Mississippi coroner who buried men without telling their families: ‘I don’t know how to find people’

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This article is part of Lost Rites, A series On America’s failed death reporting system.

RAYMOND, Miss. – Gretchen Hankins came to the poor field in Hinds County Friday morning to get her son’s body and to get answers. Didn’t get either.

son hankins, Jonathan David HankinsHe, 39, died of a drug overdose in May 2022, and his body went unclaimed for more than a year while family, friends and police searched for him. Without anyone informing his mother of his death, he was buried in a grave bearing the number: 645 only. Several men They were buried without telling their families, sparking widespread public outrage after NBC News exposed the case last year.

Early Friday, Gretchen Hankins entered the poor man’s field, on the grounds of the county jail farm, for the first time, to witness the exhumation of her son so his body could be prepared for a proper funeral. She said a staff member at the Hinds County coroner’s office told her she could attend the exhumation.

Hinds County Coroner Sharon Gresham Stewart was also there, and Hankins began pressing the coroner to find out why she had not been told about her son’s death.

As Hankins’ sister recorded on the phone, Gresham Stewart said the lapse was not her fault.

“I don’t know about missing people,” said Gresham Stewart, who has served as Hinds County’s elected coroner since 1999. “I don’t know how to find people. I don’t know how to find people.” I know how to determine the cause and manner of death. But if I failed to look for people, I apologize. “I don’t know how to find people.”

“But it’s your job, and when you take that job, you’re supposed to learn how to do it,” Hankins replied.

Billy Martin, spokesman for the state medical examiner, said county coroners are required to take action 40-hour training course Every four years includes instructions on locating and communicating with next of kin.

Although each county has its own procedures, Martin said that “ultimate responsibility for reporting a death rests with the county coroner.”

Shortly after Hankins criticized Gresham Stewart for not notifying her of her son’s death, Gresham Stewart told her she couldn’t be there. A Hinds County sheriff’s deputy ordered Hankins, her sister, friends, a reporter and a photographer to stay away from the cemetery.

Gresham Stewart did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Hinds County Police Department said members of the public should request access to the pauper’s cemetery because it is located on prison property.

It was the first time Hankins had met Gresham Stewart since she learned of the death of her son, Jonathan David Hankins, in December, when an NBC News reporter came to her doorstep to share the news as part of a Investigation In Hinds County Failed Death Notifications.

Jonathan David Hankins with his mother Gretchen Hankins and daughter Brooke.  (Courtesy Gretchen Hankins)

Jonathan David Hankins with his mother Gretchen Hankins and daughter Brooke. (Courtesy Gretchen Hankins)

Documents obtained by NBC News show that Gresham Stewart’s office identified Jonathan Hankins’ body a few days after he was found dead in a Jackson hotel room, but no one contacted his mother, even though she reported him missing to authorities in nearby Rankin. The county and Jonathan’s names have been posted in a publicly available federal missing persons database.

A Google search of Jonathan Hankins’ name by Gresham Stewart’s office could have provided information about his family and their attempts to find him.

After finally learning of her son’s death from NBC News in December, Hankins said she paid the county $300 to regain the rights to his body and exhume his remains.

“I’m the mother, and you didn’t call me when my son was buried,” Hankins told Gresham Stewart after arriving at Fakir’s Field on Friday morning, according to a recording provided to NBC News.

“Sometimes we don’t know how to contact families,” Gresham-Stewart answered.

Gresham Stewart, who spent nearly two decades as a mortician before being elected as Hinds County coroner, has not spoken publicly about the matter. Failed notifications. Before the scandal it was The Clarion Ledger said A newspaper reported in 2022 that the number of unclaimed bodies handled by her office had risen sharply over the past two decades — a trend replicated in large and medium-sized cities across the country in an era rife with opioid addiction, rising homelessness and increasingly broken families. .

In 2003, Hinds County sent 11 unclaimed bodies for pauper burial; In 2022, that number has risen to about 40.

