The police found his body, and the medical examiner autopsied it, but no one ever told Monica Taylor-Clowney her husband was dead
“We were about to go to a basketball game,” Monica Taylor-Clowney remembers. “He didn’t come back; we didn’t go to the game.”
It would be more than four years before Taylor-Clowney discovered what became of her husband, who she’d been married to for eight years. When she finally did find out earlier this year, she became angry. Wilbert Clowney died soon after leaving the house on that summer day, and Baltimore Police officers found his decomposing body soon after.
Although Clowney’s body was found with two forms of identification, and although the body was taken to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, where it was autopsied and put in cold storage, no one from the police department or the Medical Examiner’s Office called Taylor-Clowney to tell her about her husband. The medical examiner says the police should have done that. The police are not talking about it to City Paper, citing pending litigation.
“I say, ‘Why are both y’all pointing the finger at each other?’” Taylor-Clowney says.
She says she wants to sue the Medical Examiner’s Office. Her lawyer, Mitchell D. Treger of the law offices of A. Dwight Pettit, filed a precursor to a lawsuit, called a Notice of Claim, on Dec. 1. The claim holds the city, the police department, the two officers who found Clowney’s body, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, and the state of Maryland responsible for “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” It seeks $1.5 million.
Dr. David Fowler, chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland, says such a suit would be misguided: “Identification is actually the responsibility of the law-enforcement agency,” he says.
Each year, the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office receives about 10 bodies that are never identified, Fowler says. There are more than 5,000 unidentified bodies in the United States today, according to DoeNetwork.org, a web site that helps police match missing person’s reports to unidentified bodies.
In Maryland, Fowler’s office determines a cause of death and reports that to police. “We can tell them whether they were male or female,” he says. “We can tell them whether or not they have had surgical procedures in the past.”
But identification and notification of next of kin is a police matter, Fowler says.
The Baltimore Police Department declined to comment for this story. “I have an idea of what might have happened,” police spokesman Donny Moses says when told of the Clowney case. “But I won’t speculate.”
According to documents Taylor-Clowney collected regarding her husband’s case, Wilbert probably died soon after he left their rowhouse on the 1200 block of Ostend Street in Southwest Baltimore. A police report says officers found Clowney’s body on a mattress on the third floor of a vacant building on Franklin Street on Aug. 4, 2000. The face was decomposed, but next to the body was a bag of drug paraphernalia and a wallet containing Clowney’s Maryland Department of Social Services ID card and a Maryland Transit Administration photo ID fare card issued to people with disabilities.
“No signs of foul play,” the report says. Police shipped the body to the Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy.
The Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death was a heart attack.
“He had bladder cancer and a bad heart,” Taylor-Clowney says. “My husband knew he was sick; he didn’t tell me. I’d took him to the doctors and I made the mistake of not going in with him. He—not to worry me, he tried to take things in his own hands. He wanted to be in control of any situation that he didn’t think I could handle.”
“When I met him I was 8 years old, and I called him ‘Mr. David,’” recalls stepdaughter Mondel Richardson. “‘Don’t call me that! That makes me feel old!’ Everyone called him David. He was a downtowner. True downtowner.”
“We got married on his birthday,” Taylor-Clowney says. “We walked all the way through Lexington Market,” and got in a white limousine.
Clowney “had a drug problem,” his wife acknowledges. He had scars; Taylor-Clowney says Wilbert had been shot once back in the 1970s.
An autopsy report says that at the time of his death Clowney’s 5-foot-11 body weighed 106 pounds—down from about 170, Taylor-Clowney says. Despite the photo identification, decomposition made a positive ID impossible, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office. They assigned Clowney’s body a number: 00-204.
As that was going on in August 2000, Taylor-Clowney was becoming worried. Wilbert often left home for days at a time, but he always returned. She says she tried to file a missing-persons report with Baltimore Police in early July, but officers told her to wait a few days in case he returned on his own. She waited almost two months.
Finally, on Aug. 25, Taylor-Clowney filed the missing-person’s report with city police. “They told me they would put his name into some kind of a—put his name into all the districts, if something comes up,” she says.
Nothing did. But authorities stayed in touch. In November 2000, the Medical Examiner’s Office called Taylor-Clowney.
