Santa Rosa woman identified as Vegas slaying victim turns up alive
September 13, 2002
By MICHAEL COIT
Kathleen Hatfield is alive after all, living on the streets of Santa Rosa five weeks after Las Vegas police identified her as the victim of an apparent homicide.
Hatfield's mother was a day away from burying an urn containing what she believed were the ashes of her 46-year-old daughter when she was told it was all a mistake.
The blunder was the result of a erroneous fingerprint identification by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
"This is so upsetting. I have had to call people all around California saying that she is not dead," said Martha Hatfield, a Lake County resident who asked that her hometown not be identified.
"The hole was already opened, and she was going to be buried with her father."
What began as a case about a Sonoma County transient who hadn't called her mother in months became an emotional roller coaster that ended when Kathleen Hatfield called home from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department to say she was alive, Sheriff's Lt. Bruce Rochester said.
"It worked out OK. They went through some grieving, unfortunately," Rochester said.
Kathleen Hatfield has been living as a transient in Sonoma County for several years. She uses the Homeless Services Center in Santa Rosa and frequently takes meals at the St. Vincent De Paul Society's dining room in Santa Rosa, according to homeless advocates who know her.
She came to The Press Democrat earlier this week to say that an Aug. 8 article reporting that Las Vegas investigators had identified her body was incorrect, that her mother was upset and that she had recently talked to police who now knew she was alive and well.
Martha Hatfield reported her daughter missing in May, telling authorities she hadn't seen her since last September and hadn't received a phone call from her since Thanksgiving.
Her name was placed in a computer database of missing persons that is used by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Las Vegas authorities came across Kathleen Hatfield's name in the database in June while trying to identify a body found in the desert.
The badly decomposed body had a rose tattoo. So does Hatfield, and the tattoo was included in her description in the database.
Sonoma County authorities, who had fingerprinted her at the county jail following a past arrest, mailed a photocopy of Hatfield's fingerprints to Las Vegas.
Using the lone fingerprint they could obtain from the body, Las Vegas authorities in August identified the remains as Hatfield.
"We only had one readable fingerprint, and it was so close a match that they went ahead and made an identification," Las Vegas Police Detective David Mesinar said.
The next day, Martha Hatfield was informed of her daughter's death.
"I kept telling the officer who talked to me that it can't be her, it can't be her. What would she be doing in Las Vegas?" she said. "I didn't believe for a minute that she was dead until they convinced me."
Between the time the body was found and the identification was made, however, a Santa Rosa police officer stopped Hatfield and informed her she was listed as a missing person.
Her name was removed from the missing persons database, raising a red flag when Las Vegas authorities later tried to remove her name.
Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County sheriff's deputies then began circulating photos of Hatfield with the help of homeless advocates to determine if she indeed was alive.
She was found in late August and called her mother from the Sheriff's Department.
Mistake called unusual
The head of the sheriff's crime scene investigations unit called the mistake on the fingerprint identification unusual and said Sonoma County authorities will review Hatfield's prints and the print taken from the dead woman in Las Vegas.
"If you make a bad call, you've lost any credibility you have as an expert witness," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Dunn, who has headed the unit since 1990. "And that's something we are very, very careful about."
Mesinar said Las Vegas experts reviewed their identification and recognized the error.
"We determined that our girl was not Kathleen Hatfield," he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.