At dead end, county aims to identify five wards

The woman wears her graying hair in pigtails, like a young girl.

When asked her age, she answers coyly.

“I’m not yet 30,” she says.

She spends Thursday mornings playing bingo with her elderly roommates. Today, she’s wearing a mint green blouse with tiny flowers embroidered at the neck. Her default expression is a sweet smile and an open, friendly face.

The woman, who is closer to 60 than 30, says her other favorite pastime is reading, mainly mystery novels. Perhaps because her life is a mystery she can’t unravel, lost as she is in the fading landscape of her own mind.

She believes her name is Diana English and that she is from California, maybe Los Angeles.

How did she end up here?

For the first time, her smile vanishes. Her eyes cloud. She stares at the table.

“I don’t know, yet,” she says. “I wish I knew.”

•••

In a room down the hall lies a man who might be George Woods. He has not been well. His body is shrunken beneath the sheets, his cheeks hollow, but his blue eyes are piercing, searching.

He’s about 70, but today he believes he’s 54.

He asks a visitor for money to buy a Coke. His voice is soft, his words muddled. He says he is from a place called “Lionsville” or “Orangeville” or maybe “Unionville” — it’s impossible to make out.

Asked about his tattoos, including a clover on his left wrist, the man, with uncharacteristic clarity, says, “I got them when I worked for the Forest Service.”

A caretaker quickly scrawls this hint on her legal pad.

“That’s the first we’ve heard about the Forest Service,” she says.

•••

English and Woods, like the other three unidentified adult wards Clark County now cares for, came into county custody through referrals — from hospitals or social service agencies.

The county is required by law to care for them, as they have been deemed incompetent because of dementia, schizophrenia or other conditions and don’t have reliable loved ones to assume that responsibility.

In fact, they have no known loved ones at all — no friends or family to fill in the blanks.

The county has typically handled its custody of such wards quietly, protecting their privacy while working with police to identify them in hopes family members can be notified.

But the county, at a dead end in its efforts to identify the five wards, has now decided to sacrifice much of that privacy in hopes of finding anyone who might know them.

It’s the right thing to do, said Kathleen Buchanan, Clark County public guardian.

“It’s in the best interest of the wards to identify who they are,” she said. “They may have family members out there somewhere that can provide a history, that love and care about them.”

There’s also a more practical reason to now publicize the cases of the five wards. “The county is in cost containment time,” Buchanan said. “Budgets are tight. We’re trying to find ways in which we can reduce costs.”

Each of the five wards is housed in a long-term care facility, with the county footing the bill. Housing them costs roughly $400,000 a year, not counting medical costs, Buchanan said.

If the county can positively identify the wards, it may be able to apply for benefits — Social Security, disability, Medicaid or Medicare — on their behalf. Without an ID, they are eligible for nothing.

“They become a county problem,” Buchanan said.

Two of the wards, including English, have been in county custody for almost a decade. Three of them — English, Woods and a Danette Margra, a wheelchair-bound paranoid schizophrenic — were able to provide their names. But officials haven’t been able to verify those names by linking them to any records.

“Those are the names they came in with, but that doesn’t mean those are actually their names,” Buchanan said.

Service providers have given the other wards temporary names based on their circumstances when they arrived.

Earle Trauma, for example, a man thought to be between 40 and 50 years old, was hit by a car and suffered serious brain injuries in February 2008. Officials believe he may have been homeless.

Buchanan isn’t sure how John Hitchhiker Doe, who has been a ward of the county since 2001, got the name. He can’t tell anybody his own name because he’s essentially a complete amnesiac.

“He basically can’t remember anything at all,” Buchanan said.

He had to be transferred to a facility in Utah better able to care for him after he became violent.

Officials don’t know the wards’ Social Security numbers, birth dates, anything.

The Public Guardian’s office has posted photos of the wards, along with what little identifying information they have, on a Web page accessed through the county’s website.

The county also recently forged a partnership with the Nevada Center for Missing Loved Ones.

“They called me up and asked me if I’d work on people who were here, but were missing identity-wise,” said Frank Mahoney, founder of the three-year-old agency. “I said, ‘Well, somebody’s missing them. They’re still a missing loved one.’ ”

Mahoney posted the wards’ information and photos on his website, and compared them to a national database of missing people. He wants to eventually get the wards’ fingerprints and DNA to help in the search.

“Can I promise you I’ll be able to identify them? No,” he said. “But I will give it my best shot, and won’t quit until I do.”

•••

The schizophrenic who identifies herself as Diana English has a tattoo on her upper left arm which reads “Mckinley” in a cursive script. She has variously told caregivers it is the name of a former boyfriend, a family member or a family member who died.

Her life is simple. She enjoys having her hair done, and being told it looks nice. She doesn’t need anything, she says, except maybe more stylish clothes. Also she gets bored.

“I’m the youngest one here,” she says of her home, a care center in northwest Las Vegas.

Then she thinks of something she really needs.

“I just need visitors,” she says with a nod. “I don’t get no visitors.”

Meanwhile, time is running out for the man who may or may not be George Woods. In addition to suffering from dementia, the man who came into county custody last year is terminally ill. If he dies before the county positively identifies him, he will be buried here without anyone knowing for sure who he is. His family, if he has one, will not be notified.

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at
lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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