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.

Despite the glamorous aura cast by TV's CSI, when it comes to identifying a corpse, the most powerful real-life tool is the computer. Within hours of his death, Mall Man's fingerprints had been entered into two different computer networks containing more than 45 million sets of prints. Dennis Randall, a latent print examiner at the Hennepin County Crime Lab, checked the prints against both a regional database and the FBI's national system, to no avail. The regional database contains one million sets of prints submitted by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The FBI system's 44 million sets include those of anyone arrested since the 1960s, anyone who served in the U.S. armed forces, and certain federal employees.

The remaining steps to establishing an identity are considerably more complicated. On March 14, a clerk at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department entered the details of Mall Man's case into an FBI computer database that contains files on missing and unidentified people. Placing records in the 25-year-old database, known as the National Crime Information Center, is such a time-consuming practice that investigators typically wait about three weeks--the length of time by which most John or Jane Does are identified--before they make an entry. (Exceptions include cases involving missing children or where circumstances warrant quicker action.)

NCIC files contain a person's estimated age, sex, race, height, weight, features, deformities, scars and/or tattoos, jewelry, blood type, dental characteristics, and the estimated date of disappearance, death, or, in the case of someone living but unable to remember his or her identity, discovery. All new records must indicate whether an unidentified body is intact--if it isn't, the computer will attempt to match, say, limbs to a torso. Medical conditions are entered, as are any medications found in the body. The computer continually compares the records, and prompts all relevant law enforcement agencies to investigate likely "hits."

Creating the record for Mall Man took two and a half hours. Roberta Geiselhart, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's supervisor of investigations and the person leading the hunt for Mall Man's identity, bought a box of chocolates for the staffer at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department who completed the tedious process.

The effort drew three possible "hits" from the NCIC, but none panned out. There likely would have been more matches if Mall Man had had a few more distinguishing characteristics. As it was, the features that set his body apart from everybody else's were a couple of teeny scars at his hairline and a 5/8-inch-long scar on his right cheek. Maybe his hair was beginning to recede a little. But he had no tattoos and no fillings or other dental restorations. There were no drugs, illicit or prescription, in his bloodstream to signal anything about his health or lifestyle.

The fact that the man's body didn't give the NCIC's computers much to chew on does suggest that he wasn't a member of the groups that most John or Jane Does turn out to belong to: transients, undocumented immigrants, and mentally ill people who ended up homeless as a result of the deinstitutionalization of the last three decades. For example, consider the man's filling-free mouth. Minneapolis dentist Ann Norrlander is the state's only board-certified forensic odontologist. She examined Mall Man's teeth for the ME's office. Because of a process called sealing, it's not unheard of these days for someone, particularly someone as young as Mall Man, to have had no restorative dental work. Mall Man's teeth weren't sealed, however, leading Norrlander to conclude that he'd enjoyed good preventative dental care. He "was probably of a socioeconomic group that was middle class or upper middle class," she says.

The man's clothing supports her hunch. He wore Birkenstock boots, which retail for somewhere around $240.

 

He might have been a father or a husband or a lover. He was probably someone's friend or brother. He was certainly somebody's son. And at this point, his best--and maybe only--hope of being identified is if someone starts looking for him. Every year, the FBI receives reports of approximately 850,000 people who have gone missing in the United States. Some 75 percent of them are teen runaways, three-fourths of whom are found within 24 hours. Locating the large number of adults reported missing each year can be considerably more difficult.

That's mainly a problem of reporting. Before the NCIC database can cough up potential matches for Mall Man, for example, someone has to have alerted authorities that he's missing. And sometimes, local law enforcement offices--which place a low priority on adult cases--are lackadaisical even when such a report does get made. They might neglect to suggest that families submit dental records or, in some states, DNA to help in the search.

With its large immigrant population, California contends with extraordinary numbers of missing persons cases and unidentified bodies. Los Angeles County alone winds up with several hundred John and Jane Does each year; Orange County gets about 200. Coroners in those counties employ deputies who do nothing but research the identities of corpses. Their success rates hover between 85 and 90 percent. "Sometimes it just takes time," says Kurt Murine, Orange County's senior deputy coroner. "Sometimes the family is not in real frequent contact with [someone] and it takes them some time to notice he's missing. Law enforcement often doesn't report a person missing into NCIC in a timely fashion. Sometimes they will try to fob it off on another jurisdiction, saying, 'He last lived in Tennessee? Best to report it there, then.'"

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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