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Man killed by driver in DUI case is Tampa's latest unclaimed body

This is what detectives know about the dead man in the street:

He was walking in East Tampa two weeks ago when a car hit him head-on. He was thrown 200 feet through the cold night air. He died face down. His leg was found yards away. The driver, later found to be drunk, told police, "I just killed a man."

Aside from that, detectives know little.

He was 63. He was homeless. His family can't be found. He remains a mystery defined only by mug shots, paperwork and scratches of autopsy sketch.

Dozens of people found dead in Tampa Bay every year are never accounted for, their families gone or unsympathetic to the detectives who struggle to find them. In the last year, county medical examiners estimated the number of unclaimed bodies at 51 in Hills­borough, 43 in Pinellas and 32 in Pasco.

Next of kin occasionally are found by casing neighborhoods or checking family trees. Some say they have no funeral money. Some don't care. Others, like this man's, are never found.

"We're up to our ears in cases," said Prudencio "Prudy" Vallejo, the unclaimed bodies unit manager for the Hillsborough County medical examiner. "As many of the loose ends that are available to us, we attempt to tie a knot to them. … Thank God, a majority of our cases do have someone."

Those who don't pose a time-consuming challenge. Maj. George McNamara, commander of Tampa's criminal investigations division, said police typically use wallets and cell phones for on-scene identification.

This man had neither. Detectives printed an old jail mug shot and took it to a local Salvation Army shelter. Some there recognized the face but knew little else.

"It's very unfortunate and very frustrating," McNamara said. "People have seen him but, again, where is he from? I don't know."

During the search for answers, the driver, 38-year-old Eric Wilkerson of Brandon, was charged with DUI-manslaughter. But officers still had no clues about the victim.

Detectives and medical examiner staffers turned to databases. Hillsborough County has a checklist of resources to ensure investigators make a "reasonable effort" to find families: Social Security benefits, hospitals and nursing homes, welfare, Veterans Affairs.

But the few records that exist — bookings from the jail, addresses to halfway houses of his past — tell little about the man.

He's been called "Coot." Officers arrested him 10 times in the last five years, twice for trespassing and eight times for drinking in public. His home address is listed as "at large."

Last-ditch efforts sometimes unearth a clue, Vallejo said. Internet record centers that input Social Security numbers sometimes output things like marriage history and boating licenses. A genealogical hobby group that investigates ongoing searches for free will share details over Facebook.

The tips occasionally provide a name; other times they are a dead end.

After several more days with no response, Vallejo predicts the county will spend $406 to have the man cremated. His ashes will be archived into storage like the manila folder that holds his autopsy reports.

In a few months, if the man is still unclaimed, a plane will scatter his cremains over the Gulf of Mexico. His watery coordinates will be plotted on a map with his name, Frank James Stanberry.

On some occasions a family may see a name in the newspaper and come calling, Vallejo said. Or a friend will stumble upon the death record years later.

"That's the worst way to find out something happened to a loved one," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "But there's only so much you can do.''

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Man killed by driver in DUI case is Tampa's latest unclaimed body 02/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 12:24am]

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