Nowhere Man

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

Murine recently shaved from his list a Doe who had gone unidentified for 24 years with the help of the same brand-new California DNA registry that identified Laci Peterson's remains. The program is the result of a new state law that requires law enforcement to inform relatives of missing persons and, if the family wishes, to accept a swab of DNA from a blood relative for inclusion in the California Department of Justice Missing Persons DNA Program. If no match is found, sometimes the state will forward the DNA profile to the FBI, which has its own Missing Persons DNA Program. A number of other states have either started voluntary DNA registries or are considering doing so.

It's tempting to imagine that Minnesota, with its much smaller roster of Does, has remained insulated from these flesh-and-bone signs of society's fragmentation. But it hasn't. "Working with families is getting to be more challenging, because Minneapolis is changing," says Roberta Geiselhart. "We have a fair amount of people where the families don't want anything to do with the deceased. We have more young, decomposed bodies these days."

 

Dr. Edwin Shneidman is a professor emeritus of thanatology--the study of death and dying--at the University of California at Los Angeles. He pioneered the psychological autopsy, in which a clinician attempts to piece together the state of mind of someone who has committed suicide. Solid answers are impossible to come by until someone who knew Mall Man steps forward, he says, but a few educated guesses are possible.

Assuming that the man chose to die anonymously, one can imagine that he felt terribly disconnected from the world. But what about a man who jumps to his death from a public place? And especially one who jumps from a place as symbolic and grandiose as the Mall of America? "It's oxymoronic," Shneidman says, and suggests that Mall Man was "a subtly duplicitous, clever, playful person. So that's part of your personality. Is he playing games? That is, is he daring somebody to ID him?"

Some mental health care professionals believe that suicide by jumping is an impulsive act. But Kevin Turnquist, a psychiatrist with the Hennepin County Mental Health Initiative, has treated three people who jumped and lived. Each said they had contemplated it for months. "People want that sense of control over how they go," he explains. "A lot of us, in suicides, pay attention to who found the person and what length they go to to make sure someone [specific] finds them." Of Mall Man, Turnquist says, "To me, this smacks of a sense of specialness, of trying to put one over on someone. To leave them tormented, leave them wondering. He's keeping them guessing all the time."

If Turnquist's speculation is correct, the tragic irony is that Mall Man may have done too able a job in covering his tracks. If anonymity was his intent, he may have his way for all eternity.

A former ICU nurse, Geiselhart has worked for the medical examiner for 18 years. She switched professions, she says, because she "wanted to help people." "I still am very much a nurse. I just nurse people who are dead." Certainly without anyone to grieve him, Mall Man is in need of nursing. Because Minnesota deems bodies to be property, he will be buried rather than cremated, so as to leave open the option of digging him up one day. Geiselhart will shepherd the process, requesting at some point that he be declared indigent and authorized for interment. Then she will work her way through an alphabetically ordered listing of local funeral homes, searching for one that will take him for an essentially token payment.

"There's no pauper's field," Geiselhart says. "We call cemeteries to find an inexpensive or free plot. They may have to buy a vault and arrange for the opening of a grave."

The big question is when. "There's no set time frame for keeping him," explains Geiselhart. She's tried to get press releases out before each holiday in the hope that his family will gather and notice he's missing. She's not quite ready to quit trying. "I have a gut feeling, not until after Christmas," she says. Still, there are pressing concerns. His body is being kept at 42 degrees in a refrigerated room at the medical examiner's office, but he will continue to decay. "When is it disrespectful to keep him here?"

She's half convinced that Mall Man lived near the mall, and half convinced that he flew into the Twin Cities and made his way there. In either case, she steadfastly believes that this John Doe has family and only hopes they will come looking for him.

"Somebody has got to be missing this guy," she says. "I really struggle with this."

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