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Daughter still fighting to get father's body from Puerto Rico morgue 8 months after his death

Bodies pile up in Puerto Rico's morgue

Melita Kimbrough's father Benjamin Costoso Perez died in early July 2018. His body is still inside a refrigerator in the backlog-ridden morgue in Puerto Rico's capital.

For about seven months, Kimbrough, who lives in Nevada, has been trying to claim her late father's body to no avail. She said she traveled to Puerto Rico about a month after her father died in Bayamón, a municipality in the outskirts of San Juan, but that a prolonged process with the morgue to confirm his identity has prevented her from receiving the body.

As of Sunday — approximately 240 days after her father's death — Kimbrough has not received his body.

"This is unnecessary. This is completely unnecessary. No one should have to go through this," she told CBS News. "There's just absolutely no closure. I'm almost numb at this point."

On her first trip to Puerto Rico after her father's death, Kimbrough said officials at the Forensic Institute, the island's equivalent of a medical examiner, told her she could not see her father's body because it had begun to decompose. Attempting to confirm his identity to the morgue, she visited doctors and dentists in search of her father's medical records, but was unsuccessful.

After a few days, she said morgue officials allowed her to confirm her father's identity through an affidavit crafted with an attorney. After some back and forth, Kimbrough said she was shown a picture of her father and identified him. It was then that she said morgue officials told her the body could undergo an autopsy, which said occurred in early September 2018. According to Kimbrough, morgue officials told her she could obtain her father's body two weeks after the autopsy was completed.

In late October, however, she said Forensic Institute officials requested DNA evidence, which her aunt provided. But months later, the morgue has not released the body. Kimbrough said she continues to make frequent calls to check on the status of her father's case and she's also exploring legal remedies with her lawyer.

"It's cruel," she said.

Daughter fighting to get father's body from Puerto Rico morgue

An official at the Forensics Institute, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press, confirmed Costoso Perez's body underwent an autopsy Sept. 6, 2018. The official told CBS News the process to confirm his identity and relation to Kimbrough and her family was delayed because the body came into the morgue with some decomposition. He added Costoso Perez lacked dental and fingerprint records, meaning they were unable to confirm his identity using those methods.

The official said the results of the first DNA test yielded insufficient evidence to confirm his identity. He added a second DNA sample would be taken from the body this week and sent to an off-site lab, a process he said could last about two weeks. Asked how can it be possible that Costoso Perez's body — which he confirmed is stored in the morgue's sole refrigerator — has not been released to his family nearly eight months after his death, the official pointed to the insufficient manpower at the Forensic Institute.

Indeed, Kimbrough's ordeal is emblematic of the frustration experienced by many Puerto Rican families in recent years as a result of the mounting backlog of corpses in the island's sole morgue in San Juan, which serves the approximately 3.2 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. Because of the backlog, some families are forced to wait weeks before they take custody of the bodies of their loved ones.

Bodies piling up in its morgue is not a new problem for the island. The current backlog of bodies is part of a systemic problem that has been plaguing the U.S. territory for years due to mismanagement, underfunding and understaffing, an issue exacerbated by the deaths and chaos from hurricanes María and Irma.

30 bodies a day, with 1 pathologist on duty

The Forensic Institute official who requested anonymity said the morgue receives between 20 and 30 bodies each day. On a normal week day, he said there are three pathologists on duty who can process about nine bodies in total. But on some days, the official added, there's only one on-duty pathologist in all of Puerto Rico.

The official said the number of full-time Forensic Institute staff members who process bodies — five pathologists who handle criminal cases, two forensic doctors who handle natural deaths and 11 auxiliary staff members — is not enough to curtail the backlog and handle the bodies that come in daily.

"If more personnel are not sent, this is going to continue like this and it won't improve," the official said.

"You need money. We need resources"

Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is well aware of the problems plaguing the island's morgue.

He has repeatedly asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deploy a second Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT), an outfit of federal forensic staff, to help reduce the backlog. Last week, however, FEMA denied the Puerto Rican government's request, citing the lack of an "immediate disaster-related threat."

A congressionally mandated fiscal board with control of spending in the U.S. territory recently announced it would allow Rosselló to use $1.5 million in funding to handle the morgue's backlog. But the governor told CBS News in a recent interview he is still working on a long-term solution to the issue. He said the reimbursement by the seven-member board will only allow him to hire temporary contractors, not full-time forensic staff, which said the island desperately needs.

"We need to at least double our capacity, and even maybe 120, 125 percent," he said. "And that's what we're committed to doing. As soon as we get the resources, we can the contracting out, right? But we need permanent jobs."

Rosselló stressed he's determined to fixing the problem on a permanent basis, saying he understands the suffering of family members who wait weeks to receive the bodies of their loved ones.

"I know that this is personal. This is hurtful, and it hurts me to see moms that are waiting for their kids' bodies," he said. "It hurts me to see family members in pain."

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