- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

For 30 days, family members in Alexandria and Woodbridge wondered how Francisco Javier Lizama, 28, could just vanish without a trace. Then they learned he had been at the Washington Hospital Center in a coma since the day he disappeared.
Having put up fliers, spoken with police and called hospitals for weeks hoping to locate him, Mr. Lizama's relatives now want to know why officials did not make more of an effort to find them.
The Alexandria Police Department, which made one unsuccessful attempt to reach Mr. Lizama's family after officers pulled him from a car wreck June 25, contends it handled the case according to established procedures.
Hospital officials say contacting relatives is a police job, not theirs.
"As far as we're concerned, we did everything we're supposed to do," Alexandria police Lt. John Crawford said. "In our procedures, nowhere does it require, unless there's a life-threatening injury or fatality, that police contact next of kin."
After the accident — Mr. Lizama apparently lost control of his Nissan sedan on King Street and it hit a tree — he was airlifted to Washington Hospital Center. The Alexandria officers on the scene impounded his car and wallet.
Lt. Crawford said police called the phone number at the Silver Spring address found on Mr. Lizama's driver's license, but it was no longer active. Because paramedics on the scene said Mr. Lizama's injury was not life-threatening, police left the matter of contacting Mr. Lizama's family to the hospital, where the uninsured man's bill has climbed to more than $200,000.
Police Chief Charles E. Samarra, who was unavailable for comment, asked commanding officers to review the case, Lt. Crawford said. "He wants to ensure procedures were followed correctly, and so far it appears they were."
Leroy Tilman, a spokesman for Washington Hospital Center, said if a man were airlifted, it was because he had serious injuries.
"Someone over in Alexandria made the wrong decision," Mr. Tilman said. "But I don't see how either the hospital or the police can be faulted because of the fact that his address was wrong."
In fact, unidentified patients are fairly common: In the past three years, Mr. Tilman said, the hospital has seen "81 people who came in here who were not immediately identifiable."
Jane Davidson Malik, a spokeswoman for Alexandria Fire and Emergency Rescue, said it's not unusual for paramedics to get names wrong, especially if they are ethnic names with unfamiliar spellings.
But the explanations from police and the hospital have not satisfied Rosa Molina, Mr. Lizama's sister.
During a meeting with a reporter for The Washington Times, she placed her younger brother's wallet on a table and pulled from it several strips of paper with names and numbers scribbled on them.
"All these phone numbers were in my brother's wallet. How come they didn't find nobody? In my opinion it's because he's Latino," she said.
Mrs. Molina, one of the family's only fluent English speakers, said her brother wasn't the type to just disappear. So she and Iveth Lizama, another sister with whom Mr. Lizama was living in Alexandria at the time of the accident, set out to find their brother.
"We called every place we could think of — jails, hospitals, even immigration," said Mrs. Molina, who lives in Woodbridge.
"He is legal here," she said. "He came to the United States in 1989 — me and Iveth came here in 1986."
For weeks, they put fliers in store windows and placed missing-person notices in a local newspaper.
They drove to the Silver Spring address on their brother's license because he had lived there before moving in with Iveth and left information with the landlord "in case anyone came looking."
Because their brother once was charged with cocaine possession in Arlington, the sisters were reluctant to go to police, but the family eventually filed a missing-person report in Fairfax County.
"I called the detective every day," Mrs. Molina said. "He would say, 'I'm sorry, Rosa. I don't have any information, but I'm sure the information you gave me is in every police department's computer.' If that was so, how come they couldn't find him?"
Just as the sisters began losing hope, a phone call July 25 brought news to the home of Gregorio Castellon, a cousin who lived with Mr. Lizama at the Silver Spring address: A man with no known family, admitted under a name similar to Lizama, was in a coma at Washington Hospital Center.
Social workers from the hospital, realizing police never fully investigated the address, had called the landlord, who told them the man's family had reported him missing. The hospital, it turned out, had Mr. Lizama — but had his name misspelled in its records.
"When we found him in a coma, the world just collapsed," Mrs. Molina said. "Doctors told me that because he was not surrounded by loved ones — because he was by himself — during the 30 days, he fell deeper and deeper into the coma."
"I felt like he was already dead, because he was not moving," Iveth Lizama said.
Mrs. Molina said she will have to take care of her brother when he is released Tuesday from the hospital because he has no health insurance.
Police and hospital officials familiar with the case expressed sympathy, but said Mr. Lizama and his family share responsibility for the confusion.
A source in the Fairfax County Police Department, who asked to remain anonymous, said the family could have been more forthcoming.
"The family originally reported him missing as Francisco Javier Zalvidar," the police source sai. "That's who we were looking for to begin with. They gave no fixed address for the guy — he was living in his car."
The family eventually told detectives the missing man's full name was Francisco Javier Zalvidar Lizama, the source said.
"On July 6, a [notice] with both names on it was sent to police departments throughout the Washington area. It said he was missing. But we got no response."
Vernon Gutjahr, a Falls Church attorney hired by the family to explore legal options, said Fairfax police garbled Mr. Lizama's name on the missing person report. The family, he added, now faces a hospital bill of more than $200,000.
"He's leaving the hospital on Aug. 28 and going to my house because he cannot stay here anymore," Mrs. Molina said. "He has no insurance."
Police told her she'll have to pay almost $1,000 before she can pick up her brother's impounded car.
"I'm trying to be strong," she said. "But it's very hard."

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