Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
For more information about Jo, check out her Linked-in profile, as well as her Facebook fan page, Instagram and Google+
“All I am asking is that my body be buried with the respect I earned.”
David L. Bauer made his plea in the same two-page, undated handwritten letter that he sent to four people in May 1999. Bucks County Director of Military Affairs Dan Fraley was only months into his new county job when the letter arrived.
“My name is David L. Bauer and upon receipt of this letter I will most likely be dead…” it started.
In flowing script, the 51-year-old Bristol Township man explained that he couldn’t get the Vietnam War and the deaths of two friends out of his head. He had served in the U.S. Navy, earning a Purple Heart and a Combat Action ribbon.
“Sir, as I have no living relatives, father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children, no one will claim this body. Please see that I am buried in the nearest national cemetery to Bristol Pa. as I have no burial plot.”
He included a hand-drawn sketch of how he wanted his headstone to appear.
“Thank you for taking care of your fellow war veteran. This is the only thing I have asked for the VA, a burial with respect.”
Was this a prank, Fraley wondered. “I didn’t believe it was real, at first.”
Moments after he finished reading the letter his phone rang. A staffer for then-Bucks County Congressman Jim Greenwood was calling about a disturbing letter his office received from a Vietnam veteran.
The first call Fraley made then was to Bristol Township police. An officer, who had also received the letter, went to Bauer’s home. Bauer was dead.
His body was transferred to the Bucks County Coroner’s Office, where if no one claimed him in 30 days he would be cremated, Fraley was told.
Fraley, who served in the Vietnam War, wasn’t about to let that happen.
He started calling local funeral homes. Three turned him down. The fourth was owned by a World War II veteran who agreed to claim the body and handle arrangements for free.
Fraley contacted the Veterans’ Administration office in Philadelphia, where it turned out Bauer was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, but never showed up for treatment, Fraley said.
Burial with full military honors was arranged at the Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County, across the river from Bristol Township.
He reached out to a local Vietnam Veterans organization who gathered members to attend the service. Bauer's headstone appears exactly how he drew it.
“We got him everything he wanted,” Fraley said recently. “We were able to do more for him in death, than we were able to do for him in life. I’m still sad about it.”
Fraley has the letter pinned to a cork board in his office. He reads it at local veteran events.
It reminds him the community needs to make sure veterans are taken care of in life and death.
“You try to do what the man asked for,” he said. “It was the right thing to do."
Frances Salinger died unnoticed, her cremated remains awaiting burial with others whose bodies were donated to science.
Then, a persistent deputy coroner helped reunite a fractured family.
Salinger was 92 when she died in March 2015. The nursing home where she lived was in the process of obtaining guardianship of Salinger, and no next of kin could be found.
The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, where unclaimed bodies are sent, couldn't find family, either.
Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki submitted what information he had about Salinger to a Minnesota-based group of online amateur detectives and volunteer genealogists who help coroners and medical examiners locate next of kin, hoping to generate leads.
Nine months had passed when Balacki was notified that the group found the name of Salinger’s late husband, who died in 1983. They also had the name of a son, who also had died.
By that time, Salinger’s body had been accepted into the Humanities Gifts Registry and her body donated to a local medical school for teaching purposes.
Balacki started periodically checking the status of Salinger’s remains. After a year, he tracked her down at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where the body had been cremated in anticipation of burial in a mass grave.
Balacki made an unusual request. He asked for Salinger’s ashes to be returned to him. The medical school agreed.
For a year, Balacki kept the boxed remains in his office as he dug deeper into Salinger’s life.
An online search revealed Salinger's husband might be buried at the Montefiore Cemetery in Abington. The cemetery confirmed it was Salinger's husband. It also had records that Frances Salinger bought a second plot next to her husband and headstone around the time of his death. The cemetery agreed to bury her remains for free.
“I’m glad I took another look,” Balacki said. “I didn’t want her buried in a mass grave.”
His detective work could have ended at that point. But Balacki turned up another piece of key information.
An obituary for Salinger’s son included the name of a possible granddaughter living in Delaware County.
Ashley Govberg, 43, lost contact with her grandmother after her father died at age 52.
Her mother and grandmother didn’t have a good relationship, she said. After her father died, she gradually lost contact.
