Published January 13, 2015
The coroner who misidentified a college student killed in a van crash said Friday the "entire disaster" could have been avoided if a deputy coroner had not urged a relative to avoid looking at the body.
The office initially identified the victim as Whitney Cerak, and Cerak's family took the victim's body home to Gaylord, Mich., and buried her.
They learned a month later that they had buried the wrong girl -- their daughter was alive but severely injured, and the parents of the crash victim they had buried had been keeping a bedside vigil over Cerak not realizing who she was.
Grant County Coroner Ron Mowery said the "entire disaster" could have been avoided if Cerak's sister -- moments after she was told Cerak was dead -- had not been advised not to look at what was actually the body of Taylor University classmate Laura VanRyn.
"It was out of concern for how she would handle the shock of that," Mowery said. "We reflect now that perhaps that would have negated this entire disaster."
Mowery said that the victim's body was seriously damaged but that her head had not been heavily wounded.
Cerak, who strongly resembled VanRyn, was in a coma and had a swollen face and broken bones, cuts and bruises and brain damage from the April 26 crash.
Only in recent days, as she regained consciousness, did she start saying things that didn't make sense to the VanRyn family. She replied "Whitney" several times after VanRyn's parents addressed her as "Laura," Spectrum Health spokeswoman Anne Veltema said.
During a recent therapy session, staff members asked her to write her name, and she scrawled "Whitney Cerak."
Taylor spokesman Jim Garringer said there was an earlier hint of the mix-up -- VanRyn's roommate had questioned two weeks ago whether the seriously injured young woman recuperating at a Michigan hospital was actually VanRyn. He said the school requested official reports about the crash from accident investigators and the Grant County coroner's office but took no other steps to avoid upsetting the families.
Mowery has said that wallets and purses were strewn on the ground at the accident scene. Based on information from emergency workers, Taylor staff and friends of the victims, rescuers mistakenly identified the body of VanRyn, 22, as Cerak, then 18.
The misidentification has led to scrutiny of local coroners, many of whom lack formal medical training yet are required to identify victims in chaotic conditions.
Forensic experts said misidentifications are rare. But they are more likely in cases where officials rely on visual IDs instead of medical tests -- as was the case with Cerak and VanRyn.
"It's one of forensic anthropologists' greatest worries where the person you say it is comes into the lab and says 'I'm not dead,"' said Joseph Hefner, assistant coordinator of the University of Tennessee's forensic anthropology center.
Cases of mistaken identity have happened before.
Two years ago, Oksana Bohatch learned her 16-year-old son, Nathaniel Smith, had been misidentified by authorities and was about to be buried by another family. It wasn't until a funeral for Smith's friend, Patrick Bement, that Bohatch discovered she was at the bedside of someone else's son.
"My heart aches," Bohatch, who lives in Michigan, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press after learning of the Taylor University case. "It is truly beyond belief that this could happen again."
Similar cases have been reported in the last decade in Alberta, Canada; New Jersey; Kentucky and Florida.
Now that the Taylor University families have learned about the tragic mix-up, VanRyn's family has planned a memorial service for Sunday in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Cerak's family is now providing updates about Whitney's condition on the blog that VanRyn's relatives had started. Whitney's sister, Carly, wrote Thursday that Whitney has begun to realize that she was in an accident and that her family wasn't with her for a while.
"Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the VanRyns and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them," Carly wrote. "It is hard because our joy is their pain.
"The VanRyns have been amazing to Whitney and we are privileged that if under any care besides ours that she was under their great care. However, we know the pain they now feel all too well and our hearts break with them. "