Despite Tattoos & Pleas, Body Lay In Morgue
by Thomas MacMillan | Jul 27, 2012 2:35 pm
Posted to: Legal Writes
When an 18-year-old man’s body washed ashore near the Boulevard, it had his last name tattooed on the stomach, his birthday written on the wrist, his parents’ initials on the shoulder. But for two long months the police couldn’t identify him—until the man’s desperate sister came across pictures of his body online.
Mutalib “Bobby” Bello was pulled out of the West River on May 18. His identity was officially unknown until a July 17 announcement by the police department.
In the meantime, Bello’s family has been through “hell,” said his sister Aisha Stedford. She said the family got the brush off from police as it sought information.
Stedford scoured the city looking for Bello while his mother sat by the window of her home desperately waiting for him to return. The family said it filed a missing persons report with the police, describing Bello in detail, including all his distinctive tattoos.
Cops still didn’t put the pieces together until Stedford did it herself, using an online database of unidentified bodies.
The experience has left the family outraged, wondering what went wrong to allow 18-year-old Bello to sit for two months in a morgue, even after the police had a detailed description of him.
“The police department is in the preliminary stages of investigating the handling of this incident,” Lt. Jeff Hoffman said after learning of the complaints from the Independent on Wednesday.
“We did everything humanly possible to identify that body,” said Sgt. Al Vasquez, who oversees the department’s detective division. The body was in a “heavy state of decay” when it was pulled from the West River on May 18, Vasquez said. It was impossible to take fingerprints, he said.
“I don’t know why there was a delay,” he said of the family’s nearly two-month wait to discover Bello fate.
The state medical examiner has still not determined a cause of death.
Searching For Bobby Bello
In an interview this week in the living room of her mother’s Westville home, Stedford, who’s 24, described what her family went through in the last two months, starting from the moment her little brother walked out the door on May 10.
In an adjoining room, extended family members were packing up to return to Texas after attending Bello’s memorial service this past weekend. Stedford wiped the lip gloss remnants off a poster-size photo of Bello that was leaning against the wall. Everyone in the family kisses “Bobby” upon waking in the morning, Stedford said.
In 1999, Bobby moved from Nigeria to the United States with his mom and two older sisters. He was a “goofy” and “free-spirited” guy, a peacemaker who never made trouble, Stedford said. He was an aspiring musician who loved to dance, she said. He had no criminal record, according to a state database.
On May 10, he went missing. Stedford, who lives in Hamden but was at her mom’s house that night, remembers the last time he walked out of the house, to meet someone who came to pick him up. She said she doesn’t know where he was going or with whom he left. But he never came back.
Stedford said the family knew something was wrong when he didn’t call. She said he always called if he was staying overnight away from home.
The family started to call his friends the next day. They called hospitals. “We went looking for him,” Stedford said.
On May 13, Mothers’ Day, Stedford went down to the police station to file a missing-person report. She said the sergeant on duty refused to take it. She said the cop told her that teenagers like Bello run away often and usually turn up soon.
“So we left,” Stedford said.
Hints On TV
She and her family kept looking for Bello. Stedford said she talked to all his friends, visited neighborhoods where the family used to live, even went out in the woods calling his name.
On May 18, she was at work at AAA Pizza on Whalley Avenue when she saw on TV that cops were pulling a body from the river. She heard the man had “distinctive tattoos” and “unique jewelry.” She turned to her boss and said it must be her brother.
Stedford said she called police that same day and asked to see the body. She was told she’d have to wait a few days because the body was swollen, she said.
By May 22, Stedford said, the family couldn’t take it anymore. They had called the police at least six times by then, trying to file a missing-person report, she said. At 9 a.m., she called the cops again and threatened to sue if they didn’t send over an officer to take a missing-person report.
At 4 p.m., a female officer showed up at her mom’s house, Stedford said. She and her mom described Bello in detail. They showed the officers photos of his tattoos, which Stedford’s boyfriend, the tattoo artist who inked them, also described.
In addition to his name in big letters below his navel, Bello had his birthday—“6/30/93”—tattooed on the inside of his left wrist. On his shoulder, he had stylized initials of his immediate family tattooed in a series of stars. He also had a pyramid and two hands holding a rosary on his arms.