Occasionally, she’d ask her mom what happened to her grandmother, but she didn’t know.
Then, on a summer day last year, her phone rang while she was making lunch. It was a number Govberg didn’t recognize.
The caller was a deputy coroner for Montgomery County. The office had the remains of her grandmother, who had died three years earlier.
“I was so stunned. I burst into tears,” Govberg said. “It was such a shock.”
Balacki told Govberg that he would be taking the remains to the cemetery that afternoon.
“I’ll come get her right now,” she replied.
Two weeks later, Govberg placed her grandmother into the plot she bought 35 years ago. It is next to her husband, and across from where her son, Govberg’s father, is buried.
Last November, the name, birth and death dates for Frances Salinger were added to the headstone.
“She should be at peace and she should be at rest,” Govberg said. “All I am thankful for is that she is with her husband. At least they are all together again.”
About five years ago, a man walked into the Montgomery County Coroner’s office with his dead grandparents' remains inside a USPS Priority Mail box with a return address in Miami.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” he told Montgomery County First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki. “I’m leaving them here with you.”
Those ashes, of Lucille Bortner, 57, and Leroy Bortner, 65, who died two months apart in 1986, now sit on a metal shelf in a county storage room along with dozens of boxes containing the remains of others who have never been claimed by family members or friends.
The unclaimed dead are a growing burden for local governments. Caseloads have shot up dramatically over the past decade. Counties and municipalities are forced to spend more time, resources and tax dollars on handling unclaimed remains, often without the ability to be reimbursed, and with few state standards.
The reasons the dead go unclaimed are as different as the way they died. But most share similar traits, coroners and medical examiners said: In life, many were were poor, isolated or estranged from family.
Whatever the reason, 2 million cremated remains sit unclaimed across North America, the Cremation Society of North America estimates. Locally, there has been a marked uptick, according to coroner and medical examiner data:
Of the 158 cremated remains stored at the Bucks County Morgue, nearly 80% percent came into county custody between 2013 and last year, according to county records.
Montgomery County reported 75 unclaimed cases between 2013 and last year, compared to 19 between 2008 and 2012.
One-quarter of the 119 unclaimed remains of Burlington County residents from the last 37 years died between 2013 and last year, according to burial records obtained through an Open Records request.
No national standards exist for identifying and processing unclaimed and indigent bodies, and state protocols can be vague, inconsistent and outdated. In Pennsylvania, the only law for handling unclaimed dead was written in 1883; it declares a body legally unclaimed after 36 hours, which allows it to be donated to science.
A 10-year-old New Jersey law allows outside groups to claim and bury the bodies of veterans, but says nothing of those who did not serve.
With little outside guidance, counties and municipalities are left to write their own rules, policies, procedures and timelines, which can vary widely. Some coroners have turned to amateur sleuths and genealogy websites to find next-of-kin. The Bucks County Coroner's office may construct a mausoleum for unclaimed remains.
“While society may not be able to prevent people from dying alone, medical examiners and coroners must find a way to decrease the unclaimed population, particularly if the family does not claim the decedent because of financial hardship," wrote Kenna Quinet, an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, in a 2016 academic study on unclaimed dead. "Understanding the nature and characteristics of the unclaimed dead and the factors involved in going unclaimed might strengthen the ability of public authorities to reduce the number.” Family matters Among the biggest challenges for coroners and medical examiners is tracking down next-of-kin for unclaimed decedents. Those searches need to be documented in the event family later disputes them, officials said.
Staff scour for next-of-kin through phone calls, home visits and online searches using public records. Often they seek assistance from law enforcement, who have direct access to deeper databases including criminal history, missing person files and transportation records.
Some New Jersey counties require medical examiners to place legal ads as part of a family search, according to Nicole Kirgan, a New Jersey Department of Health spokeswoman.
Montgomery County’s Balacki has sought the help of Unclaimed Persons, online amateur detectives and volunteer genealogists who search for next of kin for coroners and medical examiner offices. On its website, the group says it has solved more than 400 cases since 2008.
Bucks and Montgomery counties can spend up to two months searching for family. Philadelphia keeps unclaimed bodies for up to three months. Burlington County’s Medical Examiner's Office has no timetable.
But small and rural counties may not have refrigeration space to store bodies for months, Bacha said.