“We have a man matching his description,” she says they told her. “So I went down with couple family members. They showed me a photo of a black gentleman. It was not of my husband.”
Taylor-Clowney says she was relieved. A month after that a city police officer called to ask her if Wilbert had returned home. They said they’d continue to look for him. In 2001 the medical examiner called Clowney in to look at another photo of another dead, unidentified black man, also not her husband.
Knowing that her husband had family in North Carolina, Taylor-Clowney wondered if he’d gone there. “I was thinking maybe he was upset about something and he’d be there and we’d hear from them,” she says. “And we didn’t.”
Mondel Richardson says she remembers a visit from city police officers looking for her stepfather in 2002.
“They came here asking for him,” she says, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s row house. “They said he has a ‘body attachment warrant’ for failure to appear at a court date. I said he’s not here—he’s been missing for two years.”
By this time, under state law, Wilbert Clowney’s body should have been dissected by medical students and then cremated by the Maryland Anatomy Board, which buries the ashes in a mass grave at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, says Ronn Wade, the board’s executive director.
Founded in 1949, the Anatomy Board—part of the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene—receives about 1,200 bodies a year, most of them donated. Unclaimed and unidentified bodies are supposed to go the board no more than three days after the medical examiner determines a cause of death, Wade says, but to his annoyance that doesn’t always happen. “If it’s an unclaimed body and then there are some extenuating circumstances,” Wade says, “it is the practice of the medical examiner to hold those bodies for an extended period of time—contrary to Maryland law.”
Wade checks records and says his office did not bury Clowney’s remains, though it must have cremated them since “the medical examiner does not do cremations.”
So by 2002, all that remained of Wilbert Clowney were some ashes in a plastic box and a file at the Medical Examiner’s Office, with photos of the body, X-rays, (possibly) fingerprints, a physical description, and a tissue sample, Fowler says.
“The State Anatomy Board will store a body for a year,” Fowler says. “They get these bodies after we have exhausted all possibilities, usually [after] three weeks.
“They have a statutory authority—anybody not claimed after three days legally belongs to them,” he continues. “[But] they give us a certain latitude on that because we’re working on the identification.”
Taylor-Clowney had no idea what had happened to her husband when she was called to serve on a grand jury in the spring of 2004. It had been nearly four years since he had disappeared, and police and the medical examiner had not contacted her for two years.
While serving on the jury, Taylor-Clowney met detective William Ritz, a veteran of the Baltimore Police Department’s Cold Case squad, and she asked him for help in solving the mystery of her husband’s disappearance. “God put him there for me,” she says of Ritz.
Ritz, Taylor-Clowney says, looked into Wilbert’s disappearance over two months, from May until July, when he told Taylor-Clowney he could think of only one last possible place—the Medical Examiner’s Office under John Doe.
Ritz brought Taylor-Clowney her husband’s file shortly thereafter. “The way detective Ritz talked, my husband’s missing-person report didn’t go centralized, it stayed only in the Southern [Police] District,” Taylor-Clowney says. “But I don’t know how that could have happened.”
Ritz declined to comment about the case.
Taylor-Clowney says she called the medical examiner as soon as Ritz gave her the information. She wanted her husband’s remains, but she says a staff person at the Medical Examiner’s Office was unsympathetic: “I said, ‘You have his body still.’ They said, ‘What do you mean, body?’ They cremated [him] a month after they found him. So I said, ‘How am I going to claim him if I don’t know he’s there?’”
Taylor-Clowney had to identify her husband from the file that the medical examiner kept. “And I had to sign,” she says. “My dad and I went with a family photo of myself and my daughter. They couldn’t tell if it was him or not. So I had to petition University [of Maryland] hospital for the medical records. . . . I got pulled and pushed around a bit there. Finally, they released his remains to me.”
Taylor-Clowney says the family has had a difficult year. “Just last year I lost my aunt, my grandmother, mom, and my brother, and I thought I couldn’t take no more, but then” she found out what became of her husband.
The family held a memorial service on Aug. 20, 2004, which would have been Wilbert’s 53rd birthday. His ashes sit atop the refrigerator in the kitchen.
“We decided to hold onto them until I’m comfortable,” Taylor-Clowney says. “Because it had been so long since he had been home.”
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