When her 18-year-old daughter Sarah was found dead of a drug overdose on the banks of the Newtown Creek, Muriel Adams had many challenges — overcoming the grief, making funeral arrangements, informing heartbroken friends and relatives that her missing daughter would never return home.
She never realized that one of her biggest trials would be to get her daughter’s property — small symbols of a life cut tragically short — back from the city.
It took nearly seven months, and a hell of a lot of heartache.
“It’s absurd,” an emotional Adams said Wednesday, fighting back tears as she finally held her daughter’s jade necklace and a Star of David in a shaky hand. “On the 27th it will be seven months.”
“It was annoying, it was frustrating. It was another piece of it that I wanted to have over,” the 66-year-old Riverdale woman said about the delay. “(The city) is just so bureaucratic and one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing.”
Adams adopted Sarah from China when she was 2 years old. At the time, she bought the jade pendant for her daughter, which she finally gave to her on her 18th birthday.
“This I really wanted back,” she said, knowing that the pendant was around her daughter’s neck when she succumbed to her addiction. “This one was the closest to her heart, so I really wanted it. I never got to see her body, because they said I really shouldn’t.”
“She really liked it a lot,” she said of the pendant, a fleeting smile crossing her face as it brought up a fond memory in the emotional maelstrom of her mind. “She couldn’t believe I’d had it all that time.”
Sarah’s body was found on Oct. 27 along the creek that snakes between Brooklyn and Queens. The teen had been missing since Mother’s Day weekend five months earlier.
She was wearing the jade necklace and a Star of David, which went with her to the city Medical Examiner’s office, Adams said. Other items, including a water-logged backpack and a photo album with cat stickers, were taken by police, one of more than 6,900 pieces of “decedent’s property” vouchered by the NYPD property clerk’s division last year.
If Adams wanted the items back, she was told that she would have to go through the Surrogate’s Court, the body that handles all wills and estate cases in the city.
Thus began a convoluted journey through a court system that even attorneys admit one needs a law degree to survive.
“The police don’t know who the proper claimant (of this property) is,” said Surrogate’s Court attorney Herbert Nass. “You say you’re the relative, but the police can’t know that. The court has to officially decide who the living relatives of this person are. It’s a cumbersome process, but I don’t see a way around it.”
Adams, a writer, laid out her frustrations in getting her daughter’s property back in a column that she sent to the Daily News.
“I was just so obsessed with getting (Sarah’s property) back,” she said. “I remember I was up one night in bed until 3 a.m. thinking about it, so I got up and started writing. That is how I got some of the stuff out.”
With help from the law firm Lissner & Lissner, she was finally able to get what she needed to retrieve her daughter’s belongings, a legal paper known as a letter of administration from the Surrogate’s Court confirming that she was Sarah’s closest relative.
Then came a bigger challenge: Finding out just where the items were.
The jewelry was still with the Medical Examiner’s office, but her bag wasn’t at the NYPD’s Brooklyn property clerk’s office, Adams said. Since Sarah was found in a spot between the two boroughs, her items were taken to the Queens property clerk’s office, even though a Brooklyn police precinct investigated her case.
Lissner & Lissner paralegal Nana Dabanka managed to track down all the items and finally get them back to her last Wednesday, Adams said.
“She did all the running around and did hundreds of calls,” Adams said. “She said the whole thing was ‘absolutely impossible.'”
The confusion and frustration could be in how these cases are handled from the outset.
Police admit it’s a bit of a judgment call where a dead person’s belongings go from a crime scene.
Usually, items on the body, such as jewelry, are collected by police, said Capt. Aaron Wright, the executive officer of the NYPD’s property clerk’s division.
“As per NYPD policy, if a deceased person dies at other than his or her residence, the items are to be invoiced as decedent’s property,” Wright said. “We hold it for a retention period for five years and if it’s not claimed, the property goes back to the Surrogate’s Court.”
Even without questions about where the property finally ended up, relatives could be dealing with the Surrogate’s Court for a while, Nass said.
“It’s a minimum of weeks and could be as much as months and even years,” Nass said about the time it takes a case to go through Surrogate’s Court. “But that’s as much the fault of the relatives than the courts. Sometimes the relatives don’t submit the right papers to the courts. Sometimes they fight over who should own the property.”
“I think everyone is doing their job,” he said about both the police and the Surrogate’s Court. “Sometimes cops can’t decide where things are and that upsets people going through the system, but it’s still the best system there is. And I think it works pretty well.”
The Surrogate’s Court does not tabulate statistics on how many cases they handle each year or how long the cases take, a state court spokesman said.
The Surrogate’s Court chief clerk recently held an educational program at the NYPD academy, instructing the recruits on what to tell family members looking to obtain a decedent’s property.
“We do provide as much information as possible to assist individuals in navigating the Surrogate’s Court’s process,” spokesman Lucian Chalfen said. “And in New York County, where the cases can be more complex, we have two Surrogate Court judges.”