Typically, coroners and medical examiners are successful in finding next-of-kin, but family is under no legal obligation to claim the dead. It is a problem that coroners and medical examiners said they often encounter; Balacki estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of the unclaimed dead in Montgomery County have surviving family members.
When next-of-kin refuses to claim the deceased, the person is asked to authorize a county cremation or burial and waive future claims to the body and remains. If there is no response, a follow-up letter is sent with a deadline, after which counties move forward with disposal.
Bucks County Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell recalled a case where his office found a son and daughter who told them they wanted nothing to do with their father, but were quick to point out a misspelling on the death certificate that held up estate disbursement.
Other times, family initially agree to make arrangements, but don’t follow through or return calls, said Campbell, also president of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association.
Nursing home residents account for a large portion of unclaimed dead, according to Bacha. He attributes the number to poor record-keeping practices and lax admission policies.
When a patient enters rehab or a nursing home, their families are asked to provide the name of the funeral home handling final arrangements and emergency contact numbers. But staff typically don't update or verify the information as accurate, which can lead to problems years later when the person dies, he said.
One potential solution Bacha suggested is legislation mandating nursing homes establish end-of-life plan protocols or create funds to cover cremation for unclaimed residents.
Alex Balacki reviews list of unclaimed bodies
Such protocols might have let John Fogarty avoid being identified as unclaimed.
Fogarty and his wife, who had no children, lived in a Doylestown nursing home. Before his wife died in 1999, Fogarty prepaid for his final arrangements. He died nine years later at age 88.
When no family came forward, the county had him cremated and his ashes placed in storage, where he remained for three years.
It turned out the nursing home wrongly assumed that the hospital where Fogarty died contacted the funeral home.
Two women who knew Fogarty discovered the error after they saw his name listed among unclaimed dead in Bucks County, found his wife's obituary and called the funeral home that handled her arrangements; it also handled his arrangements and had not been notified of his death.
Eileen Benenati buried her husband, Joseph, at a state-owned New Jersey veterans' cemetery in January 2016. Nine months later, she died at age 69.
The Burlington County Medical Examiner's Office waited three months; when no family came forward she was buried in an unmarked grave at a county-owned cemetery off County Route 530 across from the Pemberton Township Municipal Complex. It's the final resting place for Burlington County's poor, unidentified and unclaimed dead since 1942, officials said.
Burlington County NJ paupers field
Then last year, Benenati's estranged sister, who lives out of state, found out that her Evesham home was for sale. A neighbor told her to contact the medical examiner.
At the sister’s request, Benenati's body was disinterred and transported to a local funeral home where private burial arrangements were made, county spokeswoman Christine Gonnelli said.
The county did not charge the woman to bury or retrieve her sister's body. Instead, local taxpayers covered the $300 burial stipend and $300 to retrieve her remains, Gonnelli said.
Tax dollars also are used for other routine final expenses such as to mark, open and close unclaimed graves, to pay for the corrugated burial containers, and obtain the death certificate, Gonnelli said. The county spent an estimated total of $10,200 between 2013 and last year to bury residents, according to financial documents.
Bucks County spent an estimated $10,000 to cremate 29 unclaimed dead in 2017, Campbell said. Montgomery County budgets $10,000 to $15,000 a year for unclaimed dead expenses, though the amount doesn’t reflect transportation and employee costs, Balacki said.
One way counties try to recoup some of their costs is through the deceased's estate, but often it's a fruitless effort since unclaimed dead often were poor, coroners said.
In Bucks County, if the coroner’s office cannot find legal next-of-kin before a body is cremated, but later family comes forward, the family is asked to pay a discounted rate for cremation. Campbell declined to reveal the cost, but said it is less than the $1,000 charged to a family who legally give up claims to a body.
Montgomery County charges $2,000 if family members change their minds and want to reclaim remains immediately after cremation. That cost drops to $750 after the first year, said Balacki.
Counties also look for other cost-control measures, including soliciting assistance from churches and other organizations such as Humanities Gifts Registry, which uses donated bodies for scientific research, then cremates and disposes of ashes.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey offer final expense assistance for deceased receiving medical assistance or Social Security income, though it only covers part of the costs. In New Jersey, the state reimburses the county board of social services for what it pays funeral homes that handle indigent burials.
