Sam was a nice man, an elderly veteran who suffered from diabetes. Just as the entire island went into lockdown because of the pandemic, Sam walked out of the apartment he rented from us and collapsed in the building lobby.
We had just received word that Property Managers had been deemed “essential workers”. I am no spring chicken so I was nervous about being exposed. Despite my objections, my attorney said that I needed to get back out there in my mask and gloves and take care of business. I put the official letter from the Mayor’s office on my truck dashboard, and off I went with a gigantic bottle of hand sanitizer and my husband’s casual “good luck out there”.
The ambulance responded promptly and raced Sam to the hospital. Security at the complex told the EMT that Sam had confided that he recently tested positive for COVID-19. I made sure that the unit was locked and Sam’s belongings were secure. Three days later Sam died.
Sam’s nephew called our office stating he was the next of kin and wanted access to the unit so he could get Sam’s things including his wallet and military documents required by the mortuary to make the necessary arrangements. Because this was the very beginning of the pandemic, we had no idea whether we could or should enter the unit. Is it safe? What am I supposed to do? What are my legal responsibilities? Nobody knew.
I called numerous agencies and everyone I could think of for help. When I finally got someone on the phone from the State Department of Health, I asked if it was safe to enter the unit. His response was that it “should be okay”. Should be?! When I asked for his name, he said he couldn’t give me his name. I was not about to risk everything based on a “should be” from someone who would not even give me his name. It was pretty much the same with everyone I called. It was unchartered territory and nobody wanted to make any decisions.
I called a few remediation companies who had already cleverly figured out how to prosper from the situation. Disasters bring out the worst in people and the pandemic was no exception. The cheapest bid I could get was $1,400 for “sanitizing” of the property. Although we know now that sanitizing the unit for a virus was unnecessary, everyone was confused at the time and the owner of the property decided it was better to be safe than sorry.
After the unit was treated, I decided to let the nephew visit the unit as long as he provided me with proof that he was next of kin, sign a liability agreement, and remove everything in the unit and not just rummage through things and cherry-pick what he wanted leaving a big mess. He explained that he didn’t have the time or money to remove everything at that time but wanted to bury his uncle and needed the documents in the unit. He seemed genuine and it was a reasonable request so I called my attorney who said to just open the door long enough so he could get those things.
Things took a strange turn when he couldn’t provide proof that he was next of kin. The mortuary is calling and wanting to know what they should do with Sam. My attorney says I need to go in the unit and find these things so they can bury the poor man. I need to take a witness and video the whole thing. Wearing our masks and using our cell phones to video our search, two of us from the office enter the unit but cannot find his wallet or military papers.
I am shocked to receive a call from a woman who claims she is Sam’s niece and the actual next of kin. The nephew is lying and just trying to get at the valuables in the unit. I am confused and let her know that whoever is next of kin must provide us with proof. This is getting very frustrating. The mortuary can’t move forward and my property owner has a unit full of personal belongings and no income.
I then received an anonymous phone call stating that Sam has a sister, she is his actual next of kin, and she lives in a remote village in Tonga. She informed me that anyone else claiming to be next of kin are not to be allowed in the unit under any circumstances.
While contemplating my next move, I was so happy to receive a fax from Sam’s actual sister in Tonga. She could not travel to Hawaiʻi because of the pandemic but she had her attorney provide evidence of next of kin and authorization for someone else in Hawaiʻi to take care of everything.
The local representative showed up quickly and attempted “the cherry-pick”. The unit was finally cleared out once it was understood that I would only come to open the door when movers and vans were on site.
Rest in peace Sam.