A third man was buried without his family’s knowledge near Jackson, Mississippi

In neighboring Rankin County, meanwhile, the search for Jonathan continued.

In May 2023, a friend of Jonathan’s created a missing person profile for him in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a free, publicly searchable database managed by the National Institute of Justice. NamUs also hosts a dataset where coroners can upload names of unclaimed persons — a way of helping families who may be unaware that a loved one has died — but Hinds County did not list Jonathan.

The NamUs missing person profile noted that Jonathan had last used Snapchat near an intersection in Jackson, and that his car had been repossessed in the city in September 2022. Similar details were uploaded to MissingSippi.com, a website run by a small group of volunteers who say they try to “fill in the gaps” of the state’s patchwork system for finding missing people.

These signs that Jonathan ended up in Jackson could have led Rankin County investigators to focus their search there by calling the Hinds County coroner’s office or the Jackson Police Department. But it’s unclear whether the Rankin County investigators ever made those calls.

Dedmon, the investigator who took Gretchen’s missing persons report, was fired in June and later pleaded guilty in federal court to torturing two men in an unrelated case that has drawn national media attention and additional scrutiny of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office from the Department of Justice.

Gretchen later began talking to a new investigator, who told her as recently as Oct. 30 that the sheriff’s office was still working on the case, she said.

“I just trusted them doing their job,” Gretchen said.

Image: Gretchen Hankins Not Notified of Son's Death
As a boy, Jonathan was funny and caring and aspired to join the military.Ashleigh Coleman for NBC News

On Dec. 4, more than 18 months after Jonathan disappeared, an NBC News reporter visited Gretchen and presented her with the documents that recorded Jonathan’s death and burial. She examined them at her living room table, trying to process what they said.

But the documents were not enough. Words on a page could be wrong. Photos wouldn’t be. She needed to see a picture of his body. Not of his face, but of his chest, etched with his only tattoo.

She stood from her dining room table and bolted to her minivan, leaving her brother, in town from Arkansas, standing in the driveway, stunned.

At that point, Gretchen later said, she still could not believe that Jonathan might be dead. For more than a year, she’d tried to put that thought aside and focus on the possibility that he was in trouble and hiding somewhere. 

Hearing from a reporter who said he had answers didn’t persuade her. Others had contacted her claiming to know Jonathan’s whereabouts in hopes of collecting a cash reward. 

They’d all been lying.

Jonathan Hankins and his daughter.
Jonathan and Brooke had a lighthearted relationship that could make it seem like they were siblings.Courtesy Gretchen Hankins

Gretchen drove to Jackson, calling the Hinds County coroner’s office on the way. She asked where their office was located but they didn’t tell her. They took her number instead, and a few minutes later the investigator who handled Jonathan’s body called her, Gretchen said. The investigator told her that he didn’t have any photos of Jonathan, but the police might.

The investigator also said Jonathan had died with meth and fentanyl in his system, Gretchen said. When she asked why she hadn’t been told about his death, the investigator told her that was the police’s responsibility.

She went home. She wanted to be there when Brooke, 17, returned from school. But she wasn’t going to tell Brooke anything until she felt sure Jonathan was dead.

The next morning, after Brooke left for school, she and Jeannie, her sister, went to Jackson police headquarters. Gretchen demanded to see the photos. A detective tracked some down and showed one to her.

She cried the moment she saw the image; it showed “Brooke” tattooed in cursive across the dead man’s chest, right above his heart.

That was all the proof Gretchen needed.

“It was him,” she said.

An ornament that Brooke made for her father.
An ornament Brooke made for her father.Ashleigh Coleman for NBC News

After she saw the photos, Gretchen said the Jackson detective told her and Jeannie that the coroner’s office — not the police department — should have told them about Jonathan’s death.

The lack of effort to reach her — and the deflection of responsibility — appalled her.

“That’s ridiculous,” Gretchen said later in an interview. “Going that dang long and not calling people, that’s just inhumane. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”

The failure to notify the family also upset friends and volunteers who had helped Gretchen look for Jonathan.

“I’m just furious,” said Thomas Goolsby, the friend who uploaded Jonathan’s information on NamUs and posted a $15,000 reward for information about his whereabouts. He also printed missing posters and asked for help finding him on social media.

Goolsby said that he called the Hinds County coroner’s office repeatedly from July to September 2022 asking if they had any unidentified or unclaimed bodies and providing Jonathan’s name. Each time, Goolsby said, he was told the office would check and get back to him. He said he never got a return call. Goolsby was not immediately able to obtain records of those calls from his cellphone company.

“They let him lay there and buried him in an unmarked grave when he would have been claimed that same day,” Goolsby said. “He had loved ones. He had family.”

Members of the organization Murky Waters Search & Recovery say they spent more than 60 hours between December 2022 and March 2023 using sonar equipment to search area waterways for Jonathan or his car. Daniel Farrish, the group’s founder, said it was frustrating to learn those efforts were ultimately unnecessary.

“We don’t mind looking because we’re doing it for the family … but that’s very disheartening,” Farrish said. “Hopefully some eyes will be opened and changes will be made.”

Image: Gretchen Hankins Not Notified of Son's Death
Gretchen has accepted that her son is dead, but is angry about how her family has been treated.Ashleigh Coleman for NBC News

Brooks Davis, a volunteer who manages the MissingSippi website, said his group has struggled in the past to get the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County coroner to share information about missing persons cases and unclaimed bodies. After NBC News’ reporting on the Dexter Wade case, Davis said he and his team wondered how many more people might have been buried in the county’s pauper’s cemetery even as their families actively searched for them.

It was telling, Davis said, that even in the wake of that scandal, which prompted Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to acknowledge a communication “failure,” it took an investigation by a news outlet to reveal what happened to Jonathan.

“What if there wasn’t a Dexter Wade?” Davis said. “What if his mama didn’t figure out what she figured out and exposed these problems? How much longer would this family be going through this? Would they have ever found out?”

Jonathan’s family says they want to have his body exhumed and give him a proper burial, but they are not sure how to go about doing that.

After learning of Jonathan’s death and seeing NBC News’ earlier reporting, the family contacted Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who last month helped arrange for an exhumation and funeral for Dexter Wade, and who is also representing the family of Marrio Moore.

Gretchen signed a contract for Crump to represent her on Wednesday.

“Families that report a loved one missing deserve immediate and accurate answers,” Crump said in a statement. “We will work to unearth the truth about what happened to Jonathan and to seek justice for his family.”

For Gretchen, the hell of not knowing where her son is has ended. A new kind of agony has set in. She feels heartbroken, ignored and disrespected.

Gretchen now believes that Jonathan died of a drug overdose. The reported presence of fentanyl in his body makes her wonder if the meth had been laced with it. But she doubts authorities will be able to answer that question.

“They can’t even do the job of notifying a dead person’s next of kin,” Gretchen said. “They probably just thought, ‘Another drug addict, gone.’”

Jon Schuppe reported from Florence, Mississippi; Mike Hixenbaugh reported from Washington, D.C.