“We told her everything,” said Bello’s mom, Susan Bello. “She was standing right there. She said, ‘I’m a mom. I know how you feel.’”
According to Stedford, the officer told the family that she would go see if Bello’s tattoos were on the body that was found in the river. “If I don’t call you back tomorrow, you have nothing to worry about,” the officer said, according to Stedford.
She never called back.
On June 3, Stedford called the police station again. She knew the number by heart by that point—946-6316. “I’ll never forget that number.”
A woman answered and told her that the body in the West River had been that of a man between 40 and 57 years old, Stedford said. “It’s not your brother, positively,” the woman told her, according to Stedford.
Stedford’s mom began to think that maybe her son was still alive and simply not coming home for some reason.
Stedford put up posters looking for him. She plastered Facebook with messages asking for information about where he was, where he was last seen.
Her mother, meanwhile, would sit all day in a chair by the window, looking out and hoping to see Bello coming home.
“Mommy was crying constantly,” Stedford said. She would say repeatedly, “Where’s my son?”
“It was hell for me,” Susan Bello said.
A Website Tip
After more than a month of searching, Stedford got a call on July 15 from a woman who had seen her posters. The woman told her about a website called the Unidentified Persons Database. The woman said the file for one unidentified body showed tattoos like her brother’s. She told Stedford to look at “Body #10295.”
“I’ll never forget that number either,” Stedford said.
She summoned the courage and called up the website on her computer. “I was shaking all over the place.”
On the website, Stedford saw pictures of Bello’s tattoos—the rosary, the name on his stomach, the birthday on his wrist. It was her brother.
“The second I seen it, I fell on the ground,” Stedford said. She called her mom. “I said, ‘Bobby’s dead.’”
With her phone, she took pictures of the computer screen and texted them to her family members. Then she called the police.
The person who answered tried to tell her to call back the next day, Stedford said. She screamed.
“You guys have been sitting on his body for two months!” she said.
She arranged to see the body the next day, July 16, in Farmington, and made the final identification of her dead brother.
With that knowledge, the family at least had some closure, Stedford said. They cremated Bello and held a memorial service for him last Saturday.
“We Want Answers”
Stedford said she still can’t understand how the police could have failed to identify her brother for two months. Even if the family hadn’t filed a missing-person report, Bello’s name was on his stomach; his birthday was on his wrist, she said. The failure to identify the body left the family to be tortured by the mystery of what happened to their son and brother.
“It was the worst two months of our lives,” Stedford said. She said the police have said they’re sorry.
“I hate that word,” she said.
“I’m just thinking, how many families are out there missing their kids and they’re sitting in the morgue.”
Another aspect of the situation that still rankles is the fact that police are not investigating the incident as a murder, Stedford said. There has been no sign of foul play, according to police. The state is waiting on the results of a toxicology test before making a final determination of a cause of death, according to the office of the state medical examiner.
“Bobby did not drown. He was an excellent swimmer,” Stedford said. “Was he murdered? Absolutely. ... I think someone tricked him out.”
“We want answers,” said Susan Bello. “We want to know what happened.”
She said she can’t help wondering if racism didn’t play a part in the way the police handled the body identification. “If it was a little white kid, he would have been identified the same day” he was pulled out, she said.
Susan said she’s lost faith in the police. “How can I trust them?” she said. “I’m so bitter.”
Tags: Mutalib Bello, West River, body, tattoos, Bobby Bello
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This sounds like a spectacular series of wrong moves by various police officers. Since when do police officers not take missing persons reports 3 days after a disappearance? Doesn’t it get significantly less likely to find a person alive the longer you wait? I don’t think that is just a TV show trope.
The ineptitude of the people who examined the tattoos and couldn’t put together the evidence of the dates and the name is hard to believe. That a police officer came to their house, collected details and still couldn’t match up the tattoos is amazing.
I have to agree that if this had been a young white woman who went missing, the uproar would have been spectacular and all of these angles would have been followed up carefully. And, without a doubt, there would have been an investigation into how she died…
posted by: streever on July 28, 2012 9:07am
How long did it take this poor family to get through to non-emergency?
This has to be fixed. I know that the city has been notified many times, but the non-emergency number is still not useful. You can’t add to a report, you can’t get information, you can’t even get someone to answer it most of the time.
