Unclaimed souls: WW2 vets, Holocaust survivors, murder victims
After six years of service in the U.S. Army, Leo Murphy might be buried in a veterans cemetery. Yet, his cremated remains sit on a shelf in the Bucks County morgue.
The name Margot Kowalski appears on a Nazi list of Jews whose citizenship was revoked under Adolf Hitler, while other records, supplied by the Burlington County Medical Examiner’s office, suggest she was buried in 2003 in an unmarked grave.
Alejandro Guerra was brutally stabbed in a public park in Norristown, according to news reports. Lori Sheridan, of Pottstown, was murdered with a shotgun blast to the abdomen, officials said. Todd Donohue, of Plymouth, was hit so hard by a Pontiac Sunfire that it left hemorrhaging in his brain, and fractured his spine and pelvis, according to police.
None got a funeral.
Casimir Shynkaruk came to America aboard the U.S.S. General R. M. Blatchford, a ship carrying Polish refugees to the U.S. as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe. A passenger manifest in the National Archives shows Shynkaruk entered the United States at age 11.
At age 60, he died in Bensalem, and 20 years later his cremated remains are sitting in the Bucks County coroner's office.
These are just some of the stories of the unclaimed dead — the physical remains of men, women and children — sitting on crowded shelves in county coroners’ offices in Bucks and Montgomery counties or laid to rest in unmarked graves in Burlington County.
Each has a story to tell. This news organization set about to tell those stories, going through old newspaper clippings, the National Archives, military records, phone directories, the Social Security Death Index, the U.S. Census, and voter registration data.
The Mercer Museum of Doylestown Borough provided free, unlimited access to its "vault," a temperature-controlled depository containing hundreds of thousands of materials, including photos from school yearbooks dating back nearly a century.
Despite all that data, the search was complicated, at best.
In some cases, names of deceased were misspelled in morgue records.
The U.S. Social Security Death Index, a master list of more than 83 million deceased Americans, is available only for persons who died through the year 2013. So, anyone who passed away after that date could not be confirmed as deceased via the federal government records.
SSDI records contain Social Security numbers, names, dates of birth, and dates of death for each person. Yet, the Social Security Administration says it can't "guarantee the veracity" of its files. Some who are dead aren't listed in the records, and "the absence of a particular person is not proof this person is alive."
Marriage also complicates things. Last names often change when women marry so birth certificates don’t always match death certificates.
Such was the case with Margot Kowalski, of Riverton, who became Margot Ashman in November 1967, according to Social Security Administration records. Those same documents list her father as Johann Kowalski, and that name appears on yet another list — the Holocaust Survivors and Victims database maintained by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In Burlington County, she lies in a potter's field that goes largely unnoticed to the passing motorists on County Route 530 in Pemberton Township. A dirt road leads to a field of grass blocked by a single black chain and six orange cones. Two metal posts, each about the size of a stop sign, read "County Cemetery: No Trespassing."
Individual graves are unmarked.
In Montgomery County, officials keep cremated remains in boxes and canned receptacles. Some cans are dented. Notes of identification are fading with time.
In Bucks County, officials refused to allow reporters access to the room where nearly 200 cremated remains are stored.
Veterans in storage
The remains of at least four people in storage at local morgues belong to U.S. veterans, records show.
On Montgomery County's list of unclaimed dead, World War II veteran Leroy Bortner and his wife, Lucille, are entitled to military burial in a veterans cemetery. Yet, they sit in the Montgomery County morgue.
Bortner served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. According to a World War II veterans compensation application, he spent 32 months overseas and nine months in domestic service.
Montgomery County said it also had the cremated remains of a Benjamin Harrison, who died Dec. 16, 2009. Records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show a Benjamin Harrison, born May 9, 1958 and dead Dec. 16, 2009. According to Veterans Affairs, Harrison served in the U.S. Army from Aug. 16, 1977, to July 18, 1978.
Bucks County's list of unclaimed dead includes Jack Foust, who died on Aug. 29, 2007, according to Bucks County records. The U.S. Social Security Death Index lists him as “Jack Allison Foust,” born May 25, 1927, and dead Aug. 29, 2007.
That name and birthday match a World War II registration card and World War II veterans compensation application form. The application shows Foust spent nine months in U.S. military service, beginning Oct. 21, 1945.
Murphy is also in the morgue after serving in the U.S. Army from August 1977 to November 1983, according to a Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem Death File provided via the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He died at age 52, records show. By that time, he was homeless and living in the woods in Bristol Township.
Are other vets in storage? Possibly.
John McClintock is a common name. It appears on Bucks County's list of unclaimed dead. The county says he died Jan. 7, 2013, in Bensalem.
The Social Security Death Index lists the name as “John M. McClintock.” And, a “John M. McClintock” from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, appears in military records dated Aug. 6, 1947, to July 6, 1952.
