Man’s body still missing 3 years after Georgia medical examiner shipped it via FedEx

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Three years have passed since the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office sent a box containing Jeffrey Merriweather’s remains to a St. Louis lab for additional testing. The office was trying to determine how the 32-year-old’s body became a near-complete skeleton less than two weeks after he was last seen alive during a shooting in East Point.

But the 18.6 pound box never arrived, lost in the vast matrix of FedEx’s network. What followed has become a black eye for the Fulton government agency, a public relations embarrassment for the shipping giant and an unending source of pain for Merriweather’s family.

“It’s a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” Kathleen Merriweather said of her lost son.

How the state’s largest medical examiner’s office lost the remains is a lingering question that the office has yet to address, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It has provided scant information to Merriweather’s family and produced no formal review or findings to determine what went wrong to ensure a similar mistake doesn’t happen again.

The bizarre episode also may have violated the law. Human bodies are traditionally transported across state lines by airline. FedEx said using its services to send human remains is prohibited, a fact that’s stated in its user manual. The U.S. Postal Service is the only mailing service legally qualified to carry human remains across the country and then only under strict guidelines.

The Fulton medical examiner has not responded to questions about why the remains were sent with FedEx.

Meanwhile, Merriweather’s family is still grasping for any peace they can find in the wake of his death. Kathleen Merriweather said she hasn’t found it yet. Her living son, reported missing. Her missing son, found dead. Her dead son, now missing again. And with no body to bury and no headstone at which to mourn, her family is left with just as many questions about his fate as they started with.

“I just want — I need — closure,” she said. “And I know his kids are resilient, but I think they probably need that also.”

Missing then, missing again

A homeowner discovered Merriweather’s skeletonized body behind a house on Pecan Drive in southwest Atlanta on June 22, 2019, according to an investigative report by the medical examiner’s office. Part of his body was underneath a deflated air mattress.

While court documents claim he died in a shooting during a drug deal gone bad, the state of his remains created a mystery. Merriweather’s family said in the days following the shooting, he didn’t reach out to let them know if he was OK or to ask about his daughters, of whom he had custody.

They reported him missing, but when his remains were discovered 10 days later, he had been reduced to little more than a skeleton, weighing roughly 34 pounds.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Since he was partially skeletonized, we couldn’t determine a cause of death,” former Chief Medical Examiner Jan Gorniak previously told Channel 2 Action News. So the remains were sent to an expert in St. Louis for evaluation, she said.

In a letter dated June 27, 2019, a Fulton pathologist asked a St. Louis-based medical examiner to perform a trauma analysis.

The FedEx receipt included in the public records shows that Merriweather’s remains were placed in a 20″x16″x14″ box. It was shipped on July 5, 2019 for $32.61 and was supposed to arrive at the St. Louis City Medical Examiner’s Office within two days.

The Fulton medical examiner previously said the package entered Fedex’s Austell facility and was not trackable afterward.

The facility itself has faced scrutiny in recent years due to a reported high volume of packages getting lost there. Consumer website Trust Dale called the Austell FedEx facility “a black hole,” citing numerous reports of lost packages. Disgruntled customers went as far as drafting a Change.org petition over the packages that slipped into the bowels of the facility and disappeared.

Kathleen Merriweather said a stunning detail to her is that someone in the Fulton office took the box to a FedEx store for shipping, rather than having it picked up.

“So in my mind, I’m just seeing a little lady receptionist picking it up and just dropping it off at FedEx on her way home as if she’s dropping off the boss’s dry cleaning,” she said. “That’s the way it felt to me.”

State Rep. Rick Williams, who has been in the funeral service for more than 40 years and co-owns several funeral homes in Milledgeville, called the treatment of Merriweather’s remains appalling.

“This is not how human remains should be sent,” he said. “I know they’re running a medical examiner’s lab, so they’re dealing with it from a scientific approach rather than a human approach, but maybe they should have consulted with a funeral home or director.”

In an emailed statement to the AJC, a FedEx spokeswoman said that its service should never have been used.

“Our thoughts and concerns remain with the family of Mr. Merriweather, however, we request that further questions be directed to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office. Shipments of this nature are prohibited within the FedEx network.”

