Alfonso Bennett’s family are being asked to make the most agonizing of decisions. In front of them, in a hospital bed, lies their badly injured relative – and he shows no sign of waking up. So, after weighing up all the facts, the Bennett clan heartbreakingly opt to switch off the stricken man’s life support. But as they try to come to terms with the loss of their loved one, the family receive a shocking surprise that turns their world upside down.
In late April 2019 a brutally beaten – and entirely naked man – was discovered by Chicago police beneath a vehicle. The unconscious victim was then taken to the city’s Mercy Hospital, where he was initially recorded under the name “John Doe.” You see, the patient had been so badly maimed that medical staff had at first struggled to identify him.
However, with the help of police, the hospital eventually managed to discover just who the mystery man was. His name was Alfonso Bennett, and he had previously been reported missing. And, interestingly, cops had recognized him with the help of a mug shot that they’d taken following an alleged crime – although a witness at the scene of the incident had told officers that he was actually called “Elijah Bennett.”
As a result, Rosie Brooks – one of Bennett’s four sisters – got the call that any family member would dread. Speaking to CBS Chicago in June 2019, Brooks recalled, “[The woman on the other end of the phone] identified herself as Jennifer from Mercy Hospital. She was a social worker. She was looking for relatives of Alfonso Bennett, and I told her that was my brother. And she said, ‘Well, he’s here in ICU.’”
So, Brooks and two of her sisters ran to the Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, where they found the man who had been identified as their horrifically injured brother. “They had him on the ventilator, and they had a tube in his mouth,” Brooks added to CBS Chicago. But from the offset, the siblings all sensed that something wasn’t quite right.
In fact, Bennett’s sisters suspected that the severely injured man lying unconscious in the hospital bed wasn’t their estranged brother after all. Not only that, but they reportedly expressed such doubts to medical professionals on multiple occasions. But, allegedly, staff dismissed the women’s concerns each and every time that they were raised. Surely the family were just in denial?
Yes, the doctors apparently weren’t prepared to entertain the idea that the man they were treating was someone else entirely. According to reports, they repeatedly explained to the three siblings that their grief had affected their judgment. Indeed, court documents even claimed the women were told outright that they “needed to accept” the fate of their brother.
And in a later interview, Brooks told journalists about her numerous attempts to seek official confirmation on the man’s identity. “I said, ‘How did you all verify this was my brother?’” she revealed. “In my heart, I could not recognize him.” What’s worse, the issue was muddied further owing to the fact that she and her siblings hadn’t seen Bennett for quite some time. As often happens in families, he had become estranged from his relatives.
Another of Bennett’s sisters, Brenda Bennett-Johnson, added to CBS Chicago, “[The doctors] kept saying [that the Chicago Police Department] identified this person as our brother.” The women had been left concerned, though, about the identification method that the cops had used. Reportedly owing to budget constraints, the far more reliable technique of fingerprinting had been overlooked in favor of mugshots.
An understandably irate Bennett-Johnson added, “You don’t identify a person through a mugshot versus fingerprints. Fingerprints [carry] everything.” Remarkably, though, the sisters were left with no choice but to assume that the seriously ill man was their brother. And soon the situation got even worse. Ultimately, you see, Bennett’s family would be called upon to make a life-or-death decision.
Indeed, although the patient was able to move his hand in reply to various demands, his eyes remained closed. And with the situation therefore looking very bleak for the man, the sisters agreed to turn his ventilator off. Just a few days after Bennett had been moved to a hospice, then, he passed away.
“Within minutes, he was ice cold,” Bennett-Johnson later recalled to CBS Chicago. So, the devastated family began making arrangements for the deceased’s funeral, purchasing a casket and burial plot and even beginning to write his obituary. Incredibly, though, all of these preparations proved to be entirely unnecessary.
A week later, the family had assembled for a barbecue when they were joined by the most unexpected of visitors. You’ve guessed it: Bennett – who was supposed to have only recently passed away – wandered in without a care in the world. And, understandably, his sisters were left in a state of bafflement and shock – although this ultimately turned to joy.
Speaking to CBS Chicago, Bennett-Johnson described the moment that she discovered the brother she was preparing to bury was in fact alive. After one of her sisters called her with the news, “You’re kidding” had been her first response. “I could have almost had a heart attack,” Bennett-Johnson added.