Across the river, though, only approved funeral homes in Pennsylvania are eligible for up to $750 reimbursement and only if the total cost is under $1,500.
Help for veterans
Among the more than 300 names gathered by this news organization of unclaimed remains in Bucks, Burlington and Montgomery counties, at least four are military veterans.
Honorably discharged U.S. military members and spouses are eligible for free burial in a veterans' cemetery.
To qualify for military burial, service has to be proved through a document known as a DD214, which are given to members at discharge. All DD214s are kept at the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri; local congressional offices and military organizations can get them for burial purposes.
Unclaimed dead in Montgomery County
But somebody has to make the request.
Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey mandates funeral homes or county agencies notify veteran authorities about unclaimed veterans.
Montgomery County forwards information about deceased military veterans to county and federal military veteran organizations, and has identified at least five veterans over the last 11 years, Balacki said.
In the 30 years that he has been Bucks County Military Affairs Department Director, Dan Fraley said that he doesn’t recall ever getting a call from a county coroner about a possible veteran. Burlington County did not make its medical examiner available to answer questions.
Pennsylvania has no law giving veteran groups the ability to claim deceased veterans. New Jersey does.
The 2009 law gave veterans’ organizations the ability to claim unclaimed veterans’ cremated remains after one year, if no family comes forward. The remains must be disposed of in a dignified manner.
Since then, one New Jersey nonprofit, Mission of Honor, has retrieved the cremated remains of more than 600 veterans at funeral homes in central and northern New Jersey. At least half those remains were reunited with family, according to the organization.
Another volunteer organization, the Missing in America Project, handles southern New Jersey veterans. Earlier this year the group laid to rest the cremains of seven veterans and one spouse at a state-owned Burlington County veterans' cemetery.
In other counties it's more difficult for friends and others to retrieve unclaimed remains.
For the last 10 years, Bucks County policy has been that cremated remains are only released to family, unless someone is an estate administrator.
The rule was crafted after two women sued the county and its coroner's office in federal court, alleging it failed to notify them about their estranged father's death before cremating his body and giving his ashes to his girlfriend. The suit was later dismissed, but the policy remains in place.
Coroners typically are reluctant to dispose of cremains, concerned that family may show up one day.
Under New Jersey law, unclaimed cremated remains can be disposed of one year after cremation. Funeral homes and medical examiners must show a “diligent” effort was made to locate family or friends such as a certified letter with return receipt requested mailed to whomever authorized the cremation.
Pennsylvania law allows for disposal of unclaimed remains after less than two days, but Montgomery County keeps cremains 10 years, then has them buried in a mass grave, Balacki said. Burlington County buries its unclaimed dead in individuals plots.
Bucks County has two decades of unclaimed cremains in storage — but that may soon change.
Rendering of proposed columbarium in Bucks
Inspired by plans in Lycoming County in Central Pennsylvania to open an 800-square-foot mausoleum in a municipal-owned cemetery, Bucks' Campbell two years ago approached Plumstead Township officials about building a similar vault to hold the dozens of unclaimed remains now kept in an evidence room at the county morgue in Warminster.
In the 1960s, the township took over control of a cemetery after the church that owned it could no longer maintain it, according to Township Manager Carolyn McCreary. Currently no burials are done at the property.
The discussions with the county about the proposed mausoleum are ongoing, McCreary said. The county recently prepared a rendering of the proposed 1,900-square-foot structure for supervisor feedback, McCreary said.
There is no timetable for considering the plan and the township cannot permit construction until the issue of its registration as a cemetery company is addressed and escrow posted, McCreary said.
But supervisors are open to the idea, she added.
“The board believes everyone deserves a resting place," she said.
Roscoe Fellman died five years ago. He was buried Wednesday in the same Souderton cemetery where his parents, grandparents and newborn niece were laid to rest.
His older brother David was there with his wife, Judy, and their adult children, David Jr. and JoAnne.
Fellman family and Alex Balacki (far right)
Montgomery County First Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki was there, too. He brought Roscoe.
Since his March 21, 2014, death at a Lansdale nursing home, the ashes of Roscoe Fellman had been stored at the county coroner’s office with the remains of more than 100 other unclaimed dead.
David Fellman had signed documents authorizing a county cremation, giving up his legal rights to his brother’s remains. His family couldn’t afford to claim Roscoe, who had no insurance or savings, he said Wednesday.
