White Tanks Cemetery is county’s potter’s field - East Valley Tribune: Home

White Tanks Cemetery is county’s potter’s field

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Posted: Monday, October 18, 2004 11:31 am | Updated: 5:35 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

October 18, 2004

There are no trees where John Doe reposes. There are no flowers. No gravestone. No cross.

View slideshow.

Instead, a bronze disc no larger than a saucer marks the patch of dirt that has become the young murder victim’s final resting place.

"Male, unknown" the disc reads, along with a burial date.

White Tanks Cemetery in Goodyear is Maricopa County’s potter’s field.

Every Thursday, members of the Maricopa County jail chain gang gather at this barren spot to bury the unidentified, the poor and the unclaimed.

The prisoners, their guards and a minister usually stand alone before the pressed-board caskets that are covered in blue felt.

Without mourners, there are no eulogies — simply a prayer or two offered by one of a dozen rotating ministers.

Last year, 50 people were buried at White Tanks without names. Authorities were unable to find relatives for another 205.

Since 1993, more than 2,000 have been buried at White Tanks. Not all are homicide victims like John Doe.

Some are transients who have fallen victim to their addictions, estranged from their families, said Sharie Tomlinson, county deputy public fiduciary. Others are poor, elderly people who outlived their loved ones. Still others are abandoned babies or those born of indigent couples.

The John Doe was shot outside the Papa John’s Pizza at 1225 W. Main St. in Mesa. He is the only Mesa homicide victim who police Sgt. Mike Collins has not been able to identify.

Authorities believe he is Hispanic and between 16 and 18-years-old. He was shot in the chest on Feb. 11.

"Somebody out there has to know that guy and we’ve got nothing," Collins said.

Detectives fingerprinted the teen and entered his prints and physical description into Arizona and national databases. They’ve shown his picture to patrol officers and canvassed the neighborhood. They’ve provided the media with a composite sketch of the young man.

Still, nothing.

Collins said a DNA sample has been taken in hopes that someone will come forward and eventually identify him.

Identifying John and Jane Does can be a difficult task, but finding relatives can be equally challenging.

Once a name is known, detectives again hit the databases, Collins said. They enter the name into internal and external databases looking for addresses, old court cases, jail booking sheets, known associates — anything that might provide a lead.

Detectives also contact other police agencies to see if they have any information. They research motor vehicle records and talk to parole and probation officers, too.

Most of the time, people are identified and the next of kin is notified within a matter of hours, Collins said.

In one recent case, an accident victim was identified within hours, but it took detectives six weeks to find his daughter.

If detectives are unable to find relatives, the public fiduciary’s office, the medical examiner’s office and even the mortuary will retrace the detectives’ steps, Tomlinson said.

They, too, will talk to landlords, friends, even veterans’ organizations. Sometimes relatives are found, but they can’t afford funeral services and will apply for help from the county.

Other times, they refuse to claim the remains, Tomlinson said.

"It’s the county’s responsibility, if the remains are unclaimed, to make payment to the mortuary," Tomlinson said.

Services for unclaimed remains run around $270, plus the cost of the casket, said Mark Meldrum, owner of Meldrum’s Mortuary and Crematory in Mesa.

A traditional funeral runs between $3,500 and $4,000, Meldrum said.

Recently, lay minister Jay Hornbacher of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Scottsdale, and Sister Mary Ruth Dittman of the Salvatorian Order presided over the funerals of 10 people, included two unidentified men. Rather than bemoan the lack of mourners, both were grateful for prisoners who helped say goodbye.

Sonia Martinez, a 35-yearold chain gang member, east Mesa resident and mother of four, choked up at the thought she could one day end up buried at White Tanks — estranged from her family because of poor choices.

"Being in jail is one thing, but this is something different," Martinez said. "Knowing this is the end makes me want to be different. I can just see my kids standing in front of a hole wondering what happened to


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