The elated sisters then contacted the Chicago Police Department with the news that Bennett had turned up unannounced. Yet their happiness at such an unlikely reunion was soon tempered by a startling realization. Shockingly, the women had essentially – yet completely unwittingly – sent a complete stranger to his death. Naturally, then, a few questions needed answering.
In fact, as Bennett-Johnson told CBS Chicago, the family had been left distraught after understanding that they’d turned off the ventilator of a man they didn’t know. She said, “It’s sad that it happened like that. If it was our brother and we had to go through that, that would have been a different thing. We made all kinds of decisions [about] someone that wasn’t our family.”
So, following the mix-up, Chicago police decided to use fingerprinting on the mystery man. In that way, he was officially identified for a second time while his body lay in the morgue. Yet the sisters’ attorney told CBS Chicago that he found it staggering this method hadn’t been employed in the first place.
Cannon Lambert Sr. said, “I can’t conceive of how a budgetary issue would drive whether or not a person who was a John Doe would be fingerprinted before they’re taken off of life support. If that’s the situation, something’s got to be done.” He later added to CNN, “I really want it to be clear that it is not acceptable for the hospital and law enforcement to perceive people as invisible.”
Lambert Sr. concluded by saying, “People matter.” Fortunately, Chicago police officials appeared to be listening to the family attorney’s strong words, as they later revealed that they would be launching a thorough investigation into how such a terrible blunder had occurred. “To say that we currently have questions is an understatement,” Anthony Guglielmi, the chief communications officer of the Chicago Police Department, tweeted in June 2019.
Guglielmi continued, “We have detectives looking into every aspect of this incident – from the incident response to the circumstances leading to the hospitalization and the notification of family members. Details [are] to follow as we learn more.” But while the police seemingly sought to learn lessons fairly quickly, the hospital dealt with the stunning situation in a completely different manner.
Indeed, Mercy Hospital appeared to be less willing to own up to any mistakes, as a spokesperson for the facility refused to answer any of CBS Chicago’s questions about its policies in such situations. Of the matter, that individual merely commented, “The family did identify this patient as their brother.”
Furthermore, CBS Chicago’s Suzanne Le Mignot was reportedly told that fingerprints are typically only taken by the police in one of two situations: either after a person is accused of a crime or when their body enters the morgue. And, of course, this all came far too late for Bennett’s sisters – as well as the man who had actually died. So, who exactly had been wrongly identified?
Well, following the long-overdue fingerprinting, it was discovered that the individual in question was a 69-year-old named Elisha Brittman. Apparently, Brittman had disappeared for a number of weeks prior to his death; his family claimed, however, that cops had refused to record him as missing when they’d visited the police station. Could this have increased the likelihood of a mix-up, then?
In any case, Brittman was described as a “gentle giant of sorts” by attorney Lambert. It emerged, too, that, as one of 13 siblings, he had been part of a large family; he had also apparently been a very keen reader. And Brittman was finally laid to rest on June 29, 2019 – a full two months after the attack that had claimed his life.
Naturally, though, the late man’s relatives were angry about how their loved one had been treated. And Mioshi Brittman, the victim’s great-niece, told CBS Chicago that the family had been attempting to track down her uncle since his disappearance in late April. “We called the morgues,” she said in July 2019. “We called the hospital Mercy. We called them! We called County! We called everywhere! It shouldn’t have never happened like that.”
Understandably, Brittman’s distraught family would go on to file a lawsuit over allegations of wrongful death, emotional distress and negligence. To add to that, the Bennett family sued both the hospital and city of Chicago for over $50,000. And Patricia Van Pelt, the Illinois State Public Health Committee’s chairperson, told CBS Chicago that the errors involved in the case were nothing short of scandalous.
Van Pelt said, “To just take a mugshot and use that to identify a person who clearly has had injuries to his face is shocking.” The senator also discussed how touched she had been by the Brittmans’ story, adding, “When I saw the latest report, it broke my heart listening to the young lady talk about how she searched diligently for her uncle.”
