Report on ID mix-up doesn't name names

By Greg Cook

Staff writer

A report released yesterday by the Essex County district attorney's office examining how the victims of a fatal Dec. 22 fire were misidentified says many contributed to the mistake but avoids singling out any individual or agency.

The district attorney's carefully worded, three-page report says Susan Anderson and Ann Goyette were mistakenly identified by hair color at Addison Gilbert Hospital, where they were taken after the early morning fire at 163 Essex Ave.

For nearly a week after the fire, investigators and medical staff believed Anderson had died and Goyette was the woman recovering in Massachusetts General Hospital. Then Anderson woke up in the hospital and identified herself on Dec. 28.

After the initial, erroneous identification at Addison Gilbert, no attempt was made to confirm the identities of the women by workers at either hospital, the state medical examiner's office or a local funeral home, the report says.

Goyette's family did not notice for some time that the woman they visited in the hospital was not their relative, "possibly due to medical equipment obscuring their view of her," and Anderson's family declined to view her body before it was cremated, the report states.

Russell Currier, the home's co-owner who lived in the house, was indicted by an Essex County grand jury on a single charge of manslaughter yesterday. Prosecutors charge the 57-year-old threw a firecracker under a Christmas tree in the living room, causing it to catch fire. He and Clayton Enslow of Gloucester escaped from the house generally unharmed; Anderson and Goyette were found inside.

A Gloucester police officer at the scene, Patrolman Kevin Mackey, "attempted to match the names with the females" based on descriptions he got from Enslow that Anderson had red-brown hair and Goyette had blonde hair, the report says.

"It was agreed by those treating the surviving female that she did not have red hair, and thus it was concluded that she was Ann Goyette. At that point an attempt was made to ascertain whether her name was Ann by questioning her, but she was unable to respond due to her condition and medical treatment," the report says. "... With the surviving female thus identified, the deceased female was thought to be Susan Anderson, by process of elimination."

The district attorney's report called the police identification procedures "adequate." It says the misidentification resulted from "reliance on an identification based only on process of elimination." This error was compounded by subsequent errors, the report says.

Gloucester Police Chief Michael McLeod said he had only skimmed the report but "I still don't know who made the identification." Gloucester officers acted correctly, he said.

The misidentification, McLeod said, was "an honest mistake and unfortunate for the families, but it was not done intentionally."

The report says the medical examiner or funeral home could have confirmed the identity of the deceased, but following "accepted industry practice, identification typically takes place at the funeral home, because that is more convenient for the next of kin." The funeral home, Pike-Grondin in Gloucester, delivered the body directly from the medical examiner's office to the crematory because the family planned no wake.

Kevin Pike of Pike-Grondin Funeral Home said it is not industry practice for funeral homes to identify bodies. Pike said he relies on hospitals, nursing homes and state agencies to properly identify bodies.

Occasionally, the medical examiner will give him a form asking him to get survivors to identify a body but, he said, "It's not a custom for us to ask for that form." In this case, he said, funeral home staff picked up a body labeled as Susan Anderson, and they were not given any form asking for help in identifying the body.

"We'll never be in the business of identifying bodies," Pike said. Funeral home staff are not trained for such work, he said, and "we're just not going to take that liability."

The medical examiner's office did not fill in the name on a death certificate for the body, then believed to be that of Susan Anderson. The report says the medical examiner preforming the autopsy marked a space on a "statement of identification" form suggesting he believed the funeral home would identify the body.

The medical examiner's office later issued a second certificate authorizing cremation of the body listing the name not as Susan Anderson but as Susan "Alexander," while leaving blank the space on the back where he should have named the woman. The report says neither the funeral home nor crematory staff noticed these errors.

"It's a very unfortunate mishap, but I told the detectives I think it stems back to that morning when the bodies were taken to the hospital," Pike said. He suggested the medical examiner require certain identification in every case. "That I believe is standard practice in homicide and maybe it should be with every case."

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett declined to discuss the details of the report, saying it "speaks for itself."

"This isn't about pointing fingers," Blodgett said. Rather, he said, it was about figuring out what went wrong and how it could be avoided. He has instituted a new protocol requiring his office be provided with written identification of all victims with an explanation of how the identification was confirmed.

"This was a unique and tragic circumstance. People who have been in this office 20 years have never seen it happen before, and I don't expect it to happen again with the new protocol," Blodgett said.

Beverly attorney David Smith, who is representing Goyette's family, and Gloucester attorney Edward Pasquina, who is representing Anderson, declined to comment on the substance of the district attorney's report. Goyette's family has filed a civil suit against Currier charging his negligence caused her death. Anderson has filed suit against Currier charging him with causing her injuries.

Gloucester attorney Paul Lees, who is representing Anderson's ex-husband and two children, said they plan to sue Gloucester police and Addison Gilbert Hospital for negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by the misidentification of the women. Lees said, "I think they've fashioned a report that puts them (the district attorney's office) in the best possible light." He said the report was a "creative use of semantics."

Lees questioned why investigators and hospital staff attempting to identify the women apparently never sought Currier's help. Lees said the misidentification might have been avoided "if they simply walked one of these guys" -- Currier or Enslow -- "over and said, 'Which is which?'" Hair color was a faulty way to try to identify the women, Lees said, because they were covered in soot.