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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

Charlie Nunez, 37, who owns a party supply store at Van Nuys and Foothill boulevards, also chatted with him.

“I gave him socks, shirts, my 12-year-old son’s clothes,” Nunez said.

The detectives were excited about the case’s new direction — but they soon realized that even though many people in the area knew the man, none seemed to know his name or where he was from.

“A lot of people seemed to have had some sort of contact with him,” Martinez said. “But they didn’t try to establish a name. It’s almost as if they shunned that connection.”

Duarte now wishes he had asked the man his name. “I didn’t want to infringe too quickly,” he explained. “I just wanted to let him know he had a friend. That’s the kind of relationship we had.”

Today, the remains of John Doe #214 are in cold storage in the county coroner’s office, sealed in a plastic bag. A small tag bears the case number and place-holder name. Though most bodies occupy a full metal tray, the remains of John Doe #214 take up only half.

His case recently took on new life with the discovery of a clue at a small recycling center less than half a mile from the campsite.

Wilmer De Leon, 31, an employee at Leo’s Recycling Inc., said he got to know a homeless Asian man fairly well because he would often drop off recyclables there.

De Leon, who no longer works at the center, said the man told him he had come from Vietnam many years ago and had been in California for only four years. He also told him he had no family in the area. The man would often read a newspaper while De Leon worked, occasionally approaching him to point out articles about Vietnam.

De Leon said he didn’t know the man’s name by memory but could identify his signature. He said customers were required to sign a sheet before collecting their money, he said. The sheets were kept by the recycling center’s owner, Brigida Rios.

“We are certain we have his name,” Rios told a Times reporter recently. “There are a few customers that come to the same place. You know they go to different recycling centers, but this man came almost every day.”

A search through hundreds of sign-in sheets turned up this name: Hon W. Pan.

De Leon confirmed the man’s name and signature.

It appeared investigators could finally close the case.

But after running the name through local, state and national databases, investigators and coroner officials said they came up with nothing to link the new name to John Doe #214’s remains. Not relatives, not dental records, not anything. Immigration officials said a name without a birth date or registration number would yield nothing on their end. And now, investigators say, they aren’t even sure of the man’s race.

Hearing the news over the phone, Rios said she couldn’t believe it. “It’s so sad he had to die this way,” she said.

In the meantime, De Leon said he has stopped wondering about the fate of his homeless friend.

“I know it was him who died there,” De Leon said. “He never came back.”