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The Mystery of 3072/03, the Body with No Name

IN THE records of the State Coroner's Office he is known simply as case number 3072/03 - an unknown male.

A body without an identity. The invisible antithesis of the case that packed Courtroom One yesterday: the interment, finally, of Harold Holt - an identity without a body.

Case 3072/03 was a man, probably in this 60s, who died almost two years ago with $1500 in his jeans pocket, clean clothes, neat fingernails and half a packet of cigarettes, but still reasonably healthy lungs (as the pathologist's report would later attest). No hint of drugs or alcohol in his system, not a shred of paperwork that might reveal his identity.

He is one of the longest-term morgue residents in recent history, according to court registrar Rick Roberts. He occupies a berth in the frosty long-term storage room at the city morgue in South Melbourne, behind a stainless steel door bearing the identification "Unknown".

But case number 3072/03 - John Doe, to use American parlance - is finally on his way to the graveyard.

Senior Constable Eamon Leahy hopes that perhaps the pending second anniversary of his death will stir some grief or memory somewhere; something that will allow an escape from the indignity of a grave marker declaring him "Unknown" for posterity.

His case is highly unusual - just one or two "unknowns" are buried each year. The record for longest resident at the morgue in recent times goes to "Unknown" from Roxburgh Park, a murder victim, who stayed almost six years, according to court files. Recently one young man spent 12 months there while his mother and grandmother went through the courts fighting over the right to bury him - a different situation, waylaid on the journey by too much love rather than lack of it.

This "Unknown" will soon be buried, leaving behind the morgue's longest-term resident, an unidentified Asian sailor from the ill-fated drug ship Pong Su, who arrived in April 2003.

"Unknown" was discovered in a half-renovated bungalow in Preston on the morning of September 14, 2003, by a young man spending his Sundays transforming the shell into his family dream home. The weatherboards were off the side walls, so anyone could walk in.

On this Sunday morning, he said in his statement, "as I walked into the house I could straight away see a person hanging from the ceiling rafters in the master bedroom. I glimpsed at him, then looked away, then had a second look before running away from the house. I ran away because I was in shock." He ran to a neighbour's house. The police were called. He did not go back into the house until the man was gone.

Senior Constable Leahy says he is disappointed he has not been able to put a name to this body despite inquiries throughout Australia and overseas. He doorknocked the neighbours and contacted previous owners of the house wondering if the address might have had any significance to the man. Checked medical and dental records. Nothing.

He looked European, so on a hunch Constable Leahy took the photograph of the body - slightly tidied up - to local immigrant and senior citizens centres. Again nothing. It's very sad, he observes, that no one has missed this man. So 3072/03's story is limited to the stark inventory of his parts recorded in his autopsy report. Very short facial stubble. He has healing scabs over the knuckles on both hands and a scar on his right forearm. Heart: normal. Pancreas, pituitary gland, penis: all "unremarkable".

Coroner Phil Burn observed after hearing Constable Leahy's report last week that the very appearance of case 3072/03 before him was shrouded in mystery. A procedural relic. Under the Coroner's Act, an inquest is required where a name is uncertain. "The rationale - I suspect - rests in antiquity" - a throwback to times when the body would be displayed before the inquirer and the community to resolve the question of identity.

The law asks a coroner to establish identity, cause and circumstances of death. But in this case, "this body remains unidentified", Coroner Burn said as he closed the inquest. "The circumstances of death remain unclear." Only the cause, hanging, can be certain. But Coroner Burn was satisfied this was a non-accidental death.

And so the case of 3072/03 is closed and, within a few weeks, he will leave the morgue and be buried, by the State Trustees, with the help of his $1500.

The Mystery of 3072/03, the Body with No Name 1

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