He had not spoken to his younger brother in 20 years after he cut off contact with his family, David said.
“Near the end, we didn’t get along good,” he said. “We had rules. He didn’t.”
In August, Balacki contacted the family after the Immanuel Leidy’s Church offered to bury Roscoe Fellman’s remains in its cemetery, above his parents’ plot. A digging company donated its services. The offer followed the publication of this news organizations ongoing “Unclaimed” series. Fellman was the seventh unclaimed burial to take place since the series was published in July.
“I was shocked in a way,” by the church’s offer, David said.
But he told Balacki that he wanted to attend the burial. So would his wife, and children.
Roscoe Fellman never married. He had no children. He lived at home with his parents until they died, David said.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army where he was stationed in Hawaii for two years. He worked in a factory, though no one could remember the name.
They described Roscoe as someone who kept to himself, and was a voracious reader.
“He was quiet, reserved,” Judy Fellman said.
His niece and nephew remembered him as generous, especially at Christmas time.
“Growing up, he was always good to us,” JoAnne Musselman said.
Fire and time erased much about the lives of Lucille and LeRoy Bortner.
Alex Balacki pauses to remember the Bortners
On a calm late September morning, a dozen strangers took the time to remember them in death.
The mourners, most of them employees of the Montgomery County Office of Veteran Affairs, sat on steel benches or joined honor guard members in standing before the couple, whose ashes waited side-by-side on a wood table in an outdoor shelter at the Washington Crossing National Veterans’ Cemetery.
New black plastic containers replaced old cardboard ones that had started to buckle at the seams after more than 30 years. A local funeral home donated engraved metal name plates with the birth and death dates of the couple, who were interned at the Upper Makefield cemetery’s columbarium.
Tuesday’s funeral service was brief. It began with a three-volley rifle tribute. The familiar sad lingering song of a lone bugle followed.
Men offered salutes as they passed by. Strangers gently touched the boxes. Some whispered prayers.
Montgomery County’s Director of Veteran Affairs Dennis Miller, a retired Coast Guard veteran, provided a short eulogy.
“We did not know you. We found you,” he said. “But we will never forget you.”
The cremated remains of the couple arrived at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office about five years ago after a man, claiming to be their grandson, left them there, inside an unopened U.S. Postal Service flat rate box that someone spent $16.20 to mail to a Norristown post office box from Miami, Florida.
LeRoy’s military connection was unknown until this news organization uncovered service records as part of its ongoing Unclaimed series. LeRoy Bortner’s possible military service was brought to the attention of First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki, who also attended the Tuesday service.
Balacki brought the information to Miller, who started the process to confirm the couple’s eligibility for burial in a veterans’ cemetery with full military honors. The Bortners bring to six the number of unclaimed dead who have been interred since the publication of the Unclaimed project in July.
The couple have virtually no online footprint. No obituaries were found in Pennsylvania or Florida, where they died two months apart in 1986.
LeRoy Bortner’s military records were among those destroyed in a fire at the St. Louis, Missouri, National Archives in the mid-1970s, according to Miller. The few available records offer a glimpse into his early life.
He was born LeRoy Francis Bortner on May 7, 1921. His mother’s name was Lizzie.
As a young man, he worked for a country club and wallpaper company in York County. He served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, rising to the rank of sergeant.
In May 1958 he married 29-year-old Lucille S. Peterson in Dade County, Florida.
She died first, a month after their 28th wedding anniversary, at age 57.
LeRoy died two months later, in August 1986, at age 65.
They were cremated at the same Miami crematorium.
What happened in the years after their deaths is a matter of speculation, Miller said in his eulogy.
“We surmise they went from mantel to mantel, closet to closet, friend to relative without ever having a final place of rest,” he said. “But today he will have his military honors most deserved, and a final place of rest.”
A top Bucks County corrections administrator questioned whether personal inmate information should be posted online before the county launched a publicly accessible website now at the center of the largest punitive damage award in Bucks County memory, according to legal documents in the federal class-action case.
The information contained in court records and trial testimony appears to contradict the county’s defense that its decision-makers didn’t know that releasing the information violated state law.
The new information comes as Bucks County’s attorneys attempt to overturn the nearly $68 million damage award that county officials described as potentially financially crippling.
