Persistence reconnects long-lost relatives

Harry James Smith
Harry James Smith

OLYMPIA - After a transient was struck and killed by a car on Martin Way in March, three months passed and no one stepped forward to claim the man's body.

All Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock knew was that the dead man’s name was Harry James Smith, 43.

“We just basically had his name, date of birth and Social Security number,” Warnock said. “That’s it.”

But the idea of allowing Smith to be cremated as just another unclaimed body didn’t sit well with the coroner.

So at the beginning of July, Warnock decided to make an extra effort to contact Smith’s family.

Using the dead man’s Social Security number, Warnock found out that Smith served in the Navy from September to December in 1984, then enlisted in the Marine Corps in April 1985, serving until 1987.

Warnock also found out from Smith’s Social S ecurity number that he was born in 1966 in Chester, Pa., to Gerald and Patricia Constantine Connors.

Using this information, Warnock contacted newspapers in the Chester area to see if there was any interest in running a story on Smith, to see if his relatives could be located.

The Delaware County Daily Times in Pennsylvania ran a short story on Smith on Saturday, July 3. The story included contact information for Warnock so that anyone who knew Smith or his family could call the coroner.

A cousin of Smith saw the story and contacted Smith’s stepfather. The stepfather called Smith’s sister, Angela Ugrotto, 38, of Wilmington, Del . Ugrotto then called Warnock to claim her brother’s body.

Had Warnock been unable to find a family member to claim the body, he would have tried to see whether Smith could have been buried at a national cemetery be- cause he was a veteran.

If burial at a national cemetery was not permitted, Smith’s remains would have been given to a local funeral home, Warnock said. Funeral homes around Thurston County have different protocols for burials of unclaimed, indigent remains.

Ugrotto said in a phone interview Wednesday that she is grateful Warnock went above and beyond the call of duty to locate her brother’s relatives.

“Thank God for Gary. If he hadn’t been persistent and did his job, really, we would never have known,” Ugrotto said. “I can’t thank Gary enough for what he did.”

Ugrotto said that over the years, her family had lost touch with Smith, who had chosen to live a transient life and had problems with substance abuse.

“It’s been about eight years since we physically saw him,” she said.

She said the last time she had spoken with her brother was about four years ago, when he called from Provo, Utah. She said the family wired him money and a bus ticket to come home, but he never used it.

The family had no way of getting in touch with Smith, and had no way of finding out that he had died, had it not been for Warnock’s efforts, she said.

Ugrotto said the family gave Smith a proper funeral, and he is now buried in Broomall, Penn ., in a plot next to his mother.

Warnock said Thursday that unclaimed bodies are not uncommon in the coroner’s office – currently there are five.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 jpawloski@theolympian.com