Top Cops Say “Sorry” To Dead Man’s Family
by Paul Bass & Thomas MacMillan | Aug 2, 2012 8:47 am
Posted to: Legal Writes
A desk officer blew off worried relatives. The medical examiner got the age wrong—way wrong. Detectives never received the right photos.
Those initial explanations suggest why it took two months for Mutalib “Bobby” Bello’s family to learn that police had fished his corpse out of the West River.
And why the family had to make the discovery on its own.
Bello’s birthday and name were clearly tattooed on his corpse. But because of some apparent mishaps, the police never succeeded in identifying him despite pleas and descriptions from the family.
The police—who launched a review of the case after the Independent reported about it in this July 27 story—acknowledged those errors Wednesday as it continued its high-level review of the case. It issued a public apology for the delay in identifying the body.
Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso and chief of detectives Sgt. Al Vazquez delivered that apology in person Monday night when they visited the Westville home of Bello’s mother, Susan Bello.
“We sat down and talked to her. We gave our condolences over her loss. We apologized over the delay in identification,” Generoso said Wednesday. “I assured her there was no malice. We’re just continuing our investigation. We’re waiting for the final reports from the [state medical examiner’s] office.”
Police Chief Dean Esserman also phoned the family to convey the same message.
The family could not be reached for comment Wednesday. (They spoke extensively about the case last week for this story.)
Police pulled Mutalib Bello’s body out of the West River on May 18.
They didn’t know it was Bello at the time. They didn’t whose body it was.
The body had tattoos on it. But it had apparently been in the water for a while; it was bloated that day, the tattoos indecipherable.
Police took photos of the body at the time with the indecipherable markings. Sgt. Vasquez said that cops didn’t remove any clothing and didn’t therefore take pictures of tattoos on Bello’s torso. Bello had his last name tattooed in large letters below his navel.
Then the body went up to the state medical examiner’s office in Farmington. That office performed an autopsy on May 19 and took a second set of photos, according to staff investigator Nick Delauri.
The medical examiner’s office told local cops that the victim was probably between 30 and 50 years old, according to police spokesman Officer Dave Hartman. (Bello was in fact only 18 when he died.)
Cops gave Bello’s family that erroneous age range when it inquired about the body.
The family first tried to file a missing person’s report on May 13, three days after he went missing. A desk officer told them it would be a waste of time because young men go missing all the time.
When family members heard about a body being pulled out of the river with tattoos on it, they were convinced the body was Bello’s. Only after they threatened to sue the cops on May 22 did an officer come to take a missing-person report, they said. Family members described all of Bello’s tattoos, but the officer never got back to them, according to the family.
They kept calling the cops; an officer subsequently assured them the body couldn’t be Bobby’s because it belonged to someone much older.
Bobby’s sister, Aisha Stedford (pictured), put up posters asking for help in finding Bobby, who moved with his family from Nigeria in 1999. Someone who saw the poster contacted her and told her about a website, funded by the U.S. Justice Department, that publishes photos of unidentified people. There Stedford found photos of the corpse retrieved from the river—with clearly visible tattoos showing Bobby’s name and birthdate. (Delauri said the medical examiner’s office regularly sends photos to the group that runs that website.)
How could police not have seen those same tattoos?
Because of an internal mix-up, according to Assistant Chief Generoso. The department’s Bureau of Identification took photos of the body the day it was retrieved from the river, when the tattoos were indecipherable, he said. Subsequently, a second set of photos was taken at the morgue showing the tattoos more clearly.
Members of the bureau prepared a disk to forward all the photos to the detectives investigating the case. They intended to include both sets of photos, Generoso said.
“When they wrote it in onto a disk, [the second batch] didn’t load,” Generoso said. “The technician thought they had loaded both the scene photos and the autopsy photos. But the autopsy photos weren’t loaded.”
“They weren’t mistakes due to ignoring the issues. They weren’t mistakes that were made because nobody was actively investigating something,” police spokesman Officer David Hartman said. “It was an issue of connecting the dots.”
Only July 16, Stedford visited Farmington and identified her brother’s body. The police officially identified the victim on July 17, two months after the body’s was pulled from the river.
“The Police Department acknowledges the identification of the deceased should have been more timely, and for that has expressed its apologies to the family,” the department stated in an official release Wednesday.
Meanwhile, two probes are proceeding.
One is an internal review of what went wrong in identifying the body. “There apparently were a series of mistakes that need to be addressed,” Chief Esserman said Wednesday. “The entire matter is under review.”
The second review is into Bello’s death itself. At this point police and medical examiner have found no signs of foul play. It appears Bello drowned. But no final determinations have been made. Carlos Roman is the lead detective in the investigation.
“We have to determine how he died, if in fact it was drowning,” Generoso said. “The family gave us names of associates and friends. We’re going through the procedure as we do with any kind of investigation of this nature.”
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What’s with this and other media showing decaying flesh and dead bodies in articles now? How often are we to expect such displays? I am neither for or against it, per se, but I wanted to ask the question anyway. Thanks.
Also—- In all honesty—- what a handsome young man he was! I’m sure girls thought he was cute.
I am very sorry to the family. They certainly deserve a lot more than an apology for the anguish they went through.
Even if this is not “soft bigotry” on behalf of the City (it’s likely that it is, by the way) it is gross incompetence, and everyone knows it.