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Effort To ID John Doe On Life Support In San Diego County May Pay Off

Photo credit: Brad Racino

An unidentified man, known only as 66 Garage, is shown at the Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility where he lives, Feb. 5, 2015.

Photo by Joanne Faryon / inewsource

Ed Kirkpatrick, the director of Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility, looks at the file he's complied on 66 Garage.

An unlikely alliance of elected officials, border enforcement, the Mexican Consulate and others have banded together to find the true identity of a John Doe on life support.

An unlikely alliance of elected officials, border enforcement, the Mexican Consulate and others have banded together to find the true identity of 66 Garage, a John Doe who has been on life support for 15 years in a Coronado nursing home.

They were brought together by Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, a migrant advocacy group. Morones asked a spectrum of people and their agencies for help after an inewsource interview about Garage in May.

“We put this team together because we wanted to resolve this issue to find out who 66 Garage is,” Morones said.

Their efforts have led to another DNA test, with results expected any day.

66 Garage, the random name he was given when he arrived at the UCSD Trauma Center in 1999, has both a feeding and breathing tube. He can’t walk or talk. No one knows his real age - but he doesn’t look much older than 30.

He was likely a teenager when he was injured in a crash near the Mexico-U.S. border. Many involved in his case believe Garage was attempting to cross into the U.S. when the van he was traveling in rolled and he was thrown from the passenger window.

After spending a year in the hospital, he was transferred to the Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility where he has lived ever since.

inewsource began telling Garage’s story nearly a year ago. More than a dozen families came forward, hoping he might be their missing son or brother.

None were a match.

But there is renewed optimism. This time, they have a name.

The alliance

A few days after the inewsource interview, Morones was in Washington D.C. meeting with Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. He told him about Garage. Fisher agreed to help.

Congressman Juan Vargas, a Democrat whose district extends from the most southwesterly corner of San Diego County all the way to the outer edges of Imperial Valley, also got involved. One of his employees reached out to the union representing Border Patrol agents. That’s when Chris Harris, the lead union representative for Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, joined the group.

State Senator Ben Hueso, also a Democrat; the Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego; Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute; and Ed Kirkpatrick, director of the Villa Coronado nursing home, were also key players as the group moved forward with a plan to finally give Garage his name back.

They talked about launching a public awareness campaign in Mexico, with Garage’s picture. They had plans to make a public records request to obtain the original accident report.

But first, they decided to ask a forensics team from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to gather Garage’s biometrics - his fingerprints, facial scans, and other physical information.

The agents agreed the information was being gathered in a “humanitarian” effort rather than for enforcement purposes, said Harris, who was instrumental in getting the forensics team into the nursing home.

They ran the scans through Customs and Border Protection’s database.

“They made a match with somebody we had contact with in the past 15 years ago,” Harris said. “Shows what can be done when different groups come together."

With the help of Mexican officials, a relative of the person identified in the database was located in Mexico. Their DNA is now being compared to Garage’s.

“I feel more optimistic (with) the interest, the help, the support, the involvement from everybody,” Kirkpatrick said.

But his optimism is tempered. Other families have been certain Garage was their missing family member and have been mistaken.

“The only way we’re going to do confirmation on this is DNA analysis. And that is the only way,” Kirkpatrick said.

Garage’s care, about $700 a day, is paid for by Medi-Cal, the state program for the sick and poor.

If Garage is identified and he is not a legal resident, there are provisions in state policy that allow the state to continue to pay for long-term care for people in the state illegally, a government official told inewsource last year.

The Border Patrol reports that hundreds of migrants are found dead every year along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Many are never identified, according to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Arizona. The center attempts to identify remains and reunite them with families.

A report last year by the International Organization for Migration estimated there were 6,029 deaths at the border between 1998 and 2013.

Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute, said as many as 10,000 families have “lost” people to the border over the past two decades.

“Think of all those people and what the experience is like for their families,” Meade said.

“They just disappeared.”

Why so long?

Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the border were at an all-time high at the time of Garage’s accident, Meade said.

“They were arresting lots of people. It was chaotic,” he said, offering some explanation as to why border officials would not have tried to track down Garage’s identity when he was first injured.

“When he came, there was a crush of people coming.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: University of San Diego School of Peace Studies, Trans-Border Institute

This graph shows an overall decline in Border Patrol apprehensions between the 2000s and 2010.

Not long after, in 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was dismantled and absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security, an agency with a focus on security and secrecy, Meade said, making it more difficult to investigate a case like Garage’s.

And finally, “no one was asking,” he said.

For Morones, Garage’s case was personal. His father died at the hospital across the street from Villa Coronado. In his father’s final days, Morones recalls visiting a friend’s wife in the nursing home, just down the hall from Garage. Knowing Garage has lived there all that time, with no family by his side, made an impression on Morones.

He’s also hoping this case will generate more community interest in trying to help other families locate missing relatives. Both Meade and Harris have signed on to the effort.

“I’m a family man,” Harris said.“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a daughter or son missing 15 years and not know what happened to them.”

“It’s good to be a part of a humanitarian effort.”

Congressman Vargas has also committed to finding closure for Garage and his family.

“We will not rest until we reunite this man with his loved ones and the world can, once again, call him by his real name,” Vargas said in an email statement.

KPBS' Patty Lane and Amita Sharma contributed to the Evening Edition segment of this story.

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