Nowhere Man

Eight months ago, a man jumped from a Mall of America parking ramp. Medical examiners still don't know who he was.

Shortly after 9:00 p.m. last February 18, Bloomington Police Officer George Harms stopped his squad car at a red light along the eastern edge of the Mall of America. As he waited for the light to change, a car pulled up alongside him. "You see that guy fall?" its driver asked. Harms scanned the snow at the base of the mall's parking ramp, just as the driver had directed, and spotted a body lying on the ground. He radioed dispatch and pulled over to get a closer look. What he discovered was a man lying half in the roadway and half on the sidewalk and boulevard. The man was unconscious; his breathing was shallow. A Boston Bruins baseball cap lay by his side.

Mall security officer Braden John Hatzenbeller arrived on the scene and recognized the man right away. He'd encountered him about two hours earlier--at 7:30--near the north end of the ramp's seventh floor. He'd told the man that the seventh level was off limits to mall guests and asked him to leave. Hatzenbeller said he'd watched the man walk away and down the stairs. Because he'd been acting "weird," mall security tracked him via camera for a short time.

Other officers drove up to the closed-off area of the ramp. They found a few footprints winding through a snow bank and leading to a railing, which was covered in a dusting of white. It was an eerie, puzzling scene. But not as puzzling as the months of investigation that would follow.

Though an ambulance rushed the man to the Hennepin County Medical Center, he never again regained consciousness. He died shortly after midnight, without having uttered a word about his identity or motives for jumping. He carried no wallet, no ID, nothing. All hospital staffers knew for sure was what they could tell by looking at him: he was white, between 25 and 30 years old, 5 foot 10 inches tall, weighed 200 pounds, and had wavy brown hair and brown eyes. He wore a short, goatee-style moustache and beard, with a few days' growth filled in around it. He appeared well cared for. His clothes--cargo-style jeans, blue pullover, green hooded sweatshirt, black leather jacket--were clean and fairly new. The man's body was turned over to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, along with responsibility for resolving his case.

Police and mall security scoured the area for abandoned cars, but found none. Bobby & Steve's Auto World, which takes care of the mall's towing, didn't turn up any unclaimed cars either. It was a long shot anyway, since none of the three keys found in the man's pocket suggested he'd driven to the mall. They weren't car keys. They were generic cuts, according to a locksmith. One was engraved, "Do not duplicate," and probably fit an apartment door somewhere. If the keys can be considered clues, so then, one would think, can the other contents of his pockets: a buck knife, 95 cents, and a lighter. What the clues mean, however, is anyone's guess.

So often, suicides leave behind a tangle of unanswered questions: What could have caused so much despair, such psychache as suicide experts call it, that someone would want to end his life? Were there signs? Was there anything anyone could have done? In this case, however, investigators have spent the last nine months trying to resolve a far more fundamental mystery: Who was this man?

 

Last year, 9,111 people died in Hennepin County. Of those deaths, 3,403 were reported to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office for investigation. In around 2,000 of those cases, the cause of death was self-evident and death certificates were eventually signed by treating physicians. In the remaining cases, the matter of determining the cause of death fell to the medical examiner, Dr. Garry Peterson, and his staff.

Two dozen full- and part-time investigators gather the information necessary for the pathologists to make their determinations. In addition to evidence gathered from the body itself and from the place of death, the investigators get help from a roster of specialized consultants: anthropologists, entomologists, dentists, sketch artists, facial reconstruction experts, and others. Usually, the deaths are ruled to have occurred by natural causes or by accident. A small percentage are suicides or murders. An even smaller number are left undetermined.

Every year, the office scrambles to put names with a handful of unidentified bodies. It's a rare occasion when investigators fail to identify someone. In fact, "Mall of America Man," as the ME's staff has dubbed him, is only the third John Doe to remain nameless in the last decade. Usually, family members or other loved ones launch a search that pegs an identity to a body. And after a news release asking for help in identifying Mall of America Man, the Bloomington police and the ME's office did field a couple of dozen phone calls (including one from a psychic). One seemed especially promising. A Metro Transit bus driver named Dennis Daniels said he'd seen news reports of the man's death and thought he might be a regular on a route he'd been driving for several months. Every day, he picked up a man matching Mall Man's description at a stop on Union Street near the University of Minnesota and dropped him off at the Mall. He hadn't seen the passenger in the 10 days since the jump. As it turned out, however, the driver's regular passenger had simply been on vacation.

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