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Reporters help family find brother who died in 2007

In 2009, while scouring the internet to piece together any information she could on her missing brother, Ruth Bueso came across an article in the Island Packet announcing he had died two years earlier.

In her first email to Tim Donnelly and Daniel Brownstein, the former Island Packet reporters who had written the story, she attached a photo of her brother, 42-year-old Hector Bueso Mejía.

"Please, I need to know if he is the same person," she said.

He was.

In November 2007, Bueso had been homeless and living on Hilton Head Island. The day he was found, his friend, Charles "Michael" Ballard, also homeless, went to check on him in a wooded area behind a Shell gas station on William Hilton Parkway, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report at the time. Just before, Bueso had been in the hospital for nine days for liver problems. When Ballard got there, he couldn't wake him.

For years, the Bueso family in Honduras had no idea what had become of their brother. They knew he was working as a painter in Savannah, Georgia, and that he had met a girl, Ruth Bueso said, that's all they knew.

His calls home were not uncommon and he frequently sent money back to his mother, Alba Mejía, and nine other siblings in Honduras. To them, Bueso was the serious older brother constantly nagging them to help clean up the house who only loosened up when he was playing the guitar.

"He was always worried because he was the third oldest," Ruth said. "He went to the U.S. thinking he would help us because we were very poor."

It wasn't until after her other brother, the oldest, had passed away in 2009 that their mother had had enough.

"'Find him,' she told me, so I went on the internet and I had hope," she said. "I couldn't believe it when I found (the article). I understand English, though not much. I cried and cried."

After finding out he was dead, she and her sister could not bring themselves to tell their mother. When they finally told her, she was devastated. The family got to work to bring their brother home, but they couldn't afford it.

After many years and dead ends, his remains were finally picked up by a friend of the family in June 2021, and returned to the family in September 2022.

On Sept. 18, 2022, Brownstein and Donnelly — who had long moved on to other jobs outside the area — got another message from Ruth Bueso.

"I only want to tell you that the ashes of my brother are finally home, 15 years later," she said. "Thanks for the news, otherwise we would not have found out what happened to (him)."

Hearing of Bueso's return was surprising after over a decade of silence, Brownstein and Donnelly said.

"His family had no idea what happened to their loved one," said Brownstein who now lives in Charleston with his wife and children. "I hope that this brought them some degree of closure and peace. As a parent, I cannot imagine not knowing what happened to your child."

Donelly read the email message on his phone in New York, where he now lives, waiting outside a grocery store, holding his and his girlfriend's bikes while she went inside a grocery store. He was emotional reading the email from Bueso's grateful sister as music and the sounds of the city whirred in the background.

"We tell stories all the time and if you can help real people ... that, to me, is the highest form of journalism," Donnelly said. "It doesn't change missing him or anything in their lives, but it gives them closure."

Learning the truth of how her brother lived out his final days was devastating for their family, but having him back has brought a sense of "calm" for them, Ruth Bueso said.

"Now nothing can take that pain, but it's better having him home," she said. "It's important to have him here."

Bueso's story is one that weighed heavily on both Brownstein and Donnelly, who used it at the time to shine a light on Hilton Head's poor and point out the harsh "underbelly" of an affluent town, Donnelly said.

"Any other day, it would have been a one-liner in a police blotter, but I think we realized this was a bigger story," he said. "The unhoused on Hilton Head are never seen or discussed ... it's a part of island life that you never hear about."

Bueso's ashes were picked up, coincidentally, just as the Beaufort County Coroner's Office was preparing to inter unclaimed remains, some that spanned back to the 1980s, in a mausoleum purchased by the county at Forest Lawn Cemetery. The office was able to make contact with next of kin of over half of the 61 unclaimed remains sitting on their shelves.

Deputy Coroner Debbie Youmans ran point on the project and spent months with dozens of files piled on her desk. In the end, the ashes of 34 people whose families either could not be reached or did not come forward to retrieve them remained. They were laid to rest in 2021 in the mausoleum while four, who were veterans, were entombed in a ceremony with military honors at Beaufort National Cemetery.

Today, there are several avenues to exhaust including social media, ancestry and genealogy websites, she said. In 2007, however, that was not the case.

"It's very difficult to try and get in touch with families in foreign countries," Youmans said. "It was a lot of trail-chasing. The highlight of the day for me was always when someone was claimed."

While the grief of the Bueso Mejía family is no less painful, having his remains returned home is "as happy an ending" to his story as there can be, Donnelly said.

"I think we ended the story (in 2007) with the line, 'Until Hector gets claimed, he will be waiting on a shelf for somebody,'" Donnelly said. "Now, he has the dignity of having somewhere where he is wanted and belongs."