Archive for the 'Main Stories' Category

19
Jan
07

“Don’t Call the Coroner…”

Yet.  For now, I’m still among the living.  My apologies to anyone who’s been checking back for some new material.  I had no idea it’s been that long since my last post.  I intentionally took a few weeks off and before I knew it a few months had passed–just long enough for me to forget the passwords to the site administrator and my email server.  I was lucky enough to find where I’d written them down right before the holidays, and my New Year’s resolution was to get back to posting regularly.  I went to bed, woke up, and realized it was the middle of January.  2006 was a record year for deaths even before the holiday season.  Bad for the general public but good for job security.  Like retailers, we see an increase in traffic around Thanksgiving but without the resulting economic prosperity.

Further apologies to anyone who has emailed me the last few months.  I’ve also learned that in my absence, the spam screener for both my email account and comments section has been overly agressive and rejected quite a few valid submissions.  With the help of my brother-in-law, that issue seems to be corrected now.  I’ll be working on posting comments and responding to emails as soon as my next post is up, which should be this weekend.

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25
Jul
06

“Stuck in the Middle with…”

For years I had occasion to drive around the city running errands or just getting from place to place never really paying attention to many of the buildings I would pass as I drove. It’s easy to recognize the locations of chain retailers and corporate offices by the logos on their buildings, but it wasn’t until I started working in this field that I realized how many of the buildings I routinely drove past were actually public housing.

I suppose every city has them. They tend to be non-descript, multi-story buildings with all the charm of a military base in the California desert or a severely neglected college dormitory. In some cases the buildings may look nice on the outside, but the only thing distinguishing them from a high rent high rise is the lack of a manicured landscape and the absence of leased luxury automobiles adorning the parking lot.

For many citizens, these facilities provide low-income (or no-income) housing to people that have limited resources or might otherwise be forced to live on the street. Based on my experiences with public housing, it seems that the majority of people who live in these facilities are baby boomers or older. Either there’s a minimum age limit or I only get called to the facilities where the residents are older and subsequently more likely to need my services.

As it turns out, when people have a limited income, one of the first “budget cuts‿ they are forced to make is health expenses. True, there are plenty of free clinics around the city, but not everyone is able to get to them. The end result is that they don’t go to the doctor to get diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses. When they aren’t being treated for such an illness, there isn’t a physician to certify their death. That’s where the medical examiner/coroner steps in. As a public service, the state/county/city investigates and certifies the death.

The environment inside these facilities isn’t much more appealing than their exterior. The condition of the surroundings—the people, the structure, and the atmosphere—is a cross between a homeless shelter and a nursing home. Nobody really wants to be there, but there really aren’t any other alternatives.

Believe it or not, the point of all this prologue is to paint a mental picture for the story I’m about to tell—not to generalize every facility and every resident or to argue for socialized medicine.

On one of my earliest visits to one of these facilities, I worked a scene where the death that occurred wasn’t the most unusual aspect of the trip. After assisting the funeral home with loading the body, I offered to accompany the transporter in getting the cot out of the building. The officers left as we did, and when it came time to enter the fourth floor elevator they elected to take the stairs because the body smelled considerably worse than it did before we moved it.

As the elevator descended, it stopped on the third floor. The person waiting there started to enter as the door slid open and stopped so suddenly they almost fell forward anyway.

“I’ll catch the next one.‿

Again we descended and again we stopped. This time the doors didn’t open. I pressed the ground floor button again and nothing happened. After a few minutes of random button pushing, I opened the emergency call door and found the phone receiver had been removed—apparently forcibly. I then rang the alarm which sounded so much like a grade school fire alarm I had images of everyone in the building being evacuated into the street below.

After what seemed like several minutes, the alarm stopped, causing the previously silent transporter to remark, “Maybe the alarm broke too.‿

Not long after the alarm stopped, I heard a man’s voice on the other side of the door.

“Is anybody in there?‿

I answered back, and the man behind the voice began to attempt to force the door open. Every time he managed to get the door open an inch or two, it would snap back into place.

Now if I learned anything from watching “Speed,‿ it’s that Dennis Hopper plays “Dennis Hopper‿ really well and elevators function using cables. Still, I never fully understood how much side to side movement there was in an elevator until the man began jerking forcefully on the door. Psychologically speaking, it feels like six inches per floor of elevation.

Eventually the man invited me to assist him by pulling from the inside. Having personally witnessed the guillotine-like closing action of the elevator door as it slammed shut repeatedly in front of me, I declined his request.

“I’m not sticking my fingers in there!‿

After a lot more effort, he finally managed to pull the door open enough that it gave way and slid to the side. After about twenty total minutes, I learned we’d only descended about four feet. I was about to climb out of the elevator to lift up my end of the cot when the man offered…

“Just collapse your cot and pass it up. This happens all the time.‿

“Great,‿ I thought. “Something to look forward to.‿

12
Jun
06

“Them Bones”

Years ago I received a call from the city police reporting that a plumber had found numerous skeletal remains underneath a house. It’s not uncommon for someone to find a buried bone in their garden or lying in a vacant lot. It’s so common in fact that in most cases I would simply ask the reporting officer to drop off the bone at the morgue so that it could be ruled out as human. I usually don’t get too excited about the prospect of skeletal remains because well over 90 percent of the time, the bone in question is non-human. Unless there is a human skull, personal effects, or clothing among the remains, I’m not too interested in going out at 3 a.m. to look at chicken bones or beef ribs.

This most recent call had a different dynamic. The officer reported that the plumber had found “dozens‿ of bones in the crawl space underneath the home—some of which appeared to have been cut into smaller pieces. There were no obvious findings to indicate the remains were human, but then again the officer couldn’t tell a whole lot what with the house being in the way.

The officer informed me that he had already called his supervisor and was told that the crime scene detectives weren’t interested in working the scene until the Medical Examiner determined if the bones were human or not. Apparently they were as disinterested in the prospect of looking at animal bones at 10 a.m. as I was at 3 a.m.

Side Note:

Different police departments respond to scenes