Rumors of Rob Ponte’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
The 31-year-old Zappos employee was shocked Monday night to learn that investigators from the Clark County coroner’s office and Las Vegas police went inside his downtown Towne Terrace apartment after they mistook him as a suicide jumper from earlier that morning.
Ponte arrived home from work about 6:30 p.m. to find his apartment sealed with coroner’s tape. When he got inside, he noticed someone had rummaged through his drawers. And his personal belongings — including his computer — had been searched.
“They were searching for a suicide note,” Ponte said he was told the next morning. But he was very much alive, and couldn’t figure out why anyone ever thought differently.
Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said the mix-up was a “very unique situation.”
Coroner’s investigators and police were investigating a dead body found in an alley near Towne Terrace at 330 S. 7th St. when an apartment manager presented them with a copy of Ponte’s driver’s license, Murphy said.
Ponte’s photo resembled the dead man. Although the identity hadn’t been established through fingerprints or other scientific tests, investigators proceeded as if the information was correct, he said.
“Honestly, it looked like it was that guy,” Murphy said. “(The photo) was certainly close enough for us to think it was him. So we started from there.”
Towne Terrace houses Zappos and other Downtown Project employees. Rachael Yoshida, a manager at the building, acknowledged that apartment staff thought Ponte, who had lived at the building for three months, was the jumper.
“With the ID, and trying to match it with what we saw of (the jumper), it looked like him,” she said.
Detectives tried to call Ponte’s cell phone Monday morning, but he was in a meeting and missed the call. And his voicemail wasn’t working, he said.
Ponte realized something was up later that afternoon, when he received an email from Zappos human resources asking him to call a detective. He had seen the police at his apartment that morning and read news stories about the death, so he assumed police were looking for witnesses.
It’s unclear why Zappos didn’t immediately clear up the confusion about Ponte, who was clearly alive and working, or if detectives simply asked to speak to Ponte.
“Zappos was not notified by Metro that a Zappos employee was deceased. We prefer not to comment further on incidents involving our employees and instead allow them to comment should they feel compelled to,” a Zappos spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Ponte called the detective about 3 p.m., he said, but no one answered. It was about that time he started getting messages from friends who had spoken to police, he said. They were hearing rumors that Ponte was dead.
“I just wanted to tell you that I love you buddy just in case,” a friend later joked on Ponte’s Facebook page.
He didn’t speak to the detective until Tuesday morning. Police met Ponte at Zappos to confirm his identity later that day, he said.
“They explained everything to me and apologized,” he said.
Murphy said coroner’s investigators don’t need a warrant to enter someone’s home and secure the property, unlike detectives investigating a possible criminal case. A suicide investigation is a civil matter, he said.
“We’re protecting property,” he said. “Part of what our job is to do is to inventory it so some friend with a key or manager doesn’t come in and start taking stuff. We’re not looking for criminal activity, we’re looking for information related to the incident, and information that may lead us to the next of kin.”
Ponte said someone called his mom, but she didn’t answer. Thankfully, they didn’t leave her a voicemail, he said.
He doesn’t plan to sue and isn’t mad at investigators, but was annoyed, he said.
“It wasn’t a mess but clearly everything was rummaged through so I felt my privacy was violated,” he said. “But I do understand how it would have happened.”
Murphy said Ponte’s name was never formally released to the public, which demonstrated his office’s caution.
“As we proceed with our investigation, we don’t stop without confirmation. As we proceeded we determined it was not him,” he said. “Did we make a mistake? Yes, we were wrong.”
His office released the jumper’s real identity on Wednesday.
Ovik Banerjee, a University of North Carolina graduate, came to Las Vegas as fellow in the 2012 class of Venture for America, a program that connects graduates with businesses.
The 24-year-old worked with the Downtown Project, a $350 million real estate development and small business and technology investment project backed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to revive downtown Las Vegas.
Banerjee’s death was ruled a suicide.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague Ovik Banerjee,” a Facebook post from the Downtown Project stated. “He was a caring, bright, and incredibly kind person, and he will be missed.”
The post prompted an outpouring of support and grief from dozens of people who described Banerjee as “an amazing light” and someone who “spread enthusiasm and kindness.”
A spokesperson from Zappos said that “although Zappos and Downtown Project are two separate companies the impact this tragedy has had on our employees is real.
“Ovik’s reach within the community was vast. We are deeply saddened by his passing and are mourning alongside his family, friends, co-workers, and everyone who knew and loved him.”
Banerjee’s personal website said he was from Alabama and had degrees in biology and environmental science. He also wrote about why he decided to move west to contribute time and energy to the Downtown Project.
“I firmly believe that everyone in the US should dedicate at least a year of their life between the ages of 18 and 26 to service, because at no other point in one’s life is someone as able-bodied, energetic, and unencumbered by other obligations,” Banerjee wrote in a post dated October 2, 2012. “I know that situations are unique to individuals, but by and large I do think the preceding is true for a fairly large number of people.”