An internal investigation into how the Orange County Coroner’s Office mistakenly identified a body as a man who actually was alive will take up to a year – but even when completed, the public will likely not receive any details, authorities said.
However, the probe’s conclusion of sustained, not sustained or exonerated might be released, said Lt. Lane Lagaret of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, of which the Coroner’s Office is a part.
“We don’t, as a matter of procedure, release the results of an internal investigation to the public,” Lagaret said in an email. “What the public needs to know is that we are investigating what led up to misidentifying a decedent. And that’s exactly what we are doing.”
In early May, the Coroner’s Office identified a body found behind a Verizon store in Fountain Valley as Frank Kerrigan, 57, who is homeless. The office contacted the man’s father, who has the same name, and told him his son was dead.
The family held a $20,000 funeral for the younger Kerrigan on May 12, interring the body at Cemetery of the Holy Sepulcher in Orange. Eleven days later, he showed up at a family friend’s house.
The buried body, in the Risen Christ section of Holy Sepulcher, was identified though fingerprints last week as belonging to John Dean Dickens, a native of Kansas who had also been homeless and was living in Orange County since at least 2008, based on court records.
Dickens’ family, still living in the Midwest, has asked the Sheriff’s Department to exhume and cremate the body. When that will happen has not been disclosed.
“At least he’ll be coming home,” said Dickens’ sister, Diane Keaton.
How the Coroner’s Office misidentified the body is still unclear.
Dickens had several run-ins with law enforcement in recent years, most recently in 2016, though mostly for misdemeanors common to the homeless, such as public urination. Those run-ins mean his fingerprints should have been in the database that officials use.
But because the confusion over the fingerprints is central to the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation, Lane declined to discuss how the mix-up occurred.
Typically, when someone dies, that person is identified by a witness who was with the person at their time of death, “coupled with some sort of identification card,” Lagaret said.
If neither a witness nor an ID card is available, fingerprints will be sent to local, state and federal agencies.
“In some cases, dental records and DNA may also be used,” Lagaret said. “But that is assuming those are on file.”
It is unknown how closely those procedures were followed.
Matthew Easton, an attorney representing the Kerrigan family, filed two complaints on its behalf with the county at the end of June seeking more than $1 million each. Complaints are often precursors to lawsuits. Kerrigan family members, while elated that their relative is alive, have been emotionally traumatized by the misidentification, Easton said.
Keaton said her family will also likely seek legal action against the county.
The Sheriff’s Department, in statements, has apologized for “any grief” the families have experienced.
Easton, though, said it is discouraging that the department’s internal investigation could take so long.
“We’re disheartened and outraged by that,” Easton said. “There is no reason it should take up to a year. … We are disappointed in the continued lack of care.”