Death leaves unanswered questions, but community responds

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

If a man with no family, no money, no anything dies in a public place, what does Rowan County do with his body?

“No one takes it to a funeral home, and the county doesn’t have a morgue,” wondered Paul Bernhardt, owner of Bernhardt’s Hardware, former Salisbury mayor, and a man with a heart big enough to have room for indigents as well as paying customers.

But that heart has been hurting during the past few days because of the death of Scott Hall, who had nothing but a sad story to tell.

And Paul, who had given Scott some work at the hardware store when he could use him — and he did it well, Paul says — wants to know what happened to him.

When he first wondered and asked questions, nobody seemed to know.

And volunteers who prepare breakfast for people who’ve spent the night at Rowan Helping Ministries’ shelter have heard the same story Paul heard.

Scott died.

But why? What? Where? When? All anybody knew was that Scott was not around any more, and Paul wanted to know what happened.

“We got word from someone at the shelter that he died Wednesday night,” he said, “and it’s hard to believe.

“He was a very nice young person from West Virginia,” Paul said, adding he’d heard that he choked to death near Kannapolis.

“He’d been in trouble, a parole violation, and was at the prison for 45 days. He didn’t have a home. He was in a car some boys had stolen. He was arrested for that.

“In his early life his mother gave him to his grandfather,” Paul had been told.

So what happens to bodies like that?

“It’s a pitiful story,” Paul said. “He told me his mother gave him away because she didn’t want him, and he came here to work at Cannon Mills, and he got laid off and was living in a dumpster.”

So Paul gave him a little work to do at the hardware store.

“He helped us unload things, took things to cars. All the customers liked him. He was very clean, very likeable. Everybody liked him.

“But now he’s gone — and he seemed to be gone without a trace.”

What does the county do with an indigent’s body?

Dianne Scott, director of Rowan Helping Ministries, knew he did not die at the shelter.

“He was someone we all liked,” she says, “and we were working with him, but he was not staying at the shelter at the time. He was at his friend’s apartment.”

But Steve Whitley, deputy chief of the Salisbury Police Department, knows the rest of the story.

“Typically,” he says, “if you get a John Doe or somebody where you have a name but don’t know next of kin, you make inquiries and check a variety of data bases of people with problems. Information is available, but you have to do some research …

“You try to run down everything you can. We’ve handled several this week. We may get a couple during a month. Some will take their lives.

“Holidays,” he adds, are a big time when we see increases in unattended deaths and suicides. Our numbers go up.

“Typically, it becomes a medical examiner’s case. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death. Sometimes it demands an autopsy. Sometimes it doesn’t. Then they get shipped to Charlotte, the regional office of the medical examiner’s cases.”

In this case, Scott Hall was a 34-year-old white man born in 1972. He was found dead at a house on North Jackson Street on Dec. 12, at 11:30 in the morning.

Police got involved when they responded to a call that came in through the 911 center from a woman.

She asked for assistance and wanted the police to come, according to Emergency Medical Technicians. They said Scott had a history of heroin abuse, and they found him on the floor. There were no signs of foul play.

The caller suspected a possible drug overdose.

EMS responded and took him to the hospital.

Apparently, he and the woman were friends. He had been staying at the homeless shelter or at her house, according to the police report. The woman said he was alive about 2 a.m. because his loud snoring woke her.

She got up about 8:30 in the morning, left the house and returned about 11. He seemed to still be asleep, and she tried to wake him, but then she realized he was not breathing and called 911.

“Apparently,” Whitley said, “he died in his sleep.”

He was taken to the hospital and listed as an unattended death.

“Automatically, that becomes a medical examiner’s case,” Whitley says, “and he was sent to Charlotte for an autopsy so they could try to figure out what’s happened. They study the organs, the chemicals in the body and can get a pretty good idea of what happened. We haven’t got a report on it yet. It takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days.

“They identified kinfolks from West Virginia, and the medical examiner authorized release to a funeral home in West Virginia.

“Our procedure is to try to find out who they are. We fingerprint the deceased and compare it to a data base. Technology is more sophisticated now.

“And he’s getting a burial because police did step in.”

And that, Dianne Scott, the executive director of Rowan Helping Ministries, “shows this community really does care.”

Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or