he had spoken with Rita’s sister multiple times, and she told him there was no money to pay for any type of funeral arrangements. The number on file with the coroner’s office matched the address where we found Rita’s sister in North Little Rock. 
 
As Hobbs sorts through how to deal with the issue for his own county, he hopes lawmakers will step in to address the issue statewide to put families who would leave loved ones behind in their place. 
 
“I’m asking the public to take responsibility for your loved ones,” Hobbs said. 
 
According to Hobbs, other coroners across the state have brought up the issue with the statewide Coroner’s Association. Hobbs has been meeting with legal counsel at the Association of Arkansas Counties about possible legislative fixes. We followed up with the association’s spokesperson to see if they had any records of calls coming in from other coroners, and no formal documentation of official complaints or requests from help were on file. 
 
To follow this story and all of Marci Manley’s coverage, click here for Facebook or here for Twitter
 
DO YOU NEED FOX16 INVESTIGATES? 
 
Fox16 Investigates is committed to uncovering truth and delving into problems people face across Arkansas. If you have a story that needs to be investigated, call Investigative Reporter Marci Manley on the Investigations Tipline at (501) 340-4448 or email at investigations@fox16.com
 

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