On a chilly day in March 1995, a young Latino man took off his long-sleeved shirt, fashioned it into a noose, and hanged himself from a tree limb on the side of Highway 280 at the end of the Mariposa Street on-ramp. He was about 30 years old. His name remains as elusive as the details of the rest of his life, including what might have brought him to end it in such a horrible way. There was no sign of foul play -- no conk on the head, no trauma other than that attributable to the noose.
He didn't leave a note.
His arms hung down from the tank top draping his small frame to the sides of his bluejeans. His bare feet dangled about 10 inches off the ground. Below him was a pair of thongs.
A highway patrolman found him during rush hour. A swarm of inspectors rushed to the scene. Herbert Hawley, administrative coroner in the Medical Examiner's Office, handled this one personally. The body couldn't be moved until medical examiners had investigated the scene. Time was of the essence in this very public suicide. Traffic was beginning to back up thanks to the morbid curiosity of passing motorists. Maybe that's what the mysterious dead man wanted, some sort of final public statement.
He had 10 cents in his pocket, along with a white metal cross and two small green balls with Chinese symbols on them. He also had in his possession a yellow metal ring and a pair of earrings. Maybe he had been scorned by love.
An autopsy revealed no drugs or alcohol in his body. There was no match for this mystery man's fingerprints through local, state, or federal agencies. No one living near the on-ramp seemed to know him. Neither the newspaper coverage of his death nor the published inquiries that followed -- many targeted at the Latino community -- produced any connection. Like Ward/Irish, this man would be given a number, a point of reference for a handful of puzzling details.
The hanging man's face was cleanshaven. His clothes had been recently laundered, suggesting that he was neither homeless nor a drifter. Were that the case, he would more likely have been dressed in layers of clothing and substantial shoes.
There's an art to living on the street, certainly one that most on the streets of San Francisco have perfected. Every piece of clothing has value in warmth. And because of that, the homeless tend to be overdressed rather than underdressed for the weather. Shoes are a particular commodity. Those who roam the streets for hours on end generally have sturdy shoes from a shelter or a donation box or a chance find.
"That one stayed with me, because I'm sure he belongs somewhere," says Hawley, who is clearly obsessed with this case, the only remaining John Doe from 1995. "The thongs bother me."
Ordinarily, the ashes of the unidentified dead are scattered at sea after a set time. But Hawley won't let this one go. The hanging man's ashes will remain on a shelf until someone comes to claim them or Hawley retires. "As long as I'm here, he will not be scattered," Hawley says. "I know someone knows him. [If relatives turn up], I want to be able to give them his ashes.