San Francisco Police said Saturday that they had recovered the cremated remains of a North Carolina man after the urn that held the ashes was turned over by an unidentified man.

Family members called the recovery "a miracle" and called off their California trip to return home.

“I felt like it was a one-in-a-million shot of getting him back,” daughter Julia told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “I really think this was a miracle,” she said.

Tears of joy

Joe Wilkinson's widow, Mary, said she started crying after police phoned her to report recovering the remains.

Mary and Julia had just regained cell service after leaving Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, when the call came on Saturday.

The police lieutenant who called "just said, '‘I just want to let you know we have your husband’s remains,’” Mary told the newspaper. “And I just broke down and starting crying,” she said.

Car break-in

The remains were stolen Wednesday from the trunk of the family's rental car parked in a Beach Street garage near Fisherman's Wharf, a popular San Francisco tourist destination. The burglars also stole the family's vacation money, clothes and personal items when they broke into the trunk of their rented Hyundai at the Anchorage Square Garage at midday, the newspaper said..

The Wilkinson family was in San Francisco to scatter the ashes of Joe, the family patriarch who died in August and was cremated. They had planned to spend Thursday scattering his ashes along the California coast, but instead spent a lot of the day trying to convince San Francisco police to try to find the missing remains.

San Francisco police receive nearly 70 auto break-in reports every day and told the family they cannot respond to each one, the newspaper said.

But undercover investigators did roam the wharf area looking for suspects and word apparently got around to them.


Someone did the right thing, to the Wilkinsons' eternal gratitude, and the family's horror and frustration turned to celebration on Saturday night. Mary and Julia drank wine and ate sushi, knowing that Joe's remains were safe, the newspaper said.

Julia admitted being dismayed on Wednesday after they reported the burglary to police and got little satisfaction. She told the newspaper that she was “angry at first that (police) didn’t listen to us,” but said Sunday she was “grateful that they put the time and effort in after they found out” the situation.

But police did not accuse the man who returned the remains of any crime for lack of evidence, even though someone did load more than $100 on a Clipper card and attempted to make a purchase at a Market Street clothing store, the newspaper said. Mary was advised that she could make a citizen's arrest for fraud, but she declined.

“We don’t have the wallet or the credit cards or anything, just him, but that’s the main, important thing that we wanted -- my dad,” Julia said.

Mary and Julia said they planned to return to North Carolina on Tuesday, and would be carrying the urn containing Joe Wilkinson's remains with them because they didn't want to let them "out of our sight,” not this time. “We’re taking him home,” Julia told the newspaper, “we are taking him home.”