It’s still unclear how, exactly, the authorities of Orange County, Calif., became convinced that a body pulled from the bushes behind a phone store was that of Frank M. Kerrigan — a beloved brother and son, and very much alive.
The dead man had a full head of wavy, brown-gray hair, the medical examiner noted in a report beneath Kerrigan’s name. He looked about the right age, 57; he had blue eyes; and he died with fluid in his lungs.
His identity had been confirmed through fingerprints, someone at the coroner’s office told Kerrigan’s father and namesake in a phone call in early May, he told ABC 7 last week.
So, no need to come down and check the body.
“That was it,” 82-year-old Frank J. Kerrigan told the station. “My son was gone.”
In fact, the Orange County Register reported, the body had been identified based on an old driver’s license photo after someone told police it looked like Kerrigan, who is homeless and grew up near the scene of his reported death.
But Kerrigan’s family didn’t know that. And for nearly a month, they were so convinced that even the father’s final moment with an open casket didn’t stop Frank Kerrigan’s erroneous funeral.
Kerrigan’s sister, Carole Meikle, said that after getting the news, she rushed to the area behind a Verizon Store in Fountain Valley where the body had been found and forced herself to look.
It was, she told the Register, “a pretty disturbing scene.”
She recalled blood and dirty blankets. “I stood there, and I cried and I prayed,” Meikle told ABC 7, weeping again at the memory.
Father and sister told the station they had worried constantly about Kerrigan’s well-being. He was mentally ill, they said, and refused to say in a shelter.
So with the medical examiner’s word that he was gone, Meikle said, she left some rosary beads in the bushes and the family set about planning a funeral.
The elder Frank Kerrigan was a bit puzzled, he told the Register, when his son’s purported belongings were given back to him by the state. The bag was different from the one his son carried, and Kerrigan’s favorite writing pen was nowhere to be seen.
Still, the family sent out announcements for a funeral, as seen on ABC 7. They printed up cards with a verse from Corinthians and a handsome photo of Kerrigan in a suit, his wavy hair combed neatly.
“In Loving Memory,” the cards read.
Before the ceremony, the elder Kerrigan said, he asked someone at the funeral home to open the casket for a last look.
“I didn’t know what my dead son was going to look like,” he told the Register.
Overcome with grief, he said, he patted the dead man’s hair and had the casket closed, not doubting it contained his son.
It was a beautiful ceremony in a Catholic church, the family told the Register. Dozens of people came from as far away as Las Vegas and Washington state. Kerrigan’s brother gave a eulogy, and the dead man was buried not far from the grave of the elder Kerrigan’s late wife.
The ceremony cost the family $20,000, according to a lawyer they have since hired to sue the county.
One night in late May, about a week and a half after the funeral, the elder Kerrigan got a phone call, he told the Register.
It was a longtime family friend, who had served as a pallbearer at the funeral — and he had called to say the dead man was standing on his patio.
“He said, ‘Hi, Dad,’ ” the father said.
Kerrigan’s sister told ABC 7 she fell to her knees. His father recalled thinking only: “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
They were joyful. But after they’d processed their emotions, they began to get upset.
Appearing with their new lawyers last week, Meikle told ABC 7 that the county would not have been so sloppy if her brother had had a home and his mental health.
“He was not given the dignity, due diligence and process a normal citizen of Orange County would get,” she said.
So the family is preparing to file suit against the coroner’s office, claiming that Kerrigan’s civil rights were violated, according to the Register.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department released a statement to the newspaper, apologizing to the family “for any emotional stress caused as a result of this unfortunate incident” and promising an investigation.
Apologies and lawsuits aside, there’s still the matter of who’s buried in Frank Kerrigan’s grave.
The family’s lawyer, Doug Easton, told the Register that they’ve been given the dead man’s name by the county.
But that’s happened before, of course. This time, the lawyer said, they’re waiting for independent confirmation.