I slowly walked among the stones of Meyer Cemetery, located in the rolling hills of the Buffalo Run Valley, west of Bellefonte. I scanned the tombstones, taking in the familiar names of people I had known growing up. Though many of those buried on these sacred lands are familiar to me, there is one particular grave near the rear of the cemetery of these sacred grounds that holds a modern mystery.
As I approached the resting place, I know that – unlike many graves of the known – this grave will have flowers on it. The man, whose identity remains a mystery, has not been completely forgotten by residents, but in the twenty years since his death he has been forgotten by most. For many years his grave was marked by a metal coroner’s plaque but it is currently marked with a small granite stone provided by the Wickersham family, so the man who rests here will never be forgotten. I stopped at his stone and read the words etched into the granite: “John Doe / 2000.”
Unlike many of the John and Jane Doe cases I’ve looked into over the years, this one has very little information – in fact, I never encountered a modern Doe case with so little information available to the public.
What is known is the unidentified man was traveling in a vehicle owned by Amusements of America with three other carnival workers. The van had left the Orange County Fair in Middletown, New York and was on its way to the Ohio State Fair. The vehicle had passed through the eastern part of the state and had almost made it to the Centre-Clearfield County border when tragedy struck. The van carried the quartet was struck from behind by a tractor trailer at four-thirty in the morning. The van was immediately consumed by flames and all four within perished.
The August 7, 2000 edition of The Times Record-Herald (Middletown, New York) reports the four men killed were working for the carnival and gives some insight into the men traveling in the van. Two of the four were from the Middletown, New York region. David Malecki-Hurst, of Middletown, New York, had just turned twenty-five two days before the accident. The game operator was described as a generous, out-going person who had plans to travel for the rest of the summer. Louis Parken of Otisville, New York, was only eighteen years old. He operated rides for the carnival and had a longing for travel.
Less is known about the third man. Jacqueline Sanz, from Philadelphia, was fifty-one-years-old.
And the fourth man – there is nothing listed about him. The article states that authorities were trying to identify him. And then nothing. Within weeks, he had disappeared from public memory.
What happened that caused the man to be forgotten? The question is not an easy one to answer and in a time when information has been transmitted over the internet, there is little to nothing about John Doe’s true identity.
The first issue is the carnival company – when they want to talk – does not seem to have a record of the man. The avoidance of answering questions about the unidentified man has created more questions by those who have attempted to discover the man’s identity. Note: I personally think it odd that in the handful of newspaper articles about the deadly accident, there has been no comment from the carnival company. I would have thought there would have been some statement in regards to the three men who definitely worked for them, but it appears they have been quiet since the accident happened.
Another issue is the way Pennsylvania State Police keep there records. The case was declared an accident and the state police no longer have records of it due to not being required to keep records beyond ten years. It did not matter that the accident was a deadly tragedy and that there was an unidentified man killed. It was not a murder – it was an accident, so the records did not have to be maintained.
However, there is another major reason that the deadly accident and the unidentified man has been forgotten about: it was never a major story in the local newspapers. The local newspapers barely gave the entire thing a mention, instead focusing on other events going on in the region. Digging into newspaper archives, The Times Record-Herald has more information about the deadly wreck than the local newspaper ever had. With the accident and the unidentified man not making the headlines, it quickly faded from public memory until only a handful of people remembered it.
Due to information not being readily available, a major issue was created – the age range of the unidentified man was wrong from the beginning. Initial information, which was spread mostly by word of mouth, placed the man as being in his early to mid-twenties. However, this was not the case – the man was much older, possibly in his late forties/early fifties.
With walls at every turn, the man’s identity cannot be easily solved. The most obvious answer is the unidentified man was a member of the carnival. The Times Record-Herald suggests the man worked for the carnival. If this is the case, then the question must be asked: “Why doesn’t Amusements of America reveal his identity? Surely they must have some information about John Doe.”
There are a number of other possible answers to this question. One possibility is the man was newly hired – that is he had been hired at the New York fair – and the company did not have the paperwork finalized. Still they should have had some information, such as a name, for John Doe.
The second possibility is the man was being paid illegally for some reason by Amusements of America. If this is the case, then the man could have possibly been an undocumented resident and thus has never been reported missing. Without any answers from Amusements of America, it may never be known if John Doe was or was not working for the carnival company.
If he was not a carnival worker, then it is possible this man was a hitchhiker and a complete stranger. The man had either approached the group at the New York fair and asked for a ride westward or was picked up by the carnival workers as they drove towards Ohio.
While the answer may lie within the records of the carnival company, I personally think the man was a complete stranger. Walking through the local fairgrounds, I’ve heard the vendors talking and sharing information with one another, so if the man was known – even by a nickname – then surely somebody with the carnival company would have known the man’s identity. At this point, none of the carnival workers have ever stepped forth with a name or any other information about John Doe. The only people who may have known the man’s true identity sadly died in the same wreck that claimed this unidentified man.
Scanning through the available information, the question must be asked: “Why hasn’t he been missed?” If he had a family, his disappearance has never made it into the major public national databases of missing and unidentified people. If he was reported missing by loved ones, then those reports may remain hidden in a small-town police station and have yet to be submitted. Or he may have been missing for years, which makes searching the databases nearly impossible due to not knowing anything about his past or even what he looked like while alive.
With so many questions lingering, I finished paying my respects to the unknown man and left him resting in the back corner of Meyer Cemetery, passed by many, but not forgotten by those who hope one day his identity can be reclaimed.