Family of man found dead on Richmond train tracks never informed of death

Originally published by Bay City News Service, and reprinted by the Contra Costa Times, on May 26, 2015.

 

Lehman Leonard Brightman III died unceremoniously on train tracks in Richmond, homeless, possibly drunk and high on methamphetamine, according to an autopsy report.

His death on March 2, when he was struck by an Amtrak train, would have gone unnoticed, even to his family, who had not had contact with him in three to four years until a reporter reached out to his brother.

Quanah Brightman said no one from the Contra Costa County coroner’s office or the public administrator’s office had contacted him or his family to inform them of his brother’s death.

“Quite honestly, they could easily contact me,” Quanah Brightman said, noting that his email address and phone number are both publicly listed. “We never would have known.”

While cases like Lehman Brightman III’s are rare, it’s a fate that seems to fall predominately on the homeless population.

From June 2013 to March 2015 there were only nine cases out of more than 9,800 where coroner’s deputies were unable to find next of kin, according to data provided by the coroner’s office.

Of the nine, three have not been identified at all. Of the remaining six, all but one was homeless.

Chris Flitter, a spokesperson for Shelter, Inc., which provides housing to homeless people throughout Contra Costa County, said it’s not unusual for people who are homeless to have strained ties with their family members.

“One of the many strategies we use is to work to reconnect people with their families,” Tim O’Keefe, executive director of Shelter, Inc., said in a statement. “In many cases, this simply isn’t possible.”

O’Keefe said there are myriad reasons why someone can end up on the streets, including medical, financial, marital or many other causes.

In his case, Quanah Brightman said his older brother started distancing himself from his family after their father suffered a stroke in 2011.

“Our father got sick and he just disappeared,” Quanah Brightman said. “He just wasn’t around. He was gone.”

Quanah Brightman said he knew his brother was using meth, but he was consumed with providing care to his father. Three or four years passed before he had heard from him, Quanah Brightman said.

When he received news of his brother’s passing, Quanah Brightman said he was filled with unanswered questions.

“Why would he be on the train tracks?” Quanah Brightman wondered out loud. “(The coroner’s deputy) said he was hit by a train. I don’t know why he would be out there, though. That’s what doesn’t make sense.”

Although he said he was “disturbed” by the manner in which notification was handled, he said he was grateful that he was able to retrieve his brother’s remains from the coroner’s office before they were interned.

Sheriff’s Capt. William Duke said every effort was made to exhaust all leads in notifying the next of kin of Lehman Brightman III’s death.

In an investigation report, coroner’s Deputy Kevin Hoffman wrote that he had “either received a message saying the number was no longer in service” or had “received no responses to `his~ messages.”

Duke said it’s not unusual for people to fail in returning calls from the sheriff’s office, which oversees the coroner’s office. The coroner’s office uses a police tool, called the TLOxp database, which relies on public records to find phone numbers and addresses for residents of the county.

Although Quanah Brightman’s email address can be found through a Google search, the office does not contact people through email, Duke said.

“We’re not going to email anyone,” Duke said. “It’s bad enough that we have to phone someone. Typically, we find next of kin and notify them in person.”

A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Quanah Brightman said there was a real risk that his brother’s tribal property could have been turned over to the government if he hadn’t notified the tribe of his brother’s death.

There’s also the issue of being able to grieve, Quanah Brightman said.

“I just want to have closure. I want us to be able to move forward as a family so his soul and our family can heal,” Quanah Brightman said.

Quanah Brightman said he plans to hold a small funeral service in the coming weeks to finally get the closure he almost never knew he needed.

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