So far the county has spent $2 million in legal costs fighting the lawsuit filed in December 2012, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request.
The final award could be reduced to between $46.6 million and $50.8 million based on eligible class members, according to recent court filings, but that is still more than double the $20 million the county anticipates it will have in its fund balance at the end of this year. The county’s insurance will not cover the award.
In an email request for comment, county spokesman Larry King responded that Deputy Director of Corrections Clarke Fulton would not be giving any interviews related to this or any other county litigation. King added the county does not discuss legal strategies.
Fulton, a previous captain of corrections administration, and former Director of Corrections Harris Gubernick, have been identified as the employees who authorized the expansion of the county’s online inmate lookup tool in January 2011, according to court filings.
Gubernick retired in February 2011 and now works as a corrections consultant. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Gubernick for comment after leaving multiple email and voicemail messages.
Attorneys representing the county in July filed petitions asking the court to reconsider the jury award, a precursor to filing an appeal with the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Among the requests is for a new trial, citing grounds including that the jury verdict contradicted the “great weight of evidence,” and the jury instructions on what constitutes “willfulness” were “erroneous and severely prejudicial.”
Bucks County disagreed with the court’s interpretation that it willfully violated the Criminal History Records Information Act, known as CHRIA, through “reckless disregard or indifference.” Officials have said the online tool was created to give victims a way to verify the whereabouts of defendants accused of crimes against them.
The 1980 law bars non-law enforcement agencies, including county jails, from sharing criminal records with the public. It imposes a mandatory punitive penalty of $1,000 to $10,000 for each violation.
The five-day jury trial in May stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Daryoush Taha, a Sicklerville, New Jersey, man whose personal information and mug shot appeared on the county’s inmate lookup tool 11 years after his 1998 arrest was expunged. The lawsuit was given class-action status, allowing thousands of people incarcerated at the jail between 1938 and 2013 to join. Each booking record constituted an individual CHRIA violation, the jury ruled.
The inmate lookup tool still exists, but in 2013, after the lawsuit was filed, the county removed virtually all personal information and mugshots.
In trial arguments, county witnesses testified that prior to the Taha case, there were no legal opinions finding that inmate lookup tools violated CHRIA; that “sources” who vetted the website content saw no legal issues; and that other county inmate lookup tools posted the same or similar content.
Yet trial transcripts and court documents show that Fulton, who was promoted in 2017, had concerns about posting FBI and State Identification numbers, unique identifiers assigned to individuals with a criminal record.
Fulton testified that he knew through his Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network (CLEAN) training that FBI and SID numbers were confidential and could not be publicly released. He also testified that the county’s JNET Terminal Agency Coordinator manual listed the two numbers as confidential.
A copy of a 2008 meeting minutes for the county Information Services Department, which Fulton attended and the first version of the inmate lookup tool was discussed, noted that the Department of Corrections wanted SID and FBI numbers removed. They were not.
At trial, Fulton testified that his concerns about posting those inmate numbers were satisfied after he consulted with other law enforcement sources. But he added that Pennsylvania State Police told him those inmate numbers might be protected under CHRIA, according to trial transcripts.
A Jan. 24, 2011, email exchange between Fulton and Gubernick about the inmate lookup tool also suggests there were lingering questions, according to a copy of the email obtained by this news organization.
“The Inmate Look-Up tool publishes the DOB, SID, FBI# and marital status should these be public records?” Fulton wrote.
Fifteen minutes later, Gubernick replied: “Are they protected? I don’t think so... just no SS#.”
Two minutes later, Fulton responded, “I remember talking about this year’s (sic) ago. I guess I’m too conservative thinking when I see these numbers out there...”
Gubernick testified during the trial that he had taken the same specialized training on CHRIA as Fulton, including what criminal history information could only be shared with other law enforcement agencies, transcripts show. He testified he had never read the law or the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office CHRIA handbook.
“If (Gubernick) had read the handbook and reached an erroneous decision, an honest mistake, we wouldn’t be here,” Taha lead attorney Theodore Schaer said in his closing argument, according to transcripts. “Same thing with Captain Fulton. He read the handbook in 2003 and hadn’t read it again until this lawsuit, when he expressed his reservations, when he expressed his concerns, when they both did in their email. That’s being indifferent to their obligations.”
