Today, it’s been over a year, and I think I can finally post this post. On April 1, 2012 my uncle Frank Ohlinger was flying his Cessna on a police mission in Palau. According to last communications on his return, his GPS went out and they made an emergency water landing.
First, my Uncle: A wandering engineer, he would send updates and messages on his travels, signed “from the edge of the world.” Several year ago he relocated permanently to Palau, invested in several local businesses like the coconut plant, and made Micronesia his home. It is a small place, with barely 14,000 people, a country barely bigger than my small town of Boulder City. But it is a diving paradise, a world heritage site and marine reserve, one of the last places on earth to see an endangered dugong. (A dugong looks much like manatee a manatee, in pictures.)
The day before he disappeared a pirate ship, sailing under a Chinese flag, was spotted poaching giant clams. A firefight ensued, with Frank and two Palauan gendarmes providing air support. Now this day, my Uncle and the two policemen reconnoitered the burnt wreckage. On their return, the GPS failed in a low cloud bank. Night descended. All the people on the islands turned their lights on to try to guide them in. They even drove their cars to the top of hills for light beacons.
The last communication from Frank was that they were going to attempt an emergency water landing. Then silence. The US Coast Guard turned out for three days and even Paul Allen’s ship the Octopus searched, but the Pacific Ocean is a big place and no traces – plane parts, debris, or the people on board – have ever been found. After three days, the Coast Guard left. Then the Octopus, fading away into the distance. My understanding is the islanders keep looking.
It is a special mixture of hope and grief, not quite hope and not quite full commitment to the sadness. You tell yourself that they will find him. Because planes and people don’t simply disappear.
But they do.
That is how I became personally acquainted with Death in Absentia.
Of course, the Family began calling immediately. Lawyers experience a special feeling of helplessness when they get to say something to their loved ones like “We’re going to need a lawyer in Palau.” We did have a few firefights among ourselves.
Normally, when a person passes overseas, the legal steps are to get a local certificate of death, and to take that to the consulate which will issue a “certificate of death abroad.” That certificate allows the family to initiate the probate and estate processes.
When a person goes missing, that can’t happen. The Consulate does not have the authority to declare a death certificate, only to domesticate a foreign one. Since Uncle Frank was a resident of Palau, the family had to initiate a guardianship process in Palau. The first time I did a guardianship here in the States, I learned there are two parts: guardian of the person and guardian of the estate – I.e. the finances. Many guardians are both, sometimes the roles are split between different people – I’ve since even seen an entire guardianship committee set up to care for an ailing parent.
Here the requirement is only a guardian of the estate, because you have no person. Once the guardianship is issued comes the waiting.
The key question everyone wants answered, once they accept their loved one will not come back, is how long? The common law varies. Traditional English common law is seven years, and it took Natalee Holloway’s parents six years to have her declared legally deceased in Alabama where she lived. Here in Nevada it is three years. Some times, if there is overwhelming evidence of calamity, death certificates are issued immediately – such as after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Because we don’t have a plane, or an accident site, for us – both my family and the survivors of the policemen – there is only waiting, and some false hope remaining. We wait as long as the Court says we have to wait. We simply continue to wait.