Nelso Ponce, a 32-year-old homeless man, died on a downtown park bench on Jan. 17 and was cremated three to four days later, before his next-of-kin was notified, according to information obtained by The Sentinel-Record through public records and interviews with officials involved in the case.
The cremation was ordered by Garland County Coroner Stuart Smedley, through Hot Springs Funeral Home.
"The Garland County Coroner's Office strives to locate next-of-kin in all cases," Smedley said in an email Tuesday to The Sentinel-Record. "We work with local law enforcement agencies, medical facilities, and also public internet searches in an effort to identify and notify family and/or a responsible party."
Kevin Cleghorn, president of the Arkansas Coroner's Association, said there is "not a mandated set number of days or length of time" a coroner is supposed to wait before deciding to cremate a body prior to next-of-kin being located.
Hot Springs Funeral Home owner Ann Loy said Smedley requested they publish an obituary in The Sentinel-Record as a last effort to locate Ponce's family. The funeral home sent the death notice to the newspaper one day after Ponce's death, Jan. 18, and an obituary was published Jan. 19.
Loy said they waited a minimum of 24 hours before sending his body to the crematory, but would not confirm the exact cremation date.
Loy said Ponce's family from out of state came to the funeral home to retrieve his ashes, adding that it was a "Catholic family," and while cremation was "probably not what they would have wanted," they were "understanding."
Ponce's family declined to comment when contacted by The Sentinel-Record.
On Jan. 21, four days after Ponce's death, the newspaper received a phone call from Lakeview Assembly Full Circle Missions coordinator Patricia Nooner saying that Ponce had been cremated with no next-of-kin contacted beforehand. She said she was able to locate and contact the family via a Facebook search after the fact to let them know.
Nooner was acquainted with Ponce through Full Circle Missions, a program that caters to the local homeless population. She said she learned of his death after coming across it on the website https://arkansas.funeral.com/.
According to arrest records provided by the Hot Springs Police Department, Ponce, who had 39 offenses, had listed his sister, Vanessa Ponce, along with her phone number, on three of the 39 reports, and his mother, Esmelda Garcia, on one of the reports, as contacts.
When The Sentinel-Record asked Smedley the exact steps he took in Ponce's case to attempt to locate the family, Garland County Attorney John Howard replied on his behalf in an email on Monday.
"Records gathered and created during the course of a coroner's investigation shall be confidential and deemed exempt from the Freedom of Information Act of 1967 ... but only until such time that the coroner issues his or her final report," Howard said.
No time frame was provided for the release of the final report.
The newspaper attempted to contact Smedley for additional comment, but was unable to reach him by presstime on Friday.
Howard, responding in writing to an FOIA request made by The Sentinel-Record on another matter, stated Thursday that the coroner was out of town and "will be for the next several days."
Nooner told the newspaper on Wednesday in a text message, "I have spoke with them and from now on they will start contacting us if they are not successful," referring to Full Circle Missions being contacted in the future to assist in locating next-of-kin for a deceased homeless person if the county is unsuccessful.