News10NBC Investigates: 2 years after her son disappeared in the Genesee River, law keeping death certificate from mother

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Editor’s Note: On Dec. 2, 2021, we learned that DeJonge finally got her son’s death certificate. The Medical Examiner’s office told her she is only the third person in the last 100 years in Monroe County to access a death certificate like this.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — In the winter of 2019, a young man jumped into the freezing Genesee River. As of today, the law won’t let his mother get a death certificate.

Michele DeJonge can’t get it because her son’s body was never recovered. She needs the certificate to close his bank accounts. She wants it for her own personal closure.

For the last two years, DeJonge says she got the classic government run around — every office she called told her to call someone else.

The law in New York says if there’s no body or remains, families have to wait three years before they can even consider getting a death certificate, but we found a way to get that closure faster.

"This is where it all began," DeJonge said standing on the Court Street Bridge in downtown Rochester. "This is where we lost Paul."

In February 2019, Paul Matison had too much to drink, crashed into a car on Court Street and got into a dispute. DeJonge believes her son jumped off the bridge and into the river to avoid police.

"It’s been two and a half years. The police report indicates he’s dead. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind from anybody in the county system that he’s gone and I can’t get an answer as to how to get a death certificate," she said.

State law says a missing person isn’t considered dead until at least "a period of three years."

Brean: "The system does allow families to get a death certificate without having to wait these three years though, is that correct?"

Jeffrey Johnstone, attorney at Tully Rinckey Law: "Yes it does if they can show the person was, in the words of the statute ‘exposed to a specific peril of death.’"

Johnstone is an estate and trust attorney at the firm Tully Rinckey. If there was a specific peril of death, a family can appeal to the surrogate court in Monroe County for a court order to get a death certificate.

I obtained the RPD report about Paul Matison. It says Matison "jumped into the Genesee River," the river was "flowing rapidly," the temperature was "below freezing" and Matison is "presumed deceased." Under "Level of Injury" the RPD reports says "Dead."

Brean: "Is that enough for the court?"

Johnstone: Well that’s a very good question. I can’t tell you exactly what the judge would decide, it’s possible the court would decide that the police report and its investigation is sufficient under the circumstances."

DeJonge said no one ever told her she could do this until we learned about it.

Since 2019, she posted an obituary for Matison and attached a plaque with his name and the years he lived to his father’s gravesite. She’s determined to get her son’s death certificate before waiting the full three years.

"I advocated for him his whole life," DeJonge said. "This is my last shot to do something for him."

As we left the bridge, DeJonge said she can’t be the only one. The FBI says there are 90,000 active missing person cases in the country right now.

Matison wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. But if there was a situation involving children and dependants, the law accounts for that and allows survivors access to money and benefits.

Typically, the money has to go into a trust for a period of time.