PUBLICLY, THE SAD, strange case of the morgue's missing body seems settled. Media reports, citing official statements, point to a hospital custodian, Manuel Tolentino Franco III, 33, as the person who apparently stole the remains of Baby Boy Perry, a newborn, from a cooler at the King County Medical Examiner's Office last summer. Though he is not charged with the extraordinary theft of a body officials say they do not have the evidence or the bodythe immigrant from the Philippines was targeted almost from the first day of the investigation and has been publicly named by the King County Sheriff's Office as a suspect. He is presumed to have taken other items from the morgue at Harborview Medical Center, where he worked as a swing-shift janitor. He is charged in Superior Court with possession of stolen property, including badges, documents, a credit card, cell phones, master keys, and lab equipment, some of which he allegedly tried to sell at swap meets.
"Because of lack of morgue cooler space, bodies sometimes are stored two to a gurney or on the floor."
Still, a mystery lingers over how and why the body of a Kent newborn vanished from the secure morgue on First Hill, where the remains of five people have been permanently or temporarily lost during the past 19 years. And it's not just Franco who is under suspicion. "Anyone who worked in the building during that time is a suspect, not just Mr. Franco," clarifies King County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Fagerstrom. In fact, about two dozen M.E. staffers, including deputy examiners, were given polygraph tests following the disappearance, Seattle Weekly has learned, and several internal investigations turned up at least four possible body-theft scenarios. One investigation, by Public Health-Seattle & King County, which oversees medical-examiner operations, concluded it was possible the remains were inadvertently wrapped up with an adult body, sent to a funeral home, and cremated by mistake. A second, confidential review by the county executive's office concluded that an M.E. employee or employees (Franco was not an M.E. staffer) "deliberately" sent the body off with other remains, although no possible motive was known. Could a body leave the building without being checked first? Yes. It happened in 1999, according to records obtained by the Weekly, when a woman's body went missing. Morgue officials later determined her wrapped remains had been mistakenly sent under the name of a man to a funeral home and cremated. M.E. staffers had not done the required check on the woman's identity, or even gender, before the body was released.
Another, even odder scenario turned up in the internal probes: the possibility that a medical-examiner employee "either mistakenly or maliciously" destroyed the baby's remains and then called in police to investigate, according to internal documents. Two Kent detectives, in fact, arrived "by coincidence" at the medical examiner's office apparently just hours after the disappearance was uncovered during a routine body inventory (the first in three weeks). The baby's mother had received permission for a funeral home to retrieve the newborn, but Kent police had requested a "hold" be put in place and had so informed the mother. Health department investigators reported "it is quite unusual for law enforcement to express interest in whether a body has been released, particularly so long after the date of death." Did the detectives already suspect something had happened to the body? Were they the ones anonymously called by an M.E. staffer? Officials, citing an open investigation, will not explain this puzzling aspect.
FRANCO, HOWEVER, is talking. In an interview, the janitor says he did not take the body and is being made a scapegoat for morgue and hospital security failures. "They're crazy, accusing me in the newspaper all the time. I don't know nothing about it. I am not like that," says Franco, who is facing trial next month on the stolen-property claim. The former $11.40-an-hour janitor has pleaded not guilty to all charges, official and unofficial. "What they said about me on TV, that never happened," Franco said last week. "I went to the grocery the other day, and they think I am stupid, that I don't know English, and they talk behind my back saying I stole the baby. This is a lie everyone is blaming me for."
The newborn's body disappeared without a trace from the same massive hospital complex where security procedures, or lack of them, have been questioned even by hospital guards (see "Locked In," Dec. 11, 2002). Harborview is a county-owned public hospital with a proud record in medicine and treating the poor. It is operated by the University of Washington, for whom Franco worked. While lost or stolen bodies from the county-run morgue are a rarity, the baby's disappearance and the mistaken funeral-home transfer in 1999 show the system is fallible. In the most notable modern-day slipup, the remains of three Green River serial-murder victims inexplicably went missing in 1984 and were never found.
The infant, known publicly only as Baby Perry, suffocated apparently on the day he was born, May 11, 2002, to a 21-year-old woman in Kent. The question of whether the asphyxia was a homicide remains unanswered. Though his body was found two days later, wrapped in a plastic trash bag in a bedroom closet, the young mother denies intentionally causing the boy's death and hasn't been charged. The county prosecutor's office plans to make a decision in a few weeks, says spokesperson Dan Donohoe. Following an autopsy May 13, 2002, the boy's tiny remains apparently were sent to one of the morgue coolers, which that day held about 50 bodies. The remains were determined to be missing June 6 after an inventory, but no public announcement was made. Documents show that King County Executive Ron Sims was advised immediately of the body disappearance, and a June 7 memo to M.E. staffers from a supervisor warned that "if media should inquire about the case being investigated, KCME staff will not make any comments" and should report such inquiries to higher-ups. The lost-body story remained untold for seven months, until KING-TV revealed details last February and the county reluctantly confirmed it. Health department spokesperson James Apa called it a "unique incident" and said security was being strengthened.
BEHIND THE SCENES, however, much more had transpired. Franco's home had been searched a month after the discovery. Authorities found a cache of allegedly stolen items, as well as a collection of deathly memorabilia. On his computer, Franco had stored information on the autopsies of Kurt Cobain, John Kennedy, and Princess Di, prosecutors say. He also saved newspaper articles about murders and created a collage of photos depicting himself with guns and knives bearing such captions as "Don't fuck my life" and "I'm not afraid to die." But if Franco was the body snatcher, detectives, despite what they found at his home, apparently didn't believe it at the time. A month later, last August, they asked M.E. employees to submit to "voluntary" polygraph tests. It was done, according to an e-mail from sheriff's Detective Jim Allen, "to eliminate the Medical Examiner's Office staff as potential suspects." An M.E. supervisor, John Wiesman, e-mailed stafferssome angry about the requestthat lie-detector tests were important if the office was to conclude the case and "proceed with providing our services to the community without this distraction." (Officials will not comment on the test results.) The office also quietly overhauled its procedures, giving the staff refresher courses and issuing new rules. No longer would funeral directors enter the facility without escorts, bodies had to be unsealed and IDs confirmed before transfer, release forms were revised, and cooler inventory procedures changed.
Ultimately, the internal reviews failed to determine when and how the body was "misplaced," although a mistaken transfer, like the one in 1999, loomed as the more likely possibility. Because of a lack of morgue cooler space, bodies sometimes are stored two to a gurney or on the cooler floor. Infants might be stored alongside or on top of adult decedents. That crowding, one investigator speculates, could have led to the baby's body being (inadvertently or otherwise) transported with one of the 11 bodies that were sent to funeral homes on May 13 and 14, 2002.
NONE OF THAT necessarily pointed to, or away from, Franco. Although the janitor was seen roaming the autopsy and cooler areas at the medical examiner's office and had a set of master keys, there was nothing to link him to Baby Perry's disappearance. "The case is still open," says sheriff's Sgt. Fagerstrom. Franco was charged with the other thefts last March, the month after the missing-body story made headlines. Now free on a $15,000 bail bond, Franco says he is not the body man. "Every night I have nightmares that someone is coming into my house, one of the [baby's] relatives," he says, "and they're going to mess me upfor something I didn't do." He is, he adds, weighing a lawsuit.