Body buried in bureaucracy?
Monday, September 11, 2006
by FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter
Michael Ruggio Jr. died of a drug overdose in a portable toilet in 2002, and the county buried him in a pauper's grave. But it was not until this year that Ruggio's family learned of his fate.
His sister Vanessa Baker is upset at police for failing to track down her family with the news of his death. She also says she called the Cook County medical examiner's office about once a month for nearly four years checking to see if her brother was dead, but no one would confirm his death until February.
Worse, Ruggio's teenage son lost out on Social Security benefits because the death was not reported to the government in a timely fashion, Baker said.
And Homewood Memorial Gardens says it cannot rebury her brother for less than $6,000, she said.
"He should be in Mount Carmel Cemetery with the rest of our family," Baker said. "Nobody is taking responsibility for this. It's disgraceful."
Ruggio was 33 when he was found in the 1900 block of North Burling. He was wearing inline skates, and hypodermic needles were discovered near his body. The death certificate says he died of opiate and cocaine intoxication May 11, 2002.
Met with negative results'
Ruggio was carrying an ID card listing his name, his date of birth and an address: 14127 S. Leavitt in south suburban Dixmoor.
Chicago Police spokesman Pat Camden said detectives contacted Dixmoor police for help in seeking information about Ruggio's next of kin. The address was for the Jessie "Ma" Houston Work Release Center, where Ruggio had served a drug conviction.
"Dixmoor PD went to the location and met with negative results," Camden said. "They could not identify the next of kin. At that point, it became a public administrator's case."
Baker filed a complaint with the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards, accusing the detectives of not doing enough to try to contact Ruggio's family. On Aug. 24, OPS sent Baker a letter telling her "the evidence was not sufficient to prove or disprove the allegation."
The Sun-Times recently performed a database search using Ruggio's name and the date of birth on the ID found on his body. The search quickly identified the address and phone number for Ruggio's parents in west suburban Lombard, as well as other relatives.
Baker said she tried to file a missing persons report with the police, "but they said he is an adult, and if he doesn't want to be found, he doesn't have to be."
"They never seem to have a problem finding people when they need to arrest them," she said.
Baker said she called the medical examiner's office in early 2002 when her brother stopped making weekly calls to his mother. She said she told the people answering the phone his name, age and the fact that he had a scar on his forearm.
"No, he hasn't been through here. No one by that description has been in," Baker says she was told repeatedly.
Then in February, she called again.
"I gave them my speech that I gave every month, and the guy goes on hold a minute, then says, 'Yeah, he was here, May 11, '02, and the county buried him in September '02.' I said, 'What?' I called my dad, and he lost it."
Baker flew in from New Jersey and accompanied her father to the medical examiner's office Feb. 7.
Baker said they waited about three hours, with her father crying hysterically, before they were able to fill out paperwork to obtain Ruggio's possessions. They were required to pay $5 each for a series of photos the office took of Ruggio, she said.
Became addicted to drugs
Mike Boehmer, administrative assistant to Medical Examiner Edmund R. Donoghue Jr., said he apologized to Baker when she called to complain.
"She said she called on more than one occasion and they said they did not have him here," Boehmer said. While not dismissing her concerns, he added, "I find it very hard to believe that anyone would have called on more than one occasion and not get the information. His information was here."
Baker said she and her older brother were close when they were growing up. He attended York Community High School and played baseball, she said.
Baker went on to study at the College of DuPage and became an accountant. She married a lawyer and moved to New Jersey, where she and her husband have a son they named after her late brother.
But Michael Ruggio Jr. got involved with the wrong crowd. He did not go to college, instead installing windshields for a living. Eventually, he became a drug-addicted transient with dozens of arrests on his record.
"He was in and out of jail," Baker said. "Living here or there. But he never lost contact with us. I would tell him it's never too late to change your life. I think he became embarrassed about what he had become."
Ruggio was survived by a son who is now 16. The son is entitled to about $150 a month in death benefits -- but only since February, when the family learned of Ruggio's death and reported it to the government, Baker said.
"I think he should have received benefits dating back to the day my brother died," she said. "It wasn't our fault we didn't know he was dead."
Baker said her brother was buried in a common grave in Homewood Memorial Gardens. A representative of the cemetery did not return a call seeking comment.
Baker said she was told her family would have to pay about $6,000 to move the body to another cemetery.
"The funeral home said it's not a good idea because he's been in there for four years in a cheap box that's hard to move," she said.
Baker said she is inclined to leave her older brother resting where he is -- even if the family does not find the spot peaceful.
"This was a mess, from beginning to end," Baker said angrily. "To everyone, my brother was just a junkie. But we loved him."