Skeletal remains discovered in a former police headquarters may belong to a homeless man who mistakenly locked himself in a cell in the boarded up New Jersey building years ago, according to the property's owners.
A contractor working with the new owner of 111 Washington Street — once home to the Paterson Police Department — made the terrifying discovery after cutting open a cell door on Monday, Susan Gross, whose family is in the process of selling the building to a developer, told InsideEdition.com.
“This is tragic to us and just the worst thing,” Gross said. “It’s just a nightmare.”
Based on items found near his body, including a dated water bottle and over-the-counter medication, the man is thought to have died about 10 years ago, Gross said. His name was not printed on any of the belongings, she said.
“They have no idea who he is,” she said. “He was living there. He had belongings hanging up; paper towels … things like that.”
It is not clear how he was able to get in to the building, which Gross said her family kept boarded up.
“Over the years, we’ve always closed everything up,” she said, noting they stayed on top of keeping the building inaccessible.
The building has been vacant and boarded up since a February 1980 fire forced the Paterson Police Department to relocate, first to a high school and then to its new headquarters that remain on Broadway.
Fire had consumed the building once before, according to a New Jersey history blog that noted “The Great Fire of February 9, 1902” engulfed most of downtown, including the headquarters, which was later rebuilt.
The historic property is now under contract to be purchased with plans to convert it into an office building.
“My father grew up here in Paterson. We have a tremendous affinity for this city … it’s why we’re here,” Gross said.
Gross hopes that the tragic discovery sheds light on the issue of homelessness in the United States, saying: “There’s so many issues in our society that are not really talked about, and mental illness and homelessness are issues we hear about, but it’s never really addressed.”
During a 2015 count of the homeless in the communities throughout New Jersey, 459 persons in 320 households that were experiencing homelessness in Passaic County, where Paterson is located, according to the annual NJ Counts report.
“It’s a very sad situation,” Gross said. “We want to find out who it is. We could have known him.”
A medical examiner is trying to determine the person’s cause of death, as well as their age, sex and identity.
The Paterson Police Department did not immediately respond to an InsideEdition.com request for comment.