Orange County

Trial Nears for Lawsuit Over Mix-Up That Led Family to Bury the Wrong Body

Frank Kerrigan thought he was burying his son. Days later after the funeral, he found out the body identified as his son was actually someone else.

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Jury selection is underway in the lawsuit over a heartbreaking case of mistaken identification that resulted in a Southern California father burying the wrong man. 

The tragic mix-up stems from the discovery of the body of a homeless man behind a Verizon Wireless store in May 2017. The Orange County Coroner’s Office initially identified the man found in Fountain Valley as Frankie Kerrigan. 

“To lose your oldest son, I’m getting choked up right now talking about it, to lose your only son, it was very traumatic to me. Very traumatic to my family,” said father Frank Kerrigan. 

He was told his son Frankie had been identified by fingerprints. A memorial service followed and he was buried near his mother’s grave. 

Nearly two weeks after the funeral, the family received a phone call.

It was Frankie.

“Frank gets on the phone, says ‘Hi Dad, how are you doing?’ 

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The body found behind a Verizon Wireless store was not Frankie, but another homeless man.

“It was perceived that Frankie was homeless, he's mentally ill and maybe he was given a little less deference or concern,” said family attorney James Desimone. “We are absolutely concerned this may have happened to other families and there are bodies misidentified. And that is also prompting us to get justice for the Kerrigan family.” 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the coroner’s office, did not comment on the lawsuit. Authorities referred NBCLA to previous statements about the case.

In 2017, the department said it “extends regrets for any emotional stress caused as a result of this unfortunate incident.”

The family of the man mistaken for Frankie Kerrigan is not part of the lawsuit. 

The bizarre chain of events included a visit to the site of the man’s death by Frank’s sister. Carole Meikle left a photo of Frankie, a candle, flowers and rosary beads. 

On May 12, about 50 people from as far away as Las Vegas and Washington attended the funeral. Frank’s brother deliver the eulogy. 

"We thought we were burying our brother," Meikle told NBC News in June 2017. "Someone else had a beautiful send off. It's horrific."

At the funeral home, Frank Kerrigan viewed the man in the casket and was convinced he was looking at his son. He had heard from him only from time to time over the years.  

"I didn't know what my dead son was going to look like," he said.

The body found near a Verizon store in Fountain Valley was actually that of 54-year-old John Dean Dickens. His body was later removed from the cemetery.

Frankie's father went through clothes and belongings of Dickens on May 15, 2017, but did not recognize any of it, according to the lawsuit. He asked coroner's officials to keep looking for a black attache case, wrist watch and pen that Frankie was known to carry.

A family friend called Kerrigan on May 23 to tell him Frankie Kerrigan had showed up at a pallbearer's home, according to the lawsuit. The family notified coroner's officials on May 30 that Frankie Kerrigan was alive.

Coroner's officials on June 1 notified the family that the body was identified as that of Dickens.

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