Telling the Stories of the Unclaimed Dead
A longtime child welfare advocate uses her skills to locate next of kin for unsolved cases, bringing closure to grieving families, and making peace with her own painful past.
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I find the families for unclaimed dead. Follow document trails and decades-old stories as I make the past divulge its secrets. Search by search, conversation by conversation, I move from the unknown to the known to find their next of kin. Sometimes that’s a second cousin. Sometimes it’s an ex-wife. Every now and then, it’s one mother telling another the terrible truth: I’m sorry. Your child is dead.
I spent twenty years as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a specially trained, unpaid volunteer who advocates for foster children. CASAs are sworn by a judge to be the eyes and ears of the court: to ensure that the child welfare agency, attorneys, and court fulfill their obligations to the child, and comply with court orders. Over the years, child welfare policies prioritized placement of children with safe extended family members instead of foster care with strangers. I became adept at locating family members so the agency could evaluate whether they could care for the child. When I retired in 2014, I missed the research and investigation, but not the sad and contentious aspects of CASA work. I decided to use my skills to find the families of those whose bodies were unclaimed. My third next-of-kin case tugged at my heart when I discovered that the dead man had grown up in foster care.
On July 15, 2013, Ronald “Ronnie” Paul Johnson, a 30-year-old homeless man with a mop of blonde hair and a shaggy beard, was found dead under an overpass near the intersection of Pennsylvania and Main in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His body was taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner where they determined that he died of cardiac arrhythmia, an electrical malfunction of the heart. Brown Funeral Parlor in Luther, Oklahoma, cremated his remains. His name, date of birth, date of death, and photograph were entered into the National Unclaimed Persons Data System, known as ClaimUs, a database of descendants whose next of kin is unknown.
My entire family disappeared when I was five. Me, standing in the kitchen with my lips on the cold thin rim of a bright blue aluminum cup, and suddenly—it must have been sudden, my memory is blank—my mother and father and siblings were gone. I walked across a tiny bridge to meet the yellow school bus while I lived with the Braack family during my kindergarten year. Where was my mom? My dad? What happened to my brother Jimmy and my sister Robin? Questions in my life became gaps in my memory that have persisted all my life. I know what it means to feel disconnected.
I collect the details of unclaimed people’s lives. I find their families and tell their stories because stories provide context for understanding. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher Mrs. Gruhn didn’t know my history was informed by trauma and loss. On my report card she wrote: “Debbie is constantly out of her seat, talking, and minding other people’s business.” It would have been so much easier if I sat down and shut up. I wanted to. I tried to. I just couldn’t. I wandered, blurted, and listened. I felt less alone.
I don’t consciously think of the years my family was separated when I choose a case. It’s more like the cells in my body come to attention like little soldiers chanting, “Find His Family. Find His Family.” The structure of the brain is altered by early trauma. I’m hardwired to understand that people leave. Sometimes, they come back. I started Ronald’s case the way I always do, by clicking open the report on ClaimUs. When I saw the photograph of a 30-year-old Caucasian man with straight blond hair, blue eyes, and a slender face with ears that curled out slightly at the top, I said, “Who’s your family, Ronnie?”
My dad retrieved me from the Braack’s home at the end of my kindergarten year. It felt like he’d gone out for groceries and gotten lost on his way back. He had my brother Jimmy and a new wife with him. Then, the Braack family disappeared from my life just as my mom and my sisters had. Jimmy and I stood with our dad and new mom in a judge’s office. Jimmy was happy. I was worried. The judge said I could go back with my old mom if I didn’t like the new one. Here’s what I learned when I was six: People come and people go and it has nothing to do with love.
I typed Ronald’s name into Google. It offered a link to “Homeless Oklahoman Says Blizzard Put Life in Perspective”. I clicked on the News 9 video and watched Ronald Johnson talk with reporter Rusty Surette about what it was like to be homeless. The last time that he had seen his siblings, he said, was twenty-one years earlier when their mother went to prison. He and his siblings were among the 15-20 percent of children who enter foster care when their mom or dad is incarcerated. “I’m beginning to forget what family is like,” Ronald told Surette.
Surrette had located his brother. Ronald punched the numbers into the reporter’s phone. The phone rang. “Hey Bubba,” he said.
My heart sank as I watched the video of him leaving a message. I wondered if they’d had the chance to catch up before Ronnie died. I searched for the names “Ronald Johnson” and “Bubba” together. Nothing. Not surprising: “Bubba” was probably a nickname.
Ronald was eight when his mom went to prison. I think about my own childhood at that age: Jimmy and I hunkered down in the steel bed of the pick-up truck as dad rumbled along Weyerhaeuser roads spotting for buck to feed us through winter. Racing Jimmy down the gully hillside on the seat of my pants. Pedaling my white Schwinn home with a basket full of Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew girl-sleuth books.
