opinion

The story of a shoeless John Doe, a forensic investigator and an Army tattoo | Mike Newall

Mike Newall, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Friday, March 2, 2018, 4:26 PM

Pat Dickson, right, cries as she talks about her son, Bobby, who died in a heroin overdose in December 2017 in Kensington. With her is Courtney Bracken, the mother of Bobby’s son.

Bobby Dickson died in December, in a breezeway in Kensington with a syringe next to him and his shoes missing.

Courtney Bracken holds a family photo of her deceased boyfriend, Robert Dickson, at left in the photo, in Mantua NJ on March 1, 2018. Robert died of a heroin overdose in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in December 2017. In the family photo are Robert, his mother, Pat, and brother, Billy. He was found overdosed in a Kensington breezeway with only an army tattoo to help investigators eventually identify him. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A family photo of Robert Dickson. Dickson died of a heroin overdose in December 2017. Dickson family
Photo Gallery: The story of a shoeless John Doe, a forensic investigator and an Army tattoo | Mike Newall

And now his mother and his sister and the mother of his 6-year-old son lie awake at night, thinking about the questions they might never get answered. The answers they hope could bring a little peace of mind. The answers they know will not be enough.

Where was he sleeping? Had he been staying with someone? Did someone just dump him in that breezeway?

They know fentanyl killed him. No mystery in that: He had been using heroin on and off for five years. But his family hadn’t heard from him in days when he died, and that was not like Bobby. And now the little questions tear at his mother, Pat Dickson.

Questions that would keep a mother awake: Was his hair brushed? Were his teeth clean? Had he eaten?

A few weeks after his death, his family learned about someone they thought could answer some of those questions: Seth Ditizio, the forensic investigator I wrote about with my colleague Aubrey Whelan three months ago.

It was Ditizio who had recognized Bobby’s 10th Mountain Division tattoo across his ribs and who told us that the case stuck with him, himself a veteran. He knew the division was something to be reckoned with, deployed over the years from Somalia to Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Bobby’s body was found, he was unidentified. We mentioned him, briefly, in the story, as just that: a John Doe. Fingerprints confirmed the ID.

Three months later, the Dicksons e-mailed me. They had questions, they wanted to talk to Ditizio, and they wanted me to see Bobby’s photo.

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Courtney Bracken holds a family photo of her deceased boyfriend, Robert Dickson, at left in the photo, in Mantua NJ on March 1, 2018. Robert died of a heroin overdose in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in December 2017. In the family photo are Robert, his mother, Pat, and brother, Billy. He was found overdosed in a Kensington breezeway with only an army tattoo to help investigators eventually identify him.

Around their kitchen table in Mantua, Gloucester County, the Dicksons compressed Bobby’s 45 years into an hour-long conversation.

Enlisted at 20, a year out of Woodbury High, he followed brother Billy, already a Marine. They were inseparable, Billy, the easygoing athlete, Bobby, the class clown who could win over any room. Billy was stationed at Camp Lejeune when Bobby deployed to Somalia in 1992.

Bobby’s was a grim task: burying civilians killed by famine and factional fighting in mass graves. He was working that task when a chaplain arrived with the news: Billy had died in a car accident, just 11 days before he was to be discharged.

On the flight home, the passengers quietly passed a hat for Bobby to buy a funeral suit. But for Bobby, life after the military never really fit. He carried the memories of those bodies in the graves, and wouldn’t talk about it for years.

He married young, had twin boys — Billy and Bobby, naturally — but the marriage didn’t last. Neither did management jobs in the hospitality industry, positions at posh hotels around the country that never stuck. He drank. More and more. His drinking led to pot and then pills and then crack and then heroin, and endless stints in rehab in the VA hospital in Coatesville, and then the cycle would begin again. His father’s death from cancer in 2013 quickened his spiral.

Diagnosed with PTSD, he would startle awake at night, punching the air. Night terrors.

There were bright spots, too: when he met Courtney Bracken watching the Phillies game at the Deptford Mall. He called her the love of his life. They had a baby, Aiden, and he missed the boy’s first birthday and first Christmas while serving a prison stint for DUI.

He sent cards. They read like lessons he knew he might never be able to deliver in person.

“I need you to keep in mind that the choices you make in life will shape your life,” he wrote. “I hope I was all the dad you expected me to be. I am trying very hard.”

Five years later, still in addiction’s grip, he traveled to Kensington and went silent for days. The girlfriend he was living with at the end of his life hung up missing posters. No one could find Bobby, the old soldier, when he did not want to be found.

The cops knocked on his mother’s door a few days later.

There was a military funeral. He was buried next to Billy. An honor guard presented a flag to Bobby’s son Billy. Taps played. And the Dicksons — Pat and Courtney and Bobby’s sister, Kim McKinney — went home with their grief and their questions.

A family photo of Robert Dickson. Dickson died of a heroin overdose in December 2017.

Ditizio, the forensic investigator, carries still the memory of a fellow soldier and his tattoo. When I called, he would be honored to talk to the family, tell them what he could.

But there’s only so much Ditizio or any other investigator can say in a city where 1,200 people died of overdoses in 2017. There are just too many gone, too many questions to answer, too many final paths to retrace.

“There’s just some answers you’re never going to get,” he told me, not without sympathy.

That’s not lost on the Dicksons. They know that the whole story, laid out in front of them, wouldn’t be enough. They are learning, slowly, to take comfort in what they can — that a former soldier showed their son some grace in death, and even three months later, recalls who he was. And that people will see Bobby’s photo and his name in the newspaper, and know that he was no John Doe.

Mike Newall, STAFF COLUMNIST

Read full story: The story of a shoeless John Doe, a forensic investigator and an Army tattoo | Mike Newall

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