Missing person investigators identify man killed by train 10 years ago
10:00 PM PDT on Friday, May 29, 2009
By PAUL LAROCCO
He was hit by a train nearly a decade ago, found on tracks just west of Sierra Avenue in Fontana.
No one knew why he was there, what he had been doing and -- most importantly -- who he was.
San Bernardino County coroner's investigators would assign him the tag "John Doe 32-99." Without identification or a match for his fingerprints, answers stopped there, on Dec. 26, 1999.
But this week, the push by coroner's unidentified persons coordinator David Van Norman to match every body with a name paid off. A DNA match identified the man as Richard Gale Jensen, 57, a Fontana resident who had been reported missing the same month.
After 9½ years, his family in Menifee has been notified of his death.
Initially, no one could find a fingerprint match for John Doe 32-99. Authorities later found that Jensen's thumbprint was on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles. That would have generated a quick confirmation of his ID, but there was no way to search for it without knowing his name.
When the state opened its DNA database in 2003, Van Norman submitted John Doe 32-99's samples. In January 2007, the profile was officially filed.
There was little action until last October, when a national missing persons database suggested three possible matches for unclaimed remains in another Fontana case.
Van Norman emailed Fontana police, asking them to obtain DNA samples from the families of those missing people.
While none were matches for the unclaimed remains, it turned out one of them was the family of Jensen: the man hit by the train.
On Wednesday, Van Norman was notified that DNA from Jensen's family -- entered into the national database for the unrelated case -- had matched John Doe 32-99.
"This is exactly what we've been building our operations for," Van Norman said Friday. "We've laid the foundation for getting those identifying records into the system for unidentified and missing persons cases."
For more than a year, Van Norman has given presentations around the region and the country, emphasizing the importance to both law enforcement and family members of providing DNA, fingerprints and dental records for every missing persons report taken.
"The family has to be involved in that process," he said. "They cannot leave it up to law enforcement to do alone."
In Jensen's case, an error in the date when he was last seen -- the day after he was killed -- prevented a match from coming sooner.
Many questions remain. Fontana police, conducting the death investigation, said Friday they had yet to locate the case records.
Van Norman said that it was clear Jensen was hit by a train, but what led up to that is not.
"Was he boarding the train? Was he pushed under the train? Was he running from someone? We don't know any of that, but my first and foremost obligation is to identify the unidentified," he said. "The rest of the story will hopefully come later."
Reach Paul LaRocco at 951-368-9468 or plarocco@PE.com