I found mugshots of Ronald online. His eyes looked bewildered and lost. I had seen that look in Jimmy’s eyes early in his young adult life. We were different even then. I grew up wanting to save others; Jimmy wanted to make them pay. I became a foster parent, a Court Appointed Child Advocate, and an academic coach for students struggling in high school. Jimmy painted murals on the sides of buildings and engaged in petty crime. I loved him like a sister loves a brother she hopes to, but cannot, save.
I studied Ronald’s photograph. The tilt of his head reminded me of the photograph of Jimmy’s body in the funeral home where he lay for a week. He was 29. Deceased is viewed in Trauma Room 1. Body is warm to the touch. Muscles and veins are exposed and six medical clamps are attached inside this wound. Jimmy, the little brother who had taught me how to bait a hook and jig for salmon, with whom I’d built forts and caught crawdads. The surly teen I’d abandoned when his love for cigarettes and drugs and my love for horses sent us on separate paths. He died in a motorcycle accident in Texas and nobody had known where, or to whom, he belonged.
I knew from child advocacy experience that foster children experience disproportionately higher rates of mental illness, addiction, homelessness, and involvement with the criminal-justice system. I located a current warrant for Ronald in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Tulsa Police Department had nothing to share except Bubba’s disconnected number. Oklahoma court records in his name. Trespassing. Possession of controlled substance. Larceny. I discovered a protective order from 2003. Was this the same Ronald Johnson? I clicked the record open to find that it revealed the name of the person who had reported the abuse. It took ten minutes to find her on Facebook. I stared at her picture as if I could somehow determine whether she and Ronald had ever been a couple.
Was it right to contact a woman who had survived violence to locate family of the man who allegedly battered her? He’d been dead two years. If my son were dead, I’d want anyone to do whatever it took to find me. I decided to message Erica, whose name I changed to protect her privacy. I would take my cues from her response. I typed into the Facebook Messenger window, explaining that I was searching for the relatives of someone who died, and this case involved someone she might know from a court case.
She answered, “What’s the name?”
“Ronald Paul Johnson.”
“I figured that was who you were asking about. His mom is in prison. I don’t know her.”
Still in prison? That hadn’t occurred to me. As Erica and I messaged on Facebook, I opened another search window and pulled up the Oklahoma inmate search site. I typed in the surname Johnson and narrowed the fields to females incarcerated since the early 1990s. While Erica recounted the story of her and Ronald’s relationship, I clicked open each female Johnson one at a time. Ronald was the oldest of his siblings, she said, and had a sister in New York or New Jersey.
I clicked on the name Valerie Johnson. When her photo popped up, I was stunned by her resemblance to Ronnie. Her conviction date was January 7, 1991. Ronald would have been little more than 8 years old. I messaged Erica. “I might have found her … I am going to send you the link.” Twenty minutes passed. Maybe I’d pressed too hard. Maybe seeing Valerie was too reminiscent of bad times with Ronald. Then the chat window popped open again. “That looks to be her.”
I had been beaten by a man I loved in my young adult life and knew the murky feelings it could entail. I apologized for digging up a period of history she might not want to think about.
That’s okay,” she said. “I forgave him a while back.”
In 1990, Valerie Johnson was in a work-release program for convictions of burglary and concealing stolen property. She worked for the Stormwater Maintenance Department on weekdays but became dubbed the Blonde Bandit because she had robbed ten stores during her weekend passes. The state of Oklahoma has harsh minimum sentences and takes a dim view on women who break the law. Ronald and his siblings had the misfortune of living in Oklahoma where impoverished and rural women are incarcerated at twice the national rate of the national average. She was sentenced to 45 years in prison. I called the Family Assistance coordinator at the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner’s office and explained that I’d found Ronald’s mother.
Finding family is satisfying as when your father reappears to claim you after a year. As satisfying as it is when your first mother, whom you had begun to believe had never been real, strides up to the fast food counter where you are working and hands you a note that says, “I am your mom.”
I was eighteen when my birth mom handed me a note during the middle of lunch rush at the Jack in the Box where I worked. I thought it was customer feedback and tucked it in my pocket for later. I found it later when I pulled off the uniform reeking of hamburger grease and slipped into blue jeans and a t-shirt. I sat in the recliner, put my feet up on the empty electrical wire spool that served as a table, and stared at the note. My gut dropped. I sprung out of my seat and paced the small apartment, opening and shutting the refrigerator door, the front door, picking up and putting down the phone receiver, opening and closing the curtains. The phone rang.
“This is your mom.”
It was more like the shell of Debbie because the inside of me, the heart and brain of me had floated out of me and was bumping its head on the ceiling of the room, over and over, like a balloon caught in a slight draft.
“I’d like to take you to breakfast.”
A couple weeks passed as I waited to hear that Ronald’s mother Valerie had been notified. Each day I checked the ClaimUs website and Ronald’s case was still up. I finally called the Family Assistance coordinator to ask if I had been wrong. Was Valerie not Ronald’s mom?
“We asked the chaplain of the prison to notify her,” he said. “We haven’t heard anything back.”
I didn’t want Ronald’s case to fall through the cracks. I called the chaplain of the prison directly. She had been moved to a new facility, he said, but promised she would be told.
On February 24, 2015, seven weeks after I started looking for Ronald’s family, I received an email from the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner’s office confirming that Valerie had been notified. I made a notation on the case cover sheet that Ronald’s mom had been notified and stuck the file in the drawer marked Closed Cases. But the video of Ronald saying, “Hey Bubba” into the reporter’s cell phone haunted me. Me, Jimmy’s sister. Me, the girl with the family who disappeared. Me, the one who has always been fascinated by the ways families come together and apart.
On the Saturday after she handed me the note at Jack in the Box, my birth mother picked me up and drove me to a restaurant at Shilshoe Bay. Light streamed through restaurant windows draped with sheer silk. As we sat across the table with each other for the first time in thirteen years, I realized her face matched mine. She was eager to remind me of our early days together that I could not remember. I worried my adoptive mom was going to be mad. The waiter brought water with lemon and ice, a basket wrapped in white linen where her hands disappeared between folds of cloth. Her fingers flew to break bread into bites. She offered me little pats of butter from the edge of her knife.
Three decades later, after my relationships with my birth mom and siblings had healed, after my adoptive mom had come to understand the importance of those connections, I finally asked my adoptive mom, “Did the judge tell me I could go back with my birth mom if I didn’t like it with you and Dad?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was angry because of course, it wasn’t true. The adoption papers were already signed.”
Months after I closed Ronald’s case, I discovered a new message from Ronald’s brother posted to the News 9 video. I haven’t heard from my brother in a long time is there anyway (sic) you could run something so I can see if he is in good health? It gave an email and telephone number. I sent him an email. My phone rang almost immediately. “My name is Victor,” the caller said, “but he always called me Bubba.”
“I’m not sure if you know that he passed away.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I gave him the name of the medical examiner’s office so that he could call with any questions he had. The next day, he sent me a request to be friends on Facebook. He tagged his sister on a post he wrote, “Ronnie I will forever miss you…”
Ronnie was the oldest of Valerie’s four children. The family lived in a trailer beside a grassy lot in Oklahoma. When Ronnie was seven, he accidentally set the adjacent field on fire. It spread to the trailer, flames lapping up the sides of the mobile home, and into the room where 9-month-old Natalie, a chunky strawberry-blonde infant, lay defenseless. The fire department was able to save most of the trailer and the children survived. A year later, Valerie was arrested and went to prison.
In the 1990s, child-welfare agencies were just beginning to prioritize placing siblings together because they tend to adjust more easily and better meet typical developmental milestones. Valerie’s children were placed together in foster care; however, the foster family was ill-equipped to manage Ronnie’s challenging behaviors. The kids were rehomed a dozen times before Bubba was finally sent to live with an aunt in Missouri. Ten-year-old Ronnie and his two sisters went to live with a cousin in New York. Ronnie’s behavior became more aggressive. Within a year, he was returned to Oklahoma, then homed in Missouri. Natalie isn’t sure what happened after that.
Victor remembers the day Ronnie called from the News 9 cell phone. “I didn’t know that number, and I didn’t answer.” He tried calling back, but Ronnie was gone. The brothers managed to talk by phone a few days later. Ronnie was going to find transportation to Massachusetts where Bubba was living. When he didn’t show up, Victor called around to Oklahoma homeless shelters. He left his email on the News 9 video hoping that someone would see it.
The last time Natalie saw Ronnie, she was four. She remembers hearing about the fire Ronnie started when she was a baby. “I still have scars,” Natalie said. “Two circles on my right arm.”
“What do you remember most about him?” I asked, knowing that children with disrupted attachments often have memories that are convoluted or missing.
“I just really remember his blond hair, the blondest of hairs ever.”
Sometimes I sit with the story of a person’s life and wonder to whom I owe its details. For some people, ensuring that Valerie was notified might have been enough. Having lost a brother, I knew Bubba’s message deserved an answer. But Ronald’s wasn’t the only broken heart. I wondered if Ronald’s ex-girlfriend would want to be in touch with his brother and sister. I said a little blessing to all three of them, sent her a private message pointing her to their post about Ronnie on Facebook, and left it in their hands.
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