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More Than One Year Later, Fire Victim Remains Unidentified

More Than One Year Later, Fire Victim Remains Unidentified

Wilmer De Leon, 31, a former recycling center employee, looks at the site near the 210 and 118 freeways where a homeless man he believes he was acquainted with died in the Marek fire. [Los Angeles Time]

Los Angeles Times via YellowBrix

March 15, 2010

LOS ANGELES – Halfway up an embankment, below the junction of the 210 and 118 freeways, lay the charcoal remains of a man’s life: charred newspapers and encyclopedias, a seared carpet, food cans popped open by intense heat.

It was more than a year ago that gusty winds drove a wildfire from the canyons above Sylmar and down to the freeway connector, where it destroyed a small encampment. After the flames subsided, firefighters discovered the burned bodies of a man and a dog.

The man’s body was taken to the Los Angeles County morgue. Since the corpse lacked identification, officials gave it a place-holder name: John Doe #214.

At the time, investigators were confident they would quickly identify the man. Many merchants in the working-class area of the northeastern San Fernando Valley said they believed he was a widely known homeless man who dressed in fatigues. They described him as well-mannered and timid, yet friendly. He mostly wandered the area in search of recyclables, they said.

But the investigators’ early confidence soon turned to confusion and frustration.Now, almost a year and a half later, John Doe #214 remains unidentified.

“We’re at a standstill,” said Det. Jose Martinez of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Foothill Division. “It’s unfortunate from a human standpoint.”

The small wooden shanty was well-hidden by trees and large bushes. Although it was close to bustling Paxton Street and Foothill Boulevard, few passersby ever noticed it.

In the aftermath of the Marek fire, which broke out in the Angeles National Forest on Oct. 12, 2008, firefighters determined that John Doe #214 and his dog were killed when embers landed on their campsite. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

An autopsy found the man probably died of smoke inhalation, but the inquest offered few clues to his identity. His skull was too burned and misshapen by the heat to permit a facial reconstruction, and his skin was too charred to reveal tattoos or even fingerprints. His teeth offered only a slight hope of identification.

A week later, Martinez and his partner, Det. Josh Byers, began the task of determining John Doe #214’s name. They drove to Sylmar and interviewed commuters, liquor store owners, residents and workers at a recycling center. Had they ever seen a transient with a dog who stopped showing up after the fire?

At first, the trail was hot with leads. Numerous people said they knew of a homeless man in the area. Some even said he had a dog.

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