The first sign Tyler Chase got that he might be dead came at the grocery store. He had food stamps, but his welfare card didn’t work.
The next sign was when he contacted Oregon state officials, who told him a death certificate had been filed in his name.
Then, weeks later, the most disturbing event happened: the urn containing the ashes was sent to his family, and it was lying in his cousin’s closet.
In reality, he was very much alive.
Mr. Chase’s life has flowed through years of drug use, homelessness, severed family ties and bureaucracy that documented his death without fingerprints or any immediate family present when the body, believed to be his, was cremated.
He started using methamphetamine as a teenager, and after the death of his mother in 2020, he fell into a dark period of severe addiction and crime. Then in January 2023, he was arrested on several charges, including burglary and drug possession.
“My life was a mess,” Mr. Chase, 22, said in a recent telephone interview.
He was eventually released to a transitional housing facility in Portland, Ore., on the condition that he complete an addiction recovery program. By early October, when he learned of the death certificate, Mr. Chase had been sober for seven months and was looking for work, he said.
“Obviously you can’t apply to places when you’re dead.”
‘I told you.’
Weeks after the supermarket incident, threads of grim confusion began to unravel – revealing mistakes that left one family without notification of a dead loved one and another grieving the loss of Mr. Chase.
In mid-December, a Portland Police Bureau officer appeared in the temporary housing facility Mr. Chase, wondering why he was looking for the documents of a man who officials had identified as dead.
Mr Chase recalled seeing his photograph in the hands of a police officer, with a look of disbelief on his face. “Never in my 20 years of service,” Mr. Chase recalled the officer saying, “I’ve never dealt with anything like this.”
“I was thinking like, well, yeah, I told you.”
The next evening, the chief investigator at the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office visited Mr. Chase to explain his mistake, he said.
A few months earlier, another man staying at the recovery center was found dead of a fentanyl overdose, and Mr. Chase’s wallet was likely stolen, he recalled the interrogator telling him. Mr Chase recalled losing his wallet and described the other occupant as several years older, shorter and thinner with red hair. Mr Chase said he tried to persuade the man to stay in the program but he left.
The mix-up occurred because the dead man was carrying Mr. Chase’s wallet and a provisional driver’s license, the medical examiner’s office confirmed in a statement to KGW8, the NBC affiliate in Portland, in January.
‘I had an out-of-body experience.’
Mr. Chase, in and out of treatment for years, lost contact with his family, including his father. When authorities told them he died of a drug overdose, they had no reason to doubt it.
The last relative he was in contact with was his cousin Latasha Rosales, 35.
While the coroner’s office said Mr Chase’s immediate family refused to see the body before cremation, his father Toby Chase said he was never asked. Neither was the rest of his family, Ms. Rosales said.
“We deeply regret that there was a misidentification,” the expert’s office said in a statement. The office said it has since launched a “comprehensive review” of procedures and will in the future require bodies found with temporary identification to also be fingerprinted at the time of a death investigation.
J. Keith Pinckard, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said in an email that misidentification of the dead was “pretty rare” and that he had encountered only one or two cases in his career. “I’m not aware of any patterns that might exist,” said Dr. Pinckard.
Mr. Chase’s cousin, Ms. Rosales, said her family was upset, but not shocked, when they were told of his death. She last saw Mr Chase after his mother’s death in 2020, but gradually lost contact.
“The next thing I hear about him is that he died of a drug overdose,” she said. The family raised more than $1,000 to cremate the body, and Ms. Rosales collected an urn of ashes in October, she said.
A few nights before Christmas, Mrs. Rosales received a call from a private number, informing her that Mr. Chase was in fact alive. “I thought they were playing a joke on me,” she said. A female voice acknowledged the surreal nature of the call and asked Ms. Rosales if she wanted to switch to video. “Then she turned the phone over to my cousin,” Ms. Rosales said of the caller. “I felt like I had an out-of-body experience.”
‘It could have been me.’
The next day, the relatives met in person. Mr. Chase was not dead or sick, but tall, strong and healthier than Mrs. Rosales had seen him in years.
“I felt like I should have done more after his mother died,” Ms. Rosales said. “Now I can be with him – I can do the things I wish I could do before.”
A few days later, Mr. Chase, who has since been hired by an organization that helps the homeless in Portland, spent Christmas with Ms. Rosales and her children. He said his confusion with another man who overdosed made him realize “that could have been me.”
The joy of the reunion, Ms. Rosales said, was tainted by confusion and anger at the authorities, who she believed saw the body as just another dead addict. Fentanyl and methamphetamine lead to record number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2022, according to report published in December.
“I had the ashes of someone’s child and they didn’t even know their loved one was dead,” Ms. Rosales said.
“That’s what really saddens me about this situation,” she added. “They just treat them like they’re nobody.”
Sheelagh McNeill and Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.