Efforts to identify San Diegan John Doe on life support may pay off
An unidentified man, dubbed Sixty-Six Garage, has been on life support in a Coronado nursing home for 15 years.

Efforts to identify San Diegan John Doe on life support may pay off

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.

On the radio…

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 it’s likely Garage was attempting to cross into the U.S. when the van he was travelling 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 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 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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, the union representative who was instrumental in getting the forensics team into the nursing home.

They ran the scans through CBP’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,” Harris said.

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.

Ed Kirkpatrick is the director of Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility. He is looking at the file he's colmpiled on 66 Garage.

Ed Kirkpatrick is the director of Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility. He is looking at the file he’s colmpiled on 66 Garage. Joanne Faryon, inewsource

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,” he 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 undocumented residents, 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.”

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Graphic by University of San Diego School of Peace Studies, Trans-Border Institute

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Graphic by University of San Diego School of Peace Studies, Trans-Border Institute

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.

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We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Joanne Faryon:

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.
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