Amid a rise in homicides and deaths due to Covid, Gresham Stewart told The Clarion-Ledger that she “went to bed every night praying there wouldn’t be a murder or a car wreck.”

The revelation of the botched death notices sparked nationwide outrage and push Calls for federal investigations. Jackson Police Department in Mississippi It adopted its first policy Regarding death notices in November. The coroner’s office has since It issued a copy of its own policyBut it is not clear when it came into effect.

In Hankins’ case, the coroner’s office did not say what, if anything, it did to find or contact his family. The agency said it referred Jonathan Hankins’ information to the Jackson Police Department for notification purposes, but the police department said it never received that information.

At the grave site, Gresham Stewart told Gretchen Hankins that her office staff had been trained by the Mississippi Medical Examiner’s Office, but that training was not focused on finding people.

“But it wasn’t that hard,” Gretchen Hankins told Gresham Stewart. “All you have to do is the computer.”

“Well, it’s hard when you have death after death after death after death, and you’re working 24 hours a day,” Gresham-Stewart said. As you know, owning a computer means having it on the desk. “My job is in the field.”

“This is still unjustified,” Hankins said. “If you take a job, you’re supposed to do it.”

“I’m not making any excuses,” Gresham-Stewart said.

Grisham told Stewart-Hankins that in cases where her staff can’t find families, “we always hope the families can find us.”

But Hinds County — like most coroners nationally — Not published The names of the unclaimed dead are added to a free, searchable database maintained by the Department of Justice. In December, NBC News Names published 215 people have been buried in the Hinds County Pauper Cemetery since 2016 to give families a chance to find their loved ones.

Gretchen Hankins was not notified of her son's death (Ashley Coleman to NBC News)

Gretchen Hankins was not notified of her son’s death (Ashley Coleman to NBC News)

Grisham told Stewart-Hankins that she is “trying to implement things now to try to do better” and that “it’s not intentional, it’s not intentional, it’s not notice.”

Hankins said she believes it was intentional. “Just because everyone here – I bet 90% of them were drug users or homeless and you all don’t care.”

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s not true,” Gresham Stewart said.

“It’s the truth,” Hankins replied.

Hankins said she just wanted her son’s body back and a proper funeral for him.

Gresham-Stewart said that was “commendable.” But she told Hankins that she was not allowed to be in the poor man’s field.

Hankins then went to find Jonathan’s grave, searching for his number 645. Before she could find it, she was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy.

“Ma’am, you have to leave now,” the deputy said.

The deputy also told an NBC News reporter and a photographer that they were not allowed to be there.

Gretchen Hankins exhumes son, Jonathan Hankins (Ashley Coleman for NBC News)

Gretchen Hankins exhumes son, Jonathan Hankins (Ashley Coleman for NBC News)

In a later interview, Hinds County Police Department spokesman Authur Cain said that under updated policy adopted by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors last month, members of the public must request permission to visit a pauper’s cemetery.

“It’s not a public space,” Cain said. “It’s actually like walking into our detention center, because it’s located on the grounds of that facility.”

The poor man’s field—actually several distinct plots of land—is located along a dirt road leading from the working farm. There are no barriers hindering public entry, but there are signs indicating that unlicensed vehicles are prohibited.

Cain said he could not provide a copy of the updated policy because it takes “20 to 30 days” after the vote for it to become an official document.

Hinds County buried hundreds of people in pauper cemeteries near a penal farm.  (Ashley Coleman for NBC News)

Hinds County buried hundreds of people in pauper cemeteries near a penal farm. (Ashley Coleman for NBC News)

Hankins said her funeral home was able to exhume Jonathan’s remains later Friday — his Mass is scheduled for Feb. 10 — but she didn’t trust Hinds County and wanted proof that the remains were actually her son’s.

“It’s like they’re hiding something more, when they won’t even let me go there and see where he’s buried. What are they hiding?”

After she was rejected, Hankins, her sister and some friends got into their cars, drove back to a dirt road and left the work farm.

“I wanted to see him,” Hankins said on the side of the road.

Then I started crying.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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