Archive for Saturday, June 3, 2006

Authorities missed chances to avoid mistaken identity

June 3, 2006

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— Authorities missed one opportunity after another to avoid - or at least correct sooner - the sad mix-up between a student killed in a van crash and a classmate who survived.

Among other things, a sister of one of the victims asked to see the body but was talked out of it by a deputy coroner who said it would be too traumatic. A boyfriend and a college roommate also raised doubts about whether the women had been accurately identified, but the mistake went undiscovered for five weeks.

The coroner who misidentified 22-year-old Laura VanRyn's body as that of survivor Whitney Cerak, 19, said Friday the "entire disaster" may have been avoided if a deputy coroner had not urged one of Cerak's sisters to wait before looking at what he thought was her corpse. She never did look.

Grant County Coroner Ron Mowery said the woman was "extremely traumatized" and could not stand without help after learning of her sister's death at a hospital in Marion, northeast of Indianapolis.

The deputy coroner's advice was "out of concern for how she would handle the shock" of seeing her sister's body, Mowery said.

The stunning error - that Cerak was actually alive and VanRyn was dead - lingered for five weeks after the April 26 collision between a van and a tractor-trailer. On Tuesday, dental records conclusively identified the woman recuperating at a Michigan hospital as Cerak, not VanRyn.

In that span, VanRyn's family kept a vigil at the bedside of Cerak, a complete stranger, long after Cerak's parents had buried VanRyn in a closed-casket funeral without ever seeing the body inside.

But indications that there had been a mix-up came sooner.

Eugene B. Habecker, president of Taylor University, where both women were students, said Friday that VanRyn's roommate questioned whether the seriously injured young woman was actually VanRyn.

The roommate shared her suspicions with school staff May 18, and Habecker said the school launched a "discreet fact-finding effort" and asked prosecutors for accident reports.

A message seeking comment was left Friday with the office of Grant County Prosecutor James Luttrull Jr. His office is weighing criminal charges against the truck driver, saying he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

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