The conflicting testimony is among the reasons Bucks County faces an uphill battle in overturning the damage award, according to one veteran legal scholar who specializes in class-action lawsuits.
“There is zero chance of the county prevailing at this stage,” said Ken Jacobsen, a professor specializing in class action and mass tort litigation at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law who is familiar with the Taha class action suit.
Jacobsen said it is unlikely the Third Circuit will reverse the lower court’s interpretation of “willful” actions since nothing in the law suggests a willful violation requires the intent to cause harm.
“The county is arguing a standard that appears nowhere in the statute, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove ‘subjective’ misconduct,’” Jacobsen said. “You can probably do that by inference and circumstantial evidence, but I don’t think that is what the legislature had in mind when it passed CHRIA and provided a private cause of action for aggrieved plaintiffs.”
He added the county’s argument that the damage award is excessive also likely won’t hold up in appeal.
“The Third Circuit already has ruled previously in this case that, contrary to the county’s argument, the Pennsylvania legislature saw fit to allow punitive damages under CHRIA, even in the absence of any actual injury or compensable harm to the named plaintiff or other class members, so I think that argument by the county is DOA on appeal,” he said.
Ten years ago, the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office directed that the ashes of Benjamin Harrison be given to his niece.
Last month, First Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki found that long-forgotten letter. But Harrison, who died in 2009 at age 51, is still among the unclaimed dead in county storage.
So Balacki decided to look for Harrison’s niece to see if she was still interested in having her uncle’s remains.
He also wondered if other families might want a second chance to be reunite the cremains of their deceased loved ones.
Last week, Balacki launched what he described as a long-term project to give relatives who terminated legal rights to deceased family members’ remains the opportunity to take them home now. The program will target relatives of unclaimed individuals who have been deceased at least five years, and waive the $750 fee typically charged to reimburse the county for its cremation costs.
More than half of the 117 unclaimed dead stored at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office have identified next-of-kin, who either declined to claim the body and authorized a county-paid cremation, or failed to respond to requests to authorize a county cremation, according to Balacki.
Last year 14 bodies went unclaimed in the county, down from a nine-year record high of 19 in 2017. Between 2007 and 2012, the county reported 22 unclaimed dead; the number jumped to 75 between 2013 and last year, according to coroner data.
According to Balacki, the unique reunification effort was inspired by this news organization’s ongoing “Unclaimed” project, which is looking at the invisible, but growing, burden of unclaimed dead on local governments and attempting to learn more about the lives of the more than 300 unclaimed dead in Bucks and Montgomery counties and Burlington County, New Jersey.
“I don’t think I’d be doing it if it wasn’t for our collaboration,” Balacki said. “I realized that we needed to have more readily available information on these (cremains), who they are.”
After he learned Harrison and another man appeared to serve in the U.S. military, which may make them eligible for a free burial with military honors in a veterans’ cemetery, Balacki went back to the old case files where he discovered the letter about Harrison’s niece.
He tracked down an address for the niece and Harrison’s sister, but has not received a response. He is now working with a local veterans organization to determine Harrison’s eligibility for a military burial. This news organization found documentation that Harrison served in the U.S. Army for 11 months in 1977-78.
Montco 1st Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki
This news organization also reviewed unclaimed dead case files in the county and found notes where family members requested cremated remains, which were then brought to Balacki’s attention.
One of the main reasons the dead go unclaimed is surviving family cannot afford the cost to bury or cremate them or the family is estranged, according to Pennsylvania coroners. Family members are under no legal obligation to claim the dead and in Pennsylvania a person is legally deemed unclaimed if no family comes forward 36 hours after death. Most Pennsylvania counties charge relatives who authorize a county-paid cremation a fee to claim the ashes.
Coroner staff will focus on two to three cases a week, where they will attempt to reach family members, Balacki said. His office is also investigating possibly securing a burial site or place to scatter ashes of the dead who remain unclaimed.
Later this month Montgomery County plans to bury three people who were among its unclaimed — a husband and wife at the Washington Crossing National Veterans’ Cemetery in Bucks County, and a 73-year-old man who died in 2014 and whose family authorized a county cremation; Balacki learned the man’s parents are buried at a Souderton cemetery, which has agreed to inter his remains.