January 20, 2011

Update: Deceased homeless man's family located

Updated Jan. 21, 12:45 p.m. – A call for public help in locating the family of a man found dead in a downtown Columbia park Saturday has been answered.

Bryan Gilbert Williamson, 50, suffered a stroke sometime during that night, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. A collie/retriever mix dog was with him. The pet, named Scooter, was a service dog trained in New Mexico, Watts said.

Someone saw Williamson's story and recognized the name, and knew he had a sister in Dillon, Watts said Friday. The sister has been notified and is working on making burial arrangements, he said.

Scooter is in custody of the county animal shelter, but several families have come forward offering a home.

While Williamson's family was located, cases of deaths of unidentified people are a growing issue in the county. Last year, more than 70 people were cremated and then buried in the public cemetery, Watts said. In Watts’ first year as coroner in 2001, his office buried the remains of 14 people. Now, the coroner’s office has a full-time investigator to search for family members of unclaimed dead people, he said.

In Lexington County, Coroner Harry Harman said his office buried 13 people in 2010 who did not have family members to claim their bodies. Lexington County also cremates those people and then places their remains in Gibson Cemetery in West Columbia.

Both coroners said the unclaimed bodies are a mix of people whose relatives cannot be located and people who have known relatives who do not want to be involved in the burial or funeral plans.

“You can find next-of-kin sometimes, and then the family doesn’t want anything to do with them,” Harman said. “It’s a right sad situation.”

Watts said the increase in unclaimed deceased people in Richland County can be blamed on the bad economy as well as the increase in transient people living in the area. On occasion, Watts finds the family, but no one can afford to pay for a burial, so the county bears the cost.

The costs for cremations are minimal, Watts said. The financial burden for the county comes in the effort it takes to find relatives. Watts estimated his office spends $75,000 per year to track down relatives and then pay for cremations and burials.

Richland County holds quarterly funeral services, he said.

“It’s the responsible thing to do,” Watts said. “We try to find the family and let them know something has happened to their loved one.”

Watts did not know why Williamson moved to Columbia or how long he had been in the area. He was around Columbia long enough for people to recognize him and his dog as they roamed the Five Points area. However, no one knows him well, Watts said.

Watts did not know why Williamson would have needed a service dog.

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