I don’t think this is racism, but it is rampant incompetent by New Haven’s finest. I have called the 203-946-6316 number with serious issues, including when my car was broken into, and was brushed off. Repeatedly. It is a shame when a family has to beg for the police to take them seriously and do their job. The NHPD needs new dispatchers at the very least, and a complete department overhaul at the most. This family did everything right, and they didn’t deserve to be treated like this.
This is the most awful thing I have read in a long while. I’d say a public apology is highly in order here. Wow…
posted by: streever on July 28, 2012 1:23pm
Write Rob Smuts. Although block watches have been complaining for years, apparently, only “properly” filed complaints have any bearing.
How does one file a complaint against the non-police managed non-emergency dispatch? I’m not sure. I can’t find any information online.
It is classic bait and switch—dismiss citizens complaints about the non-emergency line, and then when the crescendo gets too loud, blame citizens for not complaining through appropriate channels.
Is there a web page that explains who to contact or complain to? No. Is the non-emergency line monitored/recorded/independently reviewed for success metrics? No.
Make no doubt—the city has failed to provide a reasonable service, and this poor family is the most extreme case of the negative impact it has.
The weird part of this is that, contrary to popular opinion, cops do like to solve crimes. The tattoos should have made this a chip shot and I can only think that some perfect storm comedy of errors led to the oversight. Nobody is that incompetent. My sympathies to the family.
Wholehearted support and condolences to this grieving family. How awfully sad ! Not only were they deprived any type of consideration or distress for their loved one they were ultimately disregarded. To the family, I encourage keeping your faith. ALSO impel the NHPD for explanations! Best Wishes
First i would like to send my condolences to the family during this horrible time. Second i have had bad experiences with NHPD when i needed services and was brushed off. Third i would like to say this is the first time i agree with all the comment one way or the other. It should not take gun shots for the police to come in my neighborhood. Well put to all the comment again.
My heart goes out to the family of this young man, especially the mother. Being a mother myself, I cannot imagine the turmoil she must have gone thru awaiting information on her child. This really was gross negligence on the part of the police dept. I pray that at some point this family will find peace.
@ Morris Cove Mom & Robn
“Incompetence” “perfect storm comedy of errors” ??
It amazes me how far down the line of explanation racism is for some people.
PH has it right. That’s the sad reality of the situation. No East Rock or Westille white family would be in this horrible situation. My heart aches for the family.
posted by: Ice The Beef on July 30, 2012 1:19pm
Ice the Beef would like to send our heartfelt condolences to the Bello family at this time. Please know that we are here for you in your time of need. Anything that we can do to help you out at this time please do not hesitate to contact us.
P.O. Box 2931, New Haven, CT 06515
Racism and incompetence are not exclusive explanations.
There should be a serious inquiry into this. I have confidence that Chief Esserman will make sure that this happens. In some jurisdictions, the Bello family would have a tort claim against the police for negligent infliction of emotional distress. A quick check of the Connecticut statutes seems to show that this might not be possible in this state, but the family should also consider this option.
This is terrible, i work with his mom…i remember day to day how positive about it she was, she thought he would come home.i look up to her for her faith!!! i remember the day we found out what happened at work…everyone was devastated…this woman is amazing and we all think about her and her family everyday!!! were supposed to be able to go to the police when we have problems…but we obviously cannot do that….things must be looked into further…she most definitely deserves atleast tht much, and because they slacked they should go extra above and beyond to find her and her family answers..so much for the police working for us huh!!!???...we love u momma sue!!<3
This story has stayed on my mind since I first heard it, and I was watching the news this morning and her it again. I’m not usually one to play the race card, but this morning my first thought was it seems the police dept just didn’t CARE that there was a young, black male laying in the city morgue for two months that hadn’t been identified by SOMEONE. That alone should have made them want to work harder at finding this young mans’ family. And to see the evidence of Bobbys’ name and birth date clearly tatooed on his body truly makes me believe the police dept just didn’t care. It’s awful for the family and I’m sure they will never look at the police dept the same again.
posted by: streever on August 2, 2012 9:05am
This story is infinitely sad, Miss E, and you absolutely should not call it “the race card”—you are naming the real systemic racism that pervades our society. It isn’t a card, or a trick—it is real. We live in a racist society.
I’m so sorry for this family still :(. I hope there is a positive resolution that comes out of the city and the board of aldermen.