And Van Pelt vowed to ensure that no other Illinois family would have to go through such an ordeal. She told CBS Chicago, “I think legislation is important. It is something we should definitely look into creating right now. When you have someone that is unidentifiable, doesn’t have ID [and] is unconscious, fingerprinting seems to me to be the best step you can take at that time.”
Meanwhile, the two families’ lawsuit argued that the police force “engaged in willful and wanton conduct by intentionally choosing not to fingerprint an injured, non-responsive man who required life-saving medical assistance.” Lambert asserted as much, too, when he said to CNN, “It is untenable that [Chicago police] did not use fingerprints in this instance where in many other instances, they do.” Even so, an Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police spokesperson argued that fingerprinting isn’t guaranteed to identify a John Doe.
In an official statement, the spokesperson said, “Fingerprints can be used in those circumstances. The problem comes in if the unidentified person has never been fingerprinted for any reason.” Yet in this particular case, fingerprinting would in all likelihood have proved that the seriously ill man in the hospital bed wasn’t Alfonso Bennett. How? Well, Bennett himself was on police records and had had that mugshot taken to boot. And in the end, Brittman, too, was identified through the marks on his digits.
As you would expect, then, Mioshi was furious that the whole farrago could easily have been avoided. She told CBS Chicago, “We wouldn’t even be sitting here. We would have been by [Brittman’s] side, there talking, providing and taking care of him. This wouldn’t even have been a mishap.”
The grieving relative continued to the station, “Was he just a person just out there that nobody cared for? Did they think that?” And Mioshi even accused the Chicago Police Department of dropping the ball when it came to its identification methods. She added, “They can’t tell me they don’t fingerprint. It’s part of their policies and procedures.”
Yet Mioshi was keen to sing the praises of Bennett’s siblings for publicizing their ordeal. She said, “I really appreciate the Bennett family. Had they not come to the media and let you guys know, we wouldn’t have known the way how these things had happened.”
As previously mentioned, the lawsuit filed partly alleged that Brittman died as a result of Chicago police and Mercy Hospital’s negligible conduct. The documents additionally claim that both defendants “convinced people not authorized to make medical decisions on [Brittman’s] behalf” and that these “life-affecting determinations were a proximate cause of death.”
Worse still, the blunder affected Bennett in a monetary sense. After being wrongly identified as deceased, you see, he discovered that he was no longer receiving any social security and disability payments. Fortunately, after learning about the issue, the relevant authorities eventually brought back Bennett’s financial support. But, as it happens, this isn’t the only recent case of a man being taken off life support by the wrong family.
In July 2018 Shirell Powell was told that her brother Frederick Williams had seemingly suffered a drug overdose and had been admitted to St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx. The man in question had also been left severely brain-damaged as a result of his ordeal, and so after nine days Powell consented to turn his life support off.
But in a bizarre twist, hospital staff had gotten a very much alive Williams mixed up with the real victim. How? Well, the deceased man, whose real name was Raheme Perry, had had Williams’ identity card on him when brought into the hospital. According to an October 2019 report by investigative website ProPublica, police told Perry’s wife that her husband had likely stolen Williams’ possessions at some point. Williams himself, meanwhile, was temporarily in jail on an unrelated assault allegation. Sadly, though, the blunder had meant that his sister had inadvertently sent a stranger to his death.
What’s more, Powell told the New York Post in January 2019 that she hadn’t been able to sleep much since the trauma. She said, “To actually stand over him and watch this man take his last breath – sometimes I can’t even talk about it because I get upset and start crying. On the one hand, I’m thankful that it wasn’t [my brother]. On the other hand, I killed somebody that was a dad or a brother.”
And the surviving Williams wasn’t exactly overjoyed to hear that he’d inadvertently been involved in such an error. “He was saying, ‘You were going to kill me?’” recalled Powell when talking about the phone call that she had made to her imprisoned brother. Apparently, though, she went on to explain to Williams, “Once you’re brain dead, there is nothing to do.”
Just like the Bennetts and Brittmans, Powell chose to sue the hospital in question for the psychological distress that they had put her and her family through. St. Barnabas Hospital was ultimately cleared, though, following a Health Department investigation that reportedly found staff had followed the right identification policy. Yet the lawsuit continues, and Powell has been joined in her legal fight by LaTanya Perry, the wife of Raheme.