Did Eugene Gorski, another unclaimed soul, serve in the Pacific during World War II?
Gorski appears on Bucks County’s list of unclaimed dead. He passed away in 2010 in Bensalem, according to the county. A search of old phone books shows a person named “Eugene J. Gorski” living at the Regency Apartments in Bensalem.
A “Eugene J. Gorski” appears on an April 4, 1946, muster roll for the crew of the U.S.S. Stag, a tanker dispatched to the South Pacific during World War II.
Some of the unclaimed dead were first-generation Americans or came here as migrant workers.
Responding to a right-to-know request, Burlington County released its list of names, dates of death, and burial information for all persons interred by the government since 1982.
Some were listed as “Unknown,” “Unknown Female,” or simply as “Body Parts.” In at least two cases, names were misspelled.
For example, Burlington County said it buried Gabriel Noe and “Hosea Ganzalez” in unmarked graves in 2003. A search of federal court records from that time shows two men — Gabriel Noe and Jose Gonzalez — killed on the job in Burlington County in 2002.
According to federal investigators, the pair came from Guatemala, seeking work on New Jersey farms. They were placed in the back of a 1988 Ford van that clipped a utility pole, throwing several workers from the vehicle, and leaving three men dead.
Following that incident, a farmer from Chesterfield paid $25,000 to the federal government, investigators said. One of the deceased, identified as Adan Chacha Chaga, was flown by the Mexican Consulate to his home state of Veracruz, investigators said.
It’s unknown whether any of Gonzalez's or Noe's relatives, then living in Guatemala, were ever notified of their deaths. Records show they were buried in Burlington County on Jan. 8, 2003, four months after they were killed.
Another unusual name on Burlington's list was “Patris Smirnous” with a date of death listed as June 29, 2005. That name could not be found anywhere in government records.
However, the Social Security Death Index lists a Patrick Smirnovs, who lived in Maple Shade and also died June 29, 2005. According to his application for Social Security benefits, Smirnovs was born in 1938 and immigrated to the U.S. from Russia.
For Smirnovs, no other information could be found.
In some cases, the unclaimed dead may never be known. Perhaps, they didn't want to be be known, officials speculate.
For example, who was Max Vondennaker? Bucks County said it has no idea.
According to county records, someone calling himself “Max Vondennaker” died in New Hope in 2007. He was cremated and his remains have been in the Bucks County morgue for 12 years, officials said.
Vondennaker isn’t listed in the Social Security Death Index. No one with the last name “Vondennaker” could be located anywhere in any birth, census, marriage, phone book, property, school yearbooks, or voter records, either.
“It’s possible this was not the man’s real name,” said Joseph Campbell, Bucks County coroner. “Maybe, someone moved to Bucks County and did not want to be found.”
Tragedy upon tragedy
In some cases, there can be no one left to claim the deceased.
On March 18, 1994, Lane Schmidt, and his wife, Brenna, took a stroll down South Union Street in Lambertville, New Jersey. The couple caught the eye of local news photographer from the Hunterdon Observer, which published images of the happy family.
Brenna Schmidt made the newspapers six years later and under much different circumstances. In January 2001, she was struck and killed by a driver on New Falls Road in Middletown, officials said.
Three years later, Lane Schmidt died, according to the Bucks County coroner's office, which said he was living in Levittown and passed away May 4, 2004. Nearly 16 years later, he remains in the county morgue, records show.
Giving up "Gypsy"
Andrea Tonti had few cherished possessions. But one was priceless: a beagle named “Gypsy.”
In 2009, Tonti was featured in a Trentonian news article on homelessness. At the time, Tonti, a native of Mercer County, was living in her car.
According to the story, Tonti was provided an apartment by the Mercer County Board of Social Services. But when the landlord discovered Tonti's dog, she chose homelessness with her dog.
According to the Bucks County records, Tonti passed away in Bristol Township in 2013, and she's been sitting in the Bucks County morgue ever since.
"I couldn't part with my dog," she told reporters back in 2009. "I love that dog."
In still more cases, families were contacted, officials said, yet, the dead remain unclaimed.
Such could be the case with Charles Bartholomew, who lived and died alone in 2014. The 57-year-old was found dead in his Perkasie apartment, after neighbors called police. At that time, Perkasie Police Chief Stephen Hillias told reporters that Bartholomew had family who lived out west, and that he'd died of natural causes.
Hillias earlier this year said he was shocked to learn Bartholomew was still sitting in the morgue.
At the newspaper's request, Perkasie's police chief pulled Bartholomew's case file.
“When a death is determined to be natural causes, we deferred to the coroner's office," he said. "But we had reached out and talked to the family and relayed all of that information.
"We did reach out to the family, that very day," Hillias insisted. “But, sometimes, I guess families just don’t respond the way you might expect them to respond.”