The woman no one knows - She's lived without a name for 14 years. Now time is running out


The woman no one knows - She's lived without a name for 14 years. Now time is running out

September 7, 2008
The Star-Ledger
By SUSAN K. LIVIO, STAR-LEDGER STAFF

The woman found wandering the Woodbridge Center mall on Nov. 2, 1994, appeared to be in her mid-50s, spoke only Spanish and couldn't remember her name or where she lived. She carried an empty purse with no identification.

What mall security guards and police officers knew about her they divined by her appearance: She wore two rings, including a wedding band. Her hair was combed and her clothes were clean.

Fourteen years later, authorities still don't know much about her.

The mystery woman, alternately referred to as "Jane Doe" and "Elba," has lived quietly - and anonymously - in New Jersey's psychiatric hospital system.

Sensing time may be running out - diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she is bedridden at the Garrett Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Hunterdon County - state Human Services officials are launching the biggest effort yet to find out who she is.

"Every human being is entitled to the minimal dignity of dying at least with their name," said Lt. Eduardo Ojeda of the Human Services Police Department. "This lady is a human being. I am sure she has some family member out there or friends who never knew what happened or what became of her. She may be a mother, a sister. She may be someone's grandmother."

Beginning this week, the woman's photos will be circulated to media outlets, particularly the Spanish-speaking press.

Ojeda has contacted the consulates for the Colombian and Venezuelan governments and plans to canvass offices of other Central and South America countries.

Most who are familiar with her case suspect she came to this country illegally.

They guess that when she showed signs of amnesia or dementia, a relative or friend left her at the mall, assuming someone would come to her aid.

Amy Bellisano, senior general manager at Woodbridge Center, recalls when a security guard found her wandering the sprawling two-story mall.

"It appeared someone had dropped her off. We kept thinking someone would come to find her," Bellisano said. "She spent most of the day in our mall office conference room. She had no idea why she was here . . . she looked clean and well cared for."

Walter Dnistran, the mall's maintenance supervisor, asked her questions in Spanish, but she seemed confused, Bellisano said.

"Ultimately we had to call the police because we couldn't get any information from her. I remember feeling very sad," she said.

'J. DOE'

After two weeks at Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, where doctors said she was in good physical health, she was transferred to the public psychiatric hospital system: Marlboro in Monmouth County until it closed in 1997, Ancora in Camden County until 2002, and now Hagedorn, where she lives among 300 other patients, mostly senior citizens, said hospital CEO Debra A. Smith.

The name plate on her bedroom door says "J. Doe." It's possible her name is Elba because in a rare moment 14 years ago, she told a Spanish-speaking aide at Marlboro her name was "Elba Leonor Socarras," Ojeda said.

Once, she told a worker she was "Alba." Law enforcement officers said she's uttered a name of a person they suspect she may have known: "Altagracia Alvarez."

She may have lived in Colombia - or maybe it was Colonia, a section of Woodbridge Township.

"She was not too clear. She was found in Woodbridge, which is close to Colonia," said Nathali Ruiz said, a social worker at Hagedorn.

The woman stopped talking while at Ancora, hospital workers said. Aside from taking her meals in the nearby dining room, she spends her time in a private room at Hagedorn in Glen Gardner, its windows offering a view, 1,800 feet above sea level, of the lush hills of Spruce Run State Park.

"She's in her own world," said Jean Henderson, a Hagedorn employee who helps look after her.

Occasionally she'll moan or grimace to communicate discomfort, like when she is among other patients for too long.

She'll smile "whenever you are giving her care," said Ana Cartegena, another Human Services technician.

'WHAT IS YOUR NAME?'

When group of visitors stopped by Thursday, "Elba," wearing a flowered nightgown, was lying in a reclining chair, a teddy bear and a crocheted purple blanket on a night table next to her.

Ojeda gently asked the same questions he does on every visit: "What is your name? Where is your husband?" She met his gaze briefly and squeezed his finger extra hard.

"Maybe she's trying to tell me something," he said. In six years, Ojeda has never reached her.

He said this is the most concerted effort to find her identity.

"In those first few years, the case got passed around from agency to agency," he said. "Perth Amboy police at one time circulated a poster with her picture on it. When she was at Ancora, the Camden County sheriff put her on the internet, and they still have her picture there."

Ojeda recently enlisted a detective to fingerprint "Elba" - no easy feat because her arms are stiff and her fingertips wrinkled, he said.

They were sent to consulates in Venezuela and Colombia, but there's been no response.

Tony Evelina, a volunteer researcher with the Doe Network , (doenetwork.org), a site for missing and unidentified people, doubts fingerprints will reveal anything.

"I've have been working on this woman's case, and I have a feeling she is illegal," he said. "If she had a green card, immigration would have had (fingerprints) on file."

Because nobody knows whether "Elba" is a U.S. citizen, she does not receive Medicaid and can't be transferred to a nursing home, said Susan Hollander Whitman at the state Office of the Public Guardian for Elderly Adults.

"She doesn't belong in a psychiatric hospital," said Whitman.

She said her office represents "quite a few people" in the same predicament. "If we don't have proof of where they are from and their citizenship, they are stuck wherever they are," she said.

Smith said each state psychiatric hospital typically has one or two "Jane Does" or "John Does."

Unidentified people who die at a state institution are buried in a potter's field - with numbers on their headstones instead of their names.

That troubles Ojeda.

"My hope is we will be able to identify her, while she is still around," he said. "`We're hoping the public will help us."

People with information about "Elba's" identity may contact Lt. Eduardo Ojeda at (609)633-3673 or [email protected] Callers may remain anonymous.