Robert Kelley was born May 2, 1945, at Sister’s Hospital in Waterville, the son of Eva Vivian Kelley.

He died Monday at 77, alone in a hotel room in the rural farming community of Rugby, North Dakota, population about 2,500.

Kelley’s life between birth and death remains mostly a mystery, but Pierce County, North Dakota, coroner Dustin Hager has been trying to piece it together.

Hager called me Monday, as he had exhausted all leads in trying to find and notify Kelley’s next of kin.

“This is the first case that I’ve had that I’ve not been able to reunite a family with a deceased loved one,” he said.

This was the first time I had ever received such a call from a coroner, and I wanted to help. Hager seemed passionate about not letting Kelley be just another transient person who dies with no one to claim his remains.


“My job as a coroner is to try to provide notification of death to next of kin,” he said. “Legally, it’s my obligation to try to notify the family.”

A coroner in North Dakota has a birth certificate for Robert Kelley, who was born in Waterville, but not much else to help him find a family member for Kelley. The 77-year-old Kelley died this week alone in a North Dakota hotel room. A woman who cleaned the room was listed as his emergency contact. Photo courtesy of Pierce County, North Dakota, coroner Dustin Hager

Hager tried. With Kelley’s birth certificate indicating ties to Maine, Hager called the Maine Department of Vital Records, social services, Medicaid and the EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) program. He scrutinized the contents of Kelley’s wallet, finding his identification card from Idaho that listed him as 5-foot-5, 130 pounds, with hazel eyes and gray hair, though by the time he died he looked very different — emaciated, disheveled and unkempt, according to Hager.

Hager also found a food stamp card from Montana and EBT cards from Montana and Minnesota.

“We know that he spent some time at God’s Love Project which runs a homeless shelter in Helena, Montana, and at a shelter in Grand Forks, North Dakota,” he said.

Kelley had come to Rugby by train April 22 and moved into the hotel, Hager said. He later was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer at the local hospital, Heart of America Medical Center, where Hager also is chief operating officer.

Kelley told hotel workers he had been divorced twice. Hager looked through his medical records and learned that he was in the hospital’s emergency department July 13 and told a medical provider that he had two children he hadn’t seen in many years and their last known locations were in California and Maine.


“We think that’s when he was first told of his cancer diagnosis,” Hager said.

On July 27, Kelley left the hospital against medical advice, he said.

“The provider that saw him has in her record that he just got up, got dressed and said he was going to the hotel. He was refusing treatment. He said he wanted to die in the hotel.”

The one person Kelley apparently felt connected to was a woman named Carol, who cleaned rooms at the hotel.

“She had been looking after him,” Hager said. “She was helping to get food for him and feed him, get his linen changed. She was the one that found him at 5 a.m. Monday. In our hospital in Rugby, he had listed her as his emergency contact.”

Armed with the information Hager relayed to me about Kelley, I did a bit of research but also came up empty-handed. I checked with Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, which had nothing in its records indicating he had stayed there in the last several years. I searched online for Kelley’s name, his mother’s name and that of his father, listed on his birth certificate as what appears to be Robert White, though the last name is at a fold in the handwritten document, which Hager described as rumpled, crinkled and laminated.


Kelley’s father’s occupation is listed as “U.S. Army,” and the fact that Kelley doesn’t share a last name with him and instead has his mother’s last name, leads me to wonder if his father was out of the picture. I researched Robert White, who was listed on Kelley’s birth certificate as being 26 when Kelley was born, but found nothing related.

Hager said that the funeral home that has Kelley’s body also made some phone calls and learned Kelley had stayed at a homeless shelter in Laramie, Wyoming.

I asked what will happen if no family is found.

“At this point in time, the funeral home has to do something with the body, so his remains will be cremated,” Hager said. “He’ll be kept at the funeral home. Local law dictates they have to preserve his remains for two years in case there is family who would come for them and we would reunite his remains with his family. If, after two years, no one claims them, the remains will be placed in the local cemetery.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 34 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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