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Alone, dead and unclaimed: Morgue cremates many bodies

Sunday, March 25, 2001

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What can the morgue do when you're alone, dead and unclaimed?

So many people, it seems, knew "Peepers."

Regis P. Wolk Jr., alias "Peepers."

Waiflike and unkempt, funny and garrulous, he was the life of the party at biker rallies and in bars, with friends and strangers. People bought him cigarettes and beer, gave him money for food, overlooked his chronic debt and laughed at his antics.

But when he died Feb. 11 face down on a filthy mattress in the rundown Springdale apartment of a friend, no kin or acquaintances came to claim him. He was 50 years old, an alcoholic and his given name was Regis P. Wolk Jr.

After an autopsy was performed by the Allegheny County coroner's office, his body was embalmed by the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. It was then tagged and stored in a walk-in refrigerator at the coroner's office at Ross Street and Fourth Avenue.

Another six weeks passed while his body remained there.

Though everyone seemed to know "Peepers," apparently, no one knew him at all.

The search begins

In an average year, the Allegheny County coroner's office is called to handle about 100 cases like Wolk's, cases in which people -- from newborns to octogenarians -- died and no next of kin could be found. It doesn't matter where the deaths occur -- nursing homes, apartments, hospitals, on the street, in bars -- state law mandates involvement by coroners' offices with all unclaimed bodies.

During the five to seven weeks the corpses are stored, deputy coroners contact physicians, social workers, friends and neighbors in an effort to locate relatives, who, for any number of reasons, have lost contact with the deceased. They check with the Veterans Administration, homeless shelters, state agencies and police departments. About a dozen or so calls are made per body. While follow-up calls are made, the majority end up being dead ends.

"If he's been living in a nursing home for 20 years and never had a visitor and no next of kin was listed," said Capt. Ed Strimlan, a deputy coroner, "then it's a shorter search. On each of the cases, we exhaust all of the known avenues."

 
 
What happened to the other four

   
 

In the case of Wolk, and the bodies of Robert Reeves, Curtis Gupton, Frederick H. Cumpston and Madonna McCombs, all of which the coroner's office took possession of between Feb. 11 and March 3, no relatives could be found. Individual reports on each of the five note the dates that calls were made and tips followed. All five bodies were slated for cremation in late March.

For Wolk, the coroner's office report noted that he was declared dead at 9:51 p.m. Feb. 11 in Apartment 201 at the Springdale Manor Apartments. In the pockets of his pants were 16 green-and-white pills of undetermined purpose; in his wallet were six phone numbers. Deputy coroners called them all, but reached no one.

The report said he'd been seen twice last year at the Lawrenceville Family Health Center for treatment of seizures and for injuries suffered when he fell off a bar stool. He also had a prescription for Dilantin from UPMC St. Margaret, and was seen Feb. 7 on the North Side by Mercy Hospital's Operation Safety Net, a health program for the homeless.

The report noted that Wolk might have a brother, Joe, and a sister. By March 16, they had not been located. Another notation in the report listed two people who offered to help with Wolk's funeral; state law, however, allows only relatives and nonprofit burial societies to handle such arrangements.

An autopsy determined Wolk's cause of death: seizure disorder, a head injury from a fall and cirrhosis of the liver.

A dreamer and a drinker

Although the coroner's office had no success contacting relatives of Wolk's, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter called one of the numbers listed in the report on him and reached Charles A. Francioni, a dishwasher at Franco's Ristorante in Fox Chapel. He had known Wolk.

Wolk was a dishwasher there for 12 years, including when it was named Salvatore's. But his drinking finally cost him the job last year.

"He did everything," said Karen Putzlocker, the restaurant's secretary. "He would fix plumbing, he would fix refrigerators. He might not do it right, but he'd do it."

Francioni grew up in O'Hara with Wolk, and they graduated from Fox Chapel High School in 1969. Wolk's father was a drinker, too, Francioni said, and son and father often imbibed together. The younger Wolk's drink of choice was long-neck Budweisers.

Wolk's take-home pay at the restaurant was $300 a week, employees said. But he never bought new clothes or seemed to care about his hygiene. Sometimes, he went long stretches without washing his clothes or getting a haircut, and employees would prod him to clean up. Still, he considered himself a ladies' man, often flirting with customers.

"He was a dreamer," bartender Larry Fedigan said. "He just had one problem: booze."

No one knew where Wolk's brother or sister lived. But Francioni said Wolk had a friend named Bob who took him to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle blowout in Meadville every year. No one was sure where Bob lived, either.

Hands-on experience

Through an agreement with the Allegheny County coroner's office, all embalming of unclaimed bodies is handled by the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Gene Ogrodnik, president and chief executive officer of the 62-year-old institute, said the contract had been in place at least 24 years.

All aspects of the process -- washing, preparing the body after an autopsy, treatment of the organs and the embalming of cavities and arteries -- are supervised by a licensed embalmer. The service costs the county nothing and the institute's 125 students receive practical experience in embalming on their way to earning associate's degrees.

"We wouldn't be doing our job if we couldn't provide [the students] with hands-on experience," Ogrodnik said.

When the coroner's office has unclaimed bodies, it contacts Todd Smith, who, over the past 16 years, has made a business out of hauling corpses. Using two SUVs, a van and four employees, he shuttles bodies all day for funeral homes, local universities and the coroner's office. His North Side business, Smith Livery, is paid about $120 for each corpse brought to the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, which pays the cost.

"The bodies don't affect me," said Smith, whose mother does his bookkeeping while an uncle helps with driving. "After a while, all the names and faces run together."

A family falling apart

The coroner's report on Wolk listed phone numbers for Robert Moore and Bob.

Moore, a construction worker and volunteer firefighter in Kittanning, said he didn't know Wolk.

Bob, whose last name also is Moore, said he'd known Wolk since 1987, the year they met at a Fox Chapel rooming house near the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. He'd heard about Wolk's death but wasn't sure when it happened.

He knew where Wolk's brother lived. Fourteen years earlier, he'd promised Joe Wolk that he'd look after Regis, and he had, taking him for hospital visits, providing rides on his Harley-Davidson, slipping him cash. Now was a final chance to help again.

Joe Wolk, his girlfriend and Joe's son, Joey, 9, live in a mobile home in Harwick. Photos of Joe's son and older daughter are on one wall. A framed poster of Mario Lemieux shares another wall with a plaque of Jesus. Moore told him of his brother's death.

"The door was always open here for Regis," said Joe, who is disabled and receives Supplemental Security Income. He last saw his brother on Christmas Eve. "He didn't want to stay here because I had a kid, and it wasn't a party. I don't allow alcohol here."

Joe, 49, said his late father was an alcoholic who nevertheless raised seven children, four boys and three girls. The youngest son died in 1999 from Hepatitis C, Joe said. One sister turned to drink, one to religion and the third rarely keeps in touch with the family, according to Joe. No one has heard from the oldest sibling, a half-brother named George, for several years.

Joe said Regis began drinking after high school. Joe left home at 17 to marry, returning later to help his parents try to control his brother's drinking. He said it caused his first marriage to break up.

"Me trying to help Dad with Regis -- I used to mark the calendar whether he came back [home at night] drunk or sober," Joe said. Checking an imaginary calendar with his right hand he intoned, "Drunk, drunk, drunk, drunk, drunk, drunk.

"The whole picture of our family falling apart is so sad," Joe said.

He said Regis often visited their parents' graves at St. Mary's Cemetery with a six-pack of beer. Regis would drink some, and then pour some on his father's grave.

"Here's one for you, Dad," his brother would say.

Final arrangements

Of the hundred bodies handled by the Allegheny County coroner's office each year, about half ultimately are claimed. In some cases, if family eventually is found but can't afford to bury its relative, the county will still cover the cost of the cremation. The family picks up a 3- to-5-pound cardboard box of their loved one's ashes from the funeral home.

In other cases, a family member is located and has the means to arrange a private funeral.

There also are several local agencies that may step in and handle funeral arrangements. The best-known may be the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which for the past 149 years in Pittsburgh has run a burial program for Catholics who have died without family or funds.

Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an ecumenical organization of 24 denominations that covers 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties, also has a burial program. And the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh paid for the funerals of 16 indigent Jews last year.

"It's kind of like the final act of kindness you can do for someone," said Steven N. Pearson, St. Vincent de Paul's executive director. "At least you don't have to go out alone."

When the coroner's office handles the bodies' disposition, they are cremated by Thomas M. Smith Funeral Home and Crematory in Blawnox. The county pays $140 per cremation; each one lasts about two hours. The ashes are placed in a heavy-grade plastic bag, put in a cardboard box, wrapped with standard brown paper and labeled. When enough cremated remains of unclaimed bodies are collected in enough boxes, they will be buried in a concrete vault.

Funeral home owner Thomas Smith said that over a five-year period, about 150 such boxes have been collected. That's enough, he said, to fill about half the vault.

Moving on

Regis Wolk's third-floor room at Sharpsburg's Amsterdam Bar contained a TV, a minirefrigerator, a dresser, a bed and a 10-gallon aquarium with a Barb fish named Peepers that could change colors. The walls were decorated with photos of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and nude women.

Wolk defrayed his $240 monthly rent by mopping the bar floor at night. Sometimes he'd dance with the mop. Patrons often bought him beers or gave him cigarettes. He'd complain when the cigarettes were "lights." He preferred Marlboros.

He suffered seizures regularly, bartender Tom Yuiska said.

"We'd call 911, they'd take him to the hospital, and then he'd come back," Yuiska said. "We'd say, 'What are you doing back here?' He'd say, 'They weren't watching me so I snuck out.' Then he'd ask me for a beer."

His nickname came from the glasses he wore, which were nearly always broken from frequent falls. Yuiska saw "Peepers" one day and told him that a lens was missing from his glasses.

"He argued with me that it wasn't," Yuiska said. "He said, 'I'll prove it to you.' He put his finger like this (Yuiska pointed an index finger and moved it toward one eye) and poked himself in the eye.

"He said, 'Oh, I guess you're right.' "

Wolk was evicted from his home of 13 years at the bar after New Year's for being $2,000 behind in his rent. He packed a red-and-blue leather satchel with his few possessions -- a baby picture, his high school diploma, a spare set of dentures, a hair dryer, some clothes and nail clippers -- and spent a few days with Bob Moore.

In late January -- three days after a fire in Sharpsburg killed four people -- Wolk was arrested for threatening to burn down the Amsterdam Bar. He told police he was homeless. Two weeks later, he was dead.

Epilogue

Regis Wolk's body was cremated Monday. Joe Wolk, who didn't learn of his brother's death until the day he was cremated, retrieved the ashes Wednesday. Thursday, Regis was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in O'Hara beside his parents' remains.



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