(ABC News) — Eleven days after laying his son to rest, Frank J. Kerrigan got a call from a friend.
“Your son is alive,” he said.
“Bill (Shinker) put my son on the phone,” Kerrigan said. “He said ‘Hi Dad.’ “
Orange County coroner’s officials had misidentified the body, the Orange County Register reported Friday.
The mix-up began on May 6 when a man was found dead behind a Verizon store in Fountain Valley.
Kerrigan, 82, of Wildomar, said he called the coroner’s office and was told the body was that of his son, Frank M. Kerrigan, 57, who is mentally ill and had been living on the street.
When he asked whether he should identify the body, a woman said – apparently incorrectly – that identification had been made through fingerprints.
“When somebody tells me my son is dead, when they have fingerprints, I believe them,” Kerrigan said. “If he wasn’t identified by fingerprints I would been there in heartbeat.”
Frank’s sister, 56-year-old Carole Meikle of Silverado, went to the spot where he died to leave a photo of him, a candle, flowers and rosary beads.
“It was a very difficult situation for me to stand at a pretty disturbing scene. There was blood and dirty blankets,” she said.
On May 12, the family held a $20,000 funeral that drew about 50 people from as far away as Las Vegas and Washington state. Frank’s brother, John Kerrigan, gave the eulogy.
“We thought we were burying our brother,” Meikle said. “Someone else had a beautiful sendoff. It’s horrific.”
The body was interred at a cemetery in Orange about 150 feet from where Kerrigan’s wife is buried.
Earlier, in the funeral home, the grieving Kerrigan had looked at the man in the casket and touched his hair, convinced he was looking at his son for the last time. “I didn’t know what my dead son was going to look like,” he said.
Then came the May 23 phone call from Shinker. Kerrigan’s son was standing on the patio.
It was unclear how coroner’s officials misidentified the body.
Doug Easton, an attorney hired by Kerrigan, said coroner’s officials apparently weren’t able to match the corpse’s fingerprints through a law enforcement database and instead identified Kerrigan by using an old driver’s license photo.
When the family told authorities he was alive, they tried the fingerprints again and on June 1 learned they matched someone else’s, Meikle said.
Easton said the coroner’s office provided the Kerrigan family with a name of that person, but the identification hasn’t been independently confirmed. The attorney said the family plans to sue, alleging authorities didn’t properly try to identify the body as Kerrigan’s son because he is homeless.
Sheriff’s Lt. Lane Lagaret, a spokesman for the coroner’s office, said the department extends regrets to the Kerrigan family “for any emotional stress caused as a result of this unfortunate incident.”
Lagaret said in a statement Saturday that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is conducting an internal investigation into the mix-up and that all identification policies and procedures will be reviewed to ensure no misidentifications occur in the future.
The mistaken death identification led the federal government to stop disability payments for her brother, Meikle said. The family is working to restore them.
Meikle said her brother chose to return to living on the street and doesn’t understand how hard the mistake was on his family.
“We lived through our worst fear,” she said. “He was dead on the sidewalk. We buried him. Those feelings don’t go away.”