In its user manual, FedEx states that it is not liable for the loss, damage, delay, misdelivery or nondelivery of any shipment that contains a prohibited item, which includes human remains.

While Gorniak said in 2019 that her office was reviewing policies to make sure no other human remains were lost by her staff, the current medical examiner, Karen Sullivan, did not respond to multiple attempts by the AJC to reach her with questions about the review or if its policies had been updated.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Rob Pitts declined to comment and a spokesperson for the county manager’s office did not respond to a phone call from a reporter.

“This is not how human remains should be sent."

- State Rep. Rick Williams, who works in the funeral service

Merriweather’s father, Jeffrey Merriweather Sr., said he feels that nobody is being held accountable for losing his child’s body.

“It wasn’t my choice for them to send him to St. Louis,” he told the AJC. " That was their doing. And now you lose him? Oh my God.”

Kathleen Merriweather said in the three years since her son’s body vanished, she has not heard anything from the ME’s office about its policies.

“What are you changing?” she said. “I want to see your changes. I want to see what you changed from the day you packed my son up in a regular box and set him on FedEx versus what you’re doing now.”

3 years, few answers

Kathleen Merriweather remembers her son—whom she called JayJay—excelling on his middle school’s swim team and then going on to North Clayton High School.

He supported his family working as a cook at Longhorn Steakhouse. When he wasn’t in his restaurant uniform he was often spotted wearing Atlanta Falcon’s garb. She said he had given her three grandchildren: two daughters who lived with him, and a son who lives with his mother.

She said he had dreads that came down to his waist and several tattoos. But when she looks at the autopsy photos, there is not a trace of the man she raised.

Losing him through death, and then losing him once again into FedEx’s system, has torn her family apart, she said. She and JayJay’s father have split up since he died.

“It's a nightmare you can't wake up from."

- Kathleen Merriweather, morther of Jeffrey Merriweather Jr.

Jeffrey Merriweather Sr. said the family was forced to put off planning a funeral for more than a month while they were waiting for his son’s remains to be released from the ME’s office. Then, they put off the service even longer while they were holding out hope that the missing package containing them would be found.

After nearly three months, the family held a memorial service with a massive collage of photos filling the space where a casket would have been.

“This is my kid and I don’t know what happened,” he said. “My opinion is that it’s like my son’s been thrown away and that nobody is being held accountable for a human body being thrown away like that.”

Kathleen Merriweather said she’s worried about her granddaughters’ grieving their father’s death. She said she sometimes wonders if never knowing that he had died — of thinking he was only missing and being able to hope that he was alive somewhere — would have been less painful

“Now we can’t even have that closure,” she said. “You ripped that from us.”

A body of evidence

Gunfire erupted near a McDonald’s restaurant in the 1200 block of Virginia Avenue the afternoon of June 12, 2019. Shortly after, Jeffrey Merriweather, who had been at the location, vanished.

Merriweather and another man, Christian Darrell Thomas, had arrived at the restaurant in a Cadillac Escalade that day, according to a motion filed in court. Two other men, Elisha Bahati and an unknown person, arrived to the area in a Toyota 4Runner.

A criminal indictment said both groups of men had come for a marijuana sale. But things soon turned sour, the document alleges. A witness said Merriweather got out of the Escalade and got into the 4Runner. Then, “within minutes” Thomas allegedly walked to the 4Runner and began shooting into the passenger side, leading to a gunfire exchange.

The 4Runner sped away, presumably with Merriweather still inside as he was “never seen allegedly exiting” the vehicle, the document said.

Three men have been criminally charged in the events believed to have led to Merriweather’s death.

An indictment accuses Bahati of killing Merriweather by “shooting him with a handgun.” Thomas is accused of firing at Bahati multiple times as the man drove away from the scene of the violence, and Darion Yehman Turner is accused of helping Thomas avoid being arrested afterward.

The indictment and police report give no indication as to what happened to Merriweather between the time he was seen at the restaurant and the discovery of his remains 10 days later.

While his mother wants to know what led to his death, she said what she wants more than anything is to lay him to rest.

“He’s in pieces,” she said. “Just like my family.”