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Lost on Hart Island

by Rob Palazzolo
A A
Lamont Dottin

provided by Arnita Fowler

A mother pushes to reform missing persons law.

Hart Island looks peaceful off the shores of the Bronx. As New York City’s potter’s field, it’s a graveyard for thousands. Many of these people had no family to bury them.

Lamont Dottin was one of the many lost people laid to rest on Hart Island. But he did have a family. The problem was they didn’t even know he was buried there.  

When Dottin went missing in Queens on October 18th, 1995, his mother Dr. Arnita Fowler began searching. She put up flyers, scoured the area where he was last seen, and called the police.

"But what I didn't want to do--I could not rest without knowing where my son was. So I just kept looking," explained Fowler.

 But Fowler says talking with the police was difficult. She says the police initially wouldn’t file a missing persons report because her son was 21, a legal adult.

Fowler was finally able to find an officer willing to take a report on November 13th. She thought this meant she would find her son soon. But days stretched into weeks, weeks into months. And months turned into years.

She began to feel despair.

"There were days I literally laid on my mama's bed and said 'Lord, you might as well just take me now, because there is just no way I could live not knowing,'" she said.

Meanwhile, on October 24th, 1995, a body was pulled out of the East River. The FBI correctly identified it as Lamont Dottin’s. But burial records show that this body was incorrectly listed as an unidentified 30 year old man.

According to a spokesperson for the New York City Medical Examiner, the “[Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] works cooperatively with NYPD to share information about unidentified persons who may indeed have been reported as missing.”

That said, the Medical examiner and the police should have been communicating, and the police should have notified Fowler and her family. But for reasons that are still unclear, that didn’t happen. The NYPD did not respond to my request for comment.

On February 13th 1996, Dottin’s body was removed from the morgue. It was placed in a simple pine box, and buried without ceremony on Hart Island.

The box was marked “Unknown.”

It was four years later that Fowler finally found out what happened.

She says she discovered others have suffered the same fate as her son. She resolved to do something.

"It wasn't until I walked on the pulpit at my son's funeral that I pledged this battle. I know they say pick your battles. And this was the one I was going to pick," said Fowler.

New York State assemblyman William Scarborough heard her story. He says he was appalled.

"To have a situation where people turn up missing, and families just go for years with grief and uncertainty, is not a good system," said Scarborough.

Scarborough’s bill would try to fix the communication breakdown that left Fowler’s son unclaimed in the morgue. Law enforcement would also be compelled to search for missing adults the same way they search for missing children.

But Scarborough says he’s run into opposition. He says some people in law enforcement worry the bill will increase their workload too much. Opponents also say when an adult goes missing, that person must have made the choice by their own free will. They say those people don’t want to be found.

Melinda Hunt is the head of The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit that publishes records of burials on Hart Island. Hunt says Lamont Dottin is not the only person who got lost in the bureaucracy. 

"The various city agencies--each one does their little part, but they're often unaware of what the job of the other agency is. And so they don't instruct people to go talk to so-and-so at the other agency," Hunt explained.

Hunt has mixed views on the bill. She applauds efforts to increase transparency. But she worries the bill is too vague, and the most important piece of advice for families is missing.

"Go to the Medical Examiner's office. Show up early, and don't leave. Somebody will eventually help you," she insisted.

Still, Fowler says she’s willing to fight against what she sees as an unjust system.

"Love has no age limit. So what are we doing? And what are we waiting for?" said Fowler.

The bill has been proposed every legislative session since 2002. Each time, it’s failed to pass.

Lamont Dottin was able to be returned to his family. But many of the people buried on Hart Island remain unknown.

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