FOUNTAIN VALLEY (CBSLA/AP) — Relatives who thought they had buried their loved one, only to find out he was alive 11 days after his funeral, sued Orange County Tuesday.
The suit filed by Frank Kerrigan’s family accuses the Orange County Coroner’s Office of negligence, concealment and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.
In a strange twist, it also alleges that the coroner’s office misidentified the body twice, and that there may be a third body involved.
The mix-up began when a man was found dead behind a Verizon store in Fountain Valley. In May of 2017, the family of then 57-year-old Frank Kerrigan was informed that Kerrigan had been found dead behind the store.
Frank Kerrigan’s father, who goes by the same name as his son, said that when he asked the Orange County Coroner’s Office whether he should identify the body, a woman at the coroner’s office said, apparently incorrectly, that identification had been made through fingerprints.
Another family member who talked to the coroner’s office said a woman told her Kerrigan also had been found with his identification, according to the lawsuit.
On May 11, Kerrigan’s family buried a man they believed to be Frank. Eleven days later, however, Frank Kerrigan himself turned up at a family friend’s house. The friend called Kerrigan’s family to tell them he was alive.
The man the Kerrigan family had buried was later identified by the coroner’s office as a 54-year-old Kansas native named John Dickens. He was exhumed from the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in August before he was cremated and sent to his mother in Kansas.
Both Kerrigan and Dickens were homeless and mentally ill. Dickens was discharged from the U.S. Army in the mid-1980s and began living with family members, his sister told the Orange County Register last year. He decided to strike out on his own and eventually settled in California.
Dickens suffered from mental illness and had several run-ins with law enforcement in recent years, most recently in 2016, mostly for misdemeanors common to the homeless, such as public urination.
Dickens’ sister, Diane Keaton, told the Register her mother hired a private investigator who could not find him. After family members confirmed Dickens had died, they assumed county officials had buried him because he was indigent.
“We were never told about a body mix-up,” Keaton said last year, adding she learned from news reports he had been mistakenly buried. I just did my homework and figured it out.”
However, the story gets even stranger: Kerrigan’s family also alleges in the lawsuit that they believe the body found behind the Verizon store was neither Kerrigan nor Dickens.
The man found behind the Verizon store was listed as weighing 250 pounds, according to a report by the Fountain Valley Fire Department obtained by attorneys representing the Kerrigan family and provided to The Associated Press.
Both Kerrigan and Dickens weighed about 170 pounds, the Register reports, and the body that the Kerrigan family buried matched that size, said James DeSimone, the attorney representing the family.
A wheelchair was also found next to the body, according to a second police report obtained by the Register, and neither Kerrigan nor Dickens used a wheelchair.
The coroner’s office “did not want to admit to their identification error and instead released a body that resembled Frankie with the belief that no one would care because the deceased were mentally ill and/or homeless,” according to the lawsuit.
“There’s no logical explanation other than a cover-up,” Carole Meikle, Kerrigan’s sister, said Tuesday. “It doesn’t add up. The pieces don’t fit.”
More important than possible monetary damages, Kerrigan’s father said the family wants answers.
“Something went way, way wrong and we need to get to the bottom of it, period,” he said. “It’s just not right. It wasn’t right for my son. It wasn’t right for other people’s sons and loved ones.”
O.C. spokeswoman Carrie Braun said she can’t comment on pending litigation but that the sheriff’s department is conducting an internal investigation.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)