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Police Trying To Confirm Identity Of Forgotten Skeleton

September 20, 1985

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Police believe the skeletal remains discovered in a coffin loaned to a church group for a Halloween party are those of a farm worker who should have been buried 11 years ago.

A plastic wrist bracelet from a hospital was found on the skeleton and identified him as Michael Harris. Also in the coffin were a death certificate and newspapers from 1974, the year officials think Harris died at age 54.

″We don’t know a whole lot about him,″ said Hillsborough Sheriff’s Lt. Dick Ortiz, who is in charge of investigating the case.

″We’ve tracked down the names of some of his friends, but they’re all dead, too - three, five years ago,″ he said Wednesday.

″And we found a woman and her daughter who knew him - the woman really - but she couldn’t remember much about him. She was pretty vague.″

The skeleton was discovered Monday in a fiberboard pauper’s coffin that Marion Funeral Home in Plant City had loaned to the Sydney Assembly of God Church for use at a Halloween fund-raiser.

The funeral home had been using it in the embalming room as a storage shelf.

Detectives say they can only speculate that the bones were undiscovered since 1974 because the man who ran the funeral home at the time died in 1980 and kept few records.

Robert Perry of Marion’s said he thinks the former owner, James Williams, was waiting to be paid before burying Harris. Since he never received payment, he stored the coffin in the embalming room and eventually forgot about it, Perry said.

According to court and sheriff’s records, Harris was born on June 15, 1920, in Springfield, Ga., a tiny agricultural community 30 miles north of Savannah. The only two Harris families listed in the town’s phone book say they had no relative with the name Michael.

Harris was a migrant farm worker who followed the fruit and vegetable picking seasons from Florida through Virginia.

He was 5-feet-11, 145 pounds and kept no permanent address. He spent 45 days in the Hillsborough County Jail in 1971 after being convicted of petty theft.

He died on Jan. 1, 1974, of throat cancer and was to be buried in Antioch Cemetery near Bealsville, a small community near Plant City.

A burial plot in the cemetery was reserved for Harris, but apparently no one is buried there, Ortiz said.

Detectives have asked for help from the Pentagon because Harris may have served in the military. Military dental records could prove whether the skeleton is Harris and perhaps other government documents could lead investigators to others who knew him.

″We’re hoping to confirm what we’re just about sure of,″ Ortiz said.

Added Perry: ″Whatever happens, we’ve decided that this man deserves a decent burial, and when the sheriff’s people and the medical examiner get through with him, we’re going to bury him at our expense at Antioch.″

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