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Third Missing Man Buried In Hinds County Without Family Death Notification

John David Hankins’ mother, Gretchen Hankins, reported him missing in mid-2022, but did not learn until an NBC News reporter visited her on Dec. 4, 2023, that he had been found dead in a Jackson, Miss., hotel room on May 23, 2022, and that the county had buried him in an unmarked grave in September 2022. He is pictured here with his mother and daughter Brooke. Photo courtesy Gretchen Hankins

A Florence, Miss., mother now knows what happened to her missing son, Jonathan David Hankins, over a year after his disappearance. Last summer, Gretchen Hankins reported him missing to the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department after he didn’t return home from a weekend out with friends.

Only on Dec. 4, 2023, when an NBC News reporter visited her home did she learn the truth: He had been found dead in a Jackson hotel room on May 23, 2022—and the Hinds County Coroner’s Office knew his identity.

Despite that, officials failed to notify his family of his death before burying him in a pauper’s field at the Hinds County penal farm on Sept. 14, 2022. NBC News reported on his death and burial on Sunday, Dec. 10.

Hankins is the third man NBC News has identified since October that Hinds County officials buried at the Hinds County Penal Farm without notifying his next-of-kin of his death.

The Jackson Police Department and the Hinds County Coroner’s Office’s handling of the deaths of Dexter Wade and Marrio Moore drew national attention and outrage. In both cases, the County buried the men in pauper’s graves, which are typically used for a person who has no next-of-kin who can claim their body or afford to bury them after their death. Like Hankins’ family, officials did not inform either Wade or Moore’s families about their deaths before burying them.

“I want people to know that somebody is not doing their job and making folks go through what I’ve been through,” Gretchen Hankins told NBC News. She said she believed her son died of a drug overdose.

“They can’t even do the job of notifying a dead person’s next of kin,” she said in the report. “They probably just thought, ‘Another drug addict, gone.’”

Jonathan David Hankins smiling against a white wall
NBC News reported on Dec. 10, 2023, that Jackson Police found Jonathan Hankins dead at a hotel in Jackson on May 23, 2022, but no officials notified his mother of his death before the County buried him at the Hinds County Penal Farm in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 14, 2022. Photo courtesy Rankin County Sheriff’s Office Facebook

Gretchen Hankins told NBC News she called nearby hospitals and made posts on social media asking anyone who may have seen her son to contact her.

She also said she’d periodically contacted the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department over the last year for an update on her missing son’s case to no avail. Officials told her repeatedly they had no updates, she told NBC News.

“She came up (to the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office) and said, ‘My son’s been missing.’ We put out all this information to try to locate him,” Jason Ware, an attorney representing the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department, told the Mississippi Free Press on Dec. 11.

“We still had this individual listed as a missing person as of last week,” the attorney said. He said the responsibility for notifying next-of-kin depends on the specifics of an individual case and that, while NBC News reported Hankins was found dead at a hotel in Jackson, the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department got involved with the case because Hankins’ mother contacted them last year for help.

Ware had no additional comment about what happened with Hankins’ case after their office shared the missing person’s information and photos with media outlets, on Facebook and added his information into an FBI missing and unidentified person’s database last year. A friend of Jonathan’s also uploaded his information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NBC News reported.

23-1893 600- 37 Death Notifications
The Jackson Police Department revealed its new death-notification policy in November following NBC News’ reports on the deaths and burials of Dexter Wade and Marrio Moore.

City of Jackson Police Chief Joseph Wade announced on Nov. 13, that the department had created a new death notification policy, giving JPD officers direct responsibility to contact the next-of-kin of a person whose death they are investigating. Before that date, the department had no existing death notification policy, he said.

JPD’s new death-notification policy states that “every effort shall be made to locate and notify the next-of-kin and/or significant other as soon as possible.”

State law says that county authorities where a deceased person is located “shall make reasonable efforts to notify members of the decedent’s family or other known interested persons, and, if the dead body or portion thereof shall not be claimed for burial or cremation by any interested person within five (5) days of the aforementioned written notice, the board of supervisors or coroner shall, as soon as it may think appropriate, authorize and direct the burial or cremation and burial of the residue of such dead body or portion thereof.”

Hinds County investigators identified Jonathan Hankins’ body through fingerprints last May and subsequently turned the information over to the Jackson Police Department to make a death notification to his next of kin, NBC News reported.

After NBC News told Gretchen Hankins about her son’s death and burial, she contacted the Jackson Police Department and an officer told her it was the Hinds County Coroner’s Office’s responsibility to notify a person’s next-of-kin of their death, she told NBC News.

“That’s ridiculous,” Gretchen Hankins told NBC News. “Going that dang long and not calling people, that’s just inhumane. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”

City of Jackson Communications Director Melissa Faith-Payne said in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press on Dec. 11 that while JPD officers did respond to the scene of a death at the Motel 6 in Jackson on May 23, 2022, “from the scene, the victim’s body was immediately turned over to the Hinds County Coroner’s office for further investigation, including an autopsy.”

“To this day, the Jackson Police Department has had no further communication with the Hinds County Coroner’s office concerning this case. We were never notified of the victim’s cause of death or identity.  Any further questions concerning this incident should be directed to the Hinds County Coroner’s office or the Rankin County Sheriff’s Dept,” Payne said.

The Hinds County Coroner’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

Gretchen Hankins told NBC News she has contacted civil rights attorney Ben Crump and wants her son’s body exhumed so that his family can give him a proper burial. Crump is representing Dexter Wade’s family, who had his body exhumed in November and reburied him after holding a funeral service.

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