This article is Part 3 of “Lost Rites,” a series on America’s failed death notification system.
FLORENCE, Miss. — Gretchen Hankins was in bed on a Friday night in May 2022 when her 39-year-old son leaned down with a hug and kiss and told her he was going to meet friends for the weekend. He promised to return in time for Sunday dinner.
He didn’t come home.
Jonathan David Hankins’ mother and teenage daughter were accustomed to his leaving for a few days at a time; he suffered from meth addiction, and knew not to enter their house when he was using. But this time, something had clearly gone wrong.
Gretchen went to the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, where an investigator took a missing persons report. The sheriff’s office announced the search for Jonathan on Facebook, shared the case with local media and posted his information to a national law enforcement database. A group of volunteers combed nearby waterways.
Every few weeks for more than a year, Gretchen said, she contacted the sheriff’s office for news. Each time, they told her they had nothing. And the anguish dragged on.
“It was pain, mental pain, because I couldn’t imagine where he was at,” Gretchen recalled. “I just couldn’t.”
But for investigators, the answer was always in reach.
NBC News solved the mystery this fall in a matter of minutes. As part of an investigation into people being buried in a Hinds County pauper’s field without their families’ knowledge, reporters examined a register of all the recent burials and compared it with a publicly available list of missing Mississippians. Jonathan’s name was on both.
After obtaining documents through public records requests to confirm the match, NBC News visited Gretchen at home in Florence, Mississippi, on Dec. 4 and shared what reporters had learned: Jonathan had been found dead on May 23, 2022, three days after leaving home, in a hotel room in nearby Jackson. Investigators quickly verified his identity. But the Hinds County coroner’s office and the Jackson Police Department, which both responded to the scene, failed to tell his family, and the county buried him in a grave marked only by a number: 645.
For Jonathan’s relatives, learning the news turned the pain of not knowing into grief and anger — anger at the people who didn’t do their jobs, anger at the months spent wondering if he was dead or alive, anger at being unable to properly mourn.
“It feels like they threw him away like trash,” said Jeannie Jones, Jonathan’s aunt. “No caring. No feeling.”
The Hinds County coroner’s office, already under fire for its handling of two cases in which next-of-kin notifications were similarly botched, did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney representing the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the overall facts of the case but declined to answer questions about its handling of the missing persons report.
- A mother reported her son missing in March. Police kept the truth from her for months.
- Mayor admits communication failure after police ran over a man and didn’t notify his family.
- Dexter Wade’s family suffers a final indignity as he’s exhumed without ceremony.
- ‘They just threw him away’: Another Jackson, Mississippi, man was buried without his family’s knowledge
- Jackson, Mississippi, adopts next-of-kin notification policy after people were buried without families knowing
The Jackson Police Department, which has also faced criticism over the previous cases, adopted written protocols for how to handle death notifications last month following NBC News’ reporting. But Melissa Faith Payne, an agency spokesperson, said the department was not responsible for contacting family after recovering Jonathan’s body.
“From the scene, the victim’s body was immediately turned over to the Hinds County Coroner’s office for further investigation, including an autopsy,” Payne said in a statement. “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.”
The Hankins family has joined a growing list of people failed by a system that is supposed to ensure that relatives are told when a loved one has died and are given a chance to hold a proper funeral.
NBC News has previously documented how Dexter Wade, who lived in Jackson, was struck and killed by a police car and buried in a pauper’s grave this year without anyone telling his mother, who had reported him missing. In another case, the family of Marrio Moore, who was beaten to death in Jackson and buried at the same county cemetery, went eight months without knowing what happened.
Jonathan was buried in a nearby plot at the Hinds County penal farm on Sept. 14, 2022.
Gretchen wants someone to be held accountable. To be fired. To change how the government handles such cases.
“I want people to know that somebody is not doing their job and making folks go through what I’ve been through,” she said.
Jonathan was Gretchen’s only child. As a boy, he was funny and caring, loved football and math, and aspired to join the military. He could not enlist because he was born with one kidney, so he worked construction, where he picked up a drug habit, Gretchen said. Jonathan did several stints behind bars on charges related to drug use. Gretchen, a retired waitress and barber, paid for rehab three times.
Because of the drug use, Gretchen said, she obtained custody of Jonathan’s only child, Brooke, when she was 2. Jonathan lived with them. When he wasn’t high, he was a proud, loving and involved father, regularly attending Brooke’s softball and volleyball games and developing a lighthearted, teasing relationship that sometimes made it seem as if he were her brother instead of her dad, Gretchen and Jeannie said.
The similarities are evident in two photographs on Gretchen’s fireplace mantel: Jonathan and Brooke, both 5, with plump cheeks, broad smiles and bright eyes. She called them “my two babies.”
Jonathan had been using meth again around the time he left for the weekend with friends on May 20, 2022, Gretchen said. She didn’t ask for details about the trip, but promised to make him his favorite chicken and potatoes recipe when he returned.
She cooked the meal, and when he didn’t show up she started calling his “good friends” who didn’t use drugs. When they told her they hadn’t seen him, she assumed he was with the “bad ones.” When those friends called looking for him, she knew something was wrong. She started calling nearby hospitals and jails and posted on Facebook.
She went to the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office and spoke to an investigator named Christian Dedmon. Dedmon documented the meeting in a report dated July 14, 2022, saying he would list Jonathan and his car on the National Crime Information Center, a database of missing and unidentified people maintained by the FBI and accessible only to law enforcement.
A year passed.
“She lived in torment not knowing where her baby is, thinking that her baby is out there,” Jeannie said of her sister.
But authorities in Jackson knew where he was the whole time.
On May 23, 2022, three days after Jonathan left home, staff at the Motel 6 on Interstate 55 in Jackson discovered a man’s body inside one of the rooms, documents obtained through public records requests show. Investigators arrived and found the man lying on his back on the bed in pajama pants. There was no sign of trauma, but he’d been dead for a couple of days. Investigators did not find an ID, according to a coroner’s office report.
His body was taken to the Hinds County morgue, where, four days later, he was identified through fingerprints as Jonathan David Hankins. The coroner’s investigator said he forwarded the information to a Jackson detective for notification of the man’s next of kin. (The Jackson police spokesperson said the department never received this information.) The documents estimate that he died May 21 but do not mention a cause of death or results of toxicology tests, and the coroner’s office has not provided that information.
There is no indication in the documents of what efforts, if any, the coroner’s office or the Jackson Police Department made to contact Jonathan’s family.
On Aug. 26, 2022, the coroner’s office asked the Hinds County Board of Supervisors for permission to bury Jonathan’s body in a pauper’s field at the county penal farm. The board approved the request nearly two weeks later.
In neighboring Rankin County, meanwhile, the search for Jonathan continued.
In May 2023, a friend of Jonathan’s created a missing person profile for him in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a free, publicly searchable database managed by the National Institute of Justice. NamUs also hosts a dataset where coroners can upload names of unclaimed persons — a way of helping families who may be unaware that a loved one has died — but Hinds County did not list Jonathan.
The NamUs missing person profile noted that Jonathan had last used Snapchat near an intersection in Jackson, and that his car had been repossessed in the city in September 2022. Similar details were uploaded to MissingSippi.com, a website run by a small group of volunteers who say they try to “fill in the gaps” of the state’s patchwork system for finding missing people.
These signs that Jonathan ended up in Jackson could have led Rankin County investigators to focus their search there by calling the Hinds County coroner’s office or the Jackson Police Department. But it’s unclear whether the Rankin County investigators ever made those calls.
Dedmon, the investigator who took Gretchen’s missing persons report, was fired in June and later pleaded guilty in federal court to torturing two men in an unrelated case that has drawn national media attention and additional scrutiny of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office from the Department of Justice.
Gretchen later began talking to a new investigator, who told her as recently as Oct. 30 that the sheriff’s office was still working on the case, she said.
“I just trusted them doing their job,” Gretchen said.
On Dec. 4, more than 18 months after Jonathan disappeared, an NBC News reporter visited Gretchen and presented her with the documents that recorded Jonathan’s death and burial. She examined them at her living room table, trying to process what they said.
But the documents were not enough. Words on a page could be wrong. Photos wouldn’t be. She needed to see a picture of his body. Not of his face, but of his chest, etched with his only tattoo.
She stood from her dining room table and bolted to her minivan, leaving her brother, in town from Arkansas, standing in the driveway, stunned.
At that point, Gretchen later said, she still could not believe that Jonathan might be dead. For more than a year, she’d tried to put that thought aside and focus on the possibility that he was in trouble and hiding somewhere.
Hearing from a reporter who said he had answers didn’t persuade her. Others had contacted her claiming to know Jonathan’s whereabouts in hopes of collecting a cash reward.
They’d all been lying.
Gretchen drove to Jackson, calling the Hinds County coroner’s office on the way. She asked where their office was located but they didn’t tell her. They took her number instead, and a few minutes later the investigator who handled Jonathan’s body called her, Gretchen said. The investigator told her that he didn’t have any photos of Jonathan, but the police might.
The investigator also said Jonathan had died with meth and fentanyl in his system, Gretchen said. When she asked why she hadn’t been told about his death, the investigator told her that was the police’s responsibility.
She went home. She wanted to be there when Brooke, 17, returned from school. But she wasn’t going to tell Brooke anything until she felt sure Jonathan was dead.
The next morning, after Brooke left for school, she and Jeannie, her sister, went to Jackson police headquarters. Gretchen demanded to see the photos. A detective tracked some down and showed one to her.
She cried the moment she saw the image; it showed “Brooke” tattooed in cursive across the dead man’s chest, right above his heart.
That was all the proof Gretchen needed.
“It was him,” she said.
After she saw the photos, Gretchen said the Jackson detective told her and Jeannie that the coroner’s office — not the police department — should have told them about Jonathan’s death.
The lack of effort to reach her — and the deflection of responsibility — appalled her.
“That’s ridiculous,” Gretchen said later in an interview. “Going that dang long and not calling people, that’s just inhumane. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”
The failure to notify the family also upset friends and volunteers who had helped Gretchen look for Jonathan.
“I’m just furious,” said Thomas Goolsby, the friend who uploaded Jonathan’s information on NamUs and posted a $15,000 reward for information about his whereabouts. He also printed missing posters and asked for help finding him on social media.
Goolsby said that he called the Hinds County coroner’s office repeatedly from July to September 2022 asking if they had any unidentified or unclaimed bodies and providing Jonathan’s name. Each time, Goolsby said, he was told the office would check and get back to him. He said he never got a return call. Goolsby was not immediately able to obtain records of those calls from his cellphone company.
“They let him lay there and buried him in an unmarked grave when he would have been claimed that same day,” Goolsby said. “He had loved ones. He had family.”
Members of the organization Murky Waters Search & Recovery say they spent more than 60 hours between December 2022 and March 2023 using sonar equipment to search area waterways for Jonathan or his car. Daniel Farrish, the group’s founder, said it was frustrating to learn those efforts were ultimately unnecessary.
“We don’t mind looking because we’re doing it for the family ... but that’s very disheartening,” Farrish said. “Hopefully some eyes will be opened and changes will be made.”
Brooks Davis, a volunteer who manages the MissingSippi website, said his group has struggled in the past to get the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County coroner to share information about missing persons cases and unclaimed bodies. After NBC News’ reporting on the Dexter Wade case, Davis said he and his team wondered how many more people might have been buried in the county’s pauper’s cemetery even as their families actively searched for them.
It was telling, Davis said, that even in the wake of that scandal, which prompted Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to acknowledge a communication “failure,” it took an investigation by a news outlet to reveal what happened to Jonathan.
“What if there wasn’t a Dexter Wade?” Davis said. “What if his mama didn’t figure out what she figured out and exposed these problems? How much longer would this family be going through this? Would they have ever found out?”
Jonathan’s family says they want to have his body exhumed and give him a proper burial, but they are not sure how to go about doing that.
After learning of Jonathan’s death and seeing NBC News’ earlier reporting, the family contacted Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who last month helped arrange for an exhumation and funeral for Dexter Wade, and who is also representing the family of Marrio Moore.
Gretchen signed a contract for Crump to represent her on Wednesday.
“Families that report a loved one missing deserve immediate and accurate answers," Crump said in a statement. "We will work to unearth the truth about what happened to Jonathan and to seek justice for his family.”
For Gretchen, the hell of not knowing where her son is has ended. A new kind of agony has set in. She feels heartbroken, ignored and disrespected.
Gretchen now believes that Jonathan died of a drug overdose. The reported presence of fentanyl in his body makes her wonder if the meth had been laced with it. But she doubts authorities will be able to answer that question.
“They can’t even do the job of notifying a dead person’s next of kin,” Gretchen said. “They probably just thought, ‘Another drug addict, gone.’”
Jon Schuppe reported from Florence, Mississippi; Mike Hixenbaugh reported from Washington, D.C.