D.C. police officials said yesterday that a breakdown in communication caused the department to release publicly the name of a Northwest Washington man, who may have died of hypothermia, before they notified his relatives.
The police breakdown also led officers to say the man was apparently homeless when in fact he had lived with his wife in an apartment two blocks away for eight years.
"It was a system failure," said D.C. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.
Family members of Melvin L. Wharton, 51, the man D.C. police found dead in freezing temperatures, said yesterday that they were outraged that as of yesterday morning, no authorities had yet officially notified relatives of the man's death.
"Do you know what that did to us, to read about his death and not be notified beforehand?" said his 55-year-old brother, John Wharton, of Bladensburg. "There still has been no follow-up. This happened Friday. It's Sunday."
Wharton's oldest sister, Sarah Lundy, 53, of Jacksonville, Fla., said: "We are having a horrible time understanding how someone was found and no one makes an effort to contact the next of kin before it's in the newspaper." Lundy and her brother said that Wharton had a large extended family in the Washington area.
Yesterday afternoon, after being contacted by The Washington Post about the incident, Gainer called Wharton's wife, brother and niece to apologize on behalf of the department.
"I told them we were sorry that we added to their suffering," Gainer said later in an interview.
Wharton's body was discovered by a person walking home about 2:30 a.m. Friday in the 2900 block of 11th Street NW. Wharton was wearing a hat, brown boots, blue sweat pants and a brown jacket but no shirt. Police said then that no home address had been found for Wharton, and they said it was typical that someone who died outside had no place to go.
But Wharton had lived in the 2700 block of 11th Street NW for eight years, according to John Wharton. "Everyone on the block knew Melvin," his brother said.
Melvin Wharton, a native of South Carolina, came to the District when he was a child. He graduated from Cardozo High School, where he played football and was nicknamed "Thunderbird." He had been married for 15 years and had worked on and off as a building manager, though he was unemployed when he died. His brother said Wharton had struggled for years with alcohol addiction.
John Wharton said his younger brother told his wife Thursday night that he was experiencing stomach pains and needed to get to a hospital. Wharton said his brother may have been walking to the hospital because he didn't have a car or a telephone.
John Wharton said that after reading about his brother's death, he went to the medical examiner's office to identify the body. "They would not tell us the results of the autopsy," Wharton said.
D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden said yesterday that preliminary autopsy results indicate that Wharton died of exposure, but he said further tests will confirm Wharton's cause of death.
Wharton said fingerprints for his brother, who was arrested last year on a charge that was later dropped, should have been on file for the police department to identify him and notify his wife.
Gainer said Wharton was identified through fingerprints taken from the body by the police mobile crime unit. That unit then called the medical examiner's office and passed on Wharton's name. But the mobile crime officers did not call the 4th District officers who were handling the case, Gainer said.
"And the 4D detectives didn't pursue vigorously enough what the mobile crime and identification sections were doing," Gainer said. "We didn't coordinate the way we should have."
"My brother wasn't a perfect guy," John Wharton said yesterday. "He had problems just like everyone else. But he wasn't homeless. He had a place to live, a wife and a family who cared about him."
CAPTION: Melvin L. Wharton at age 42. He apparently died of hypothermia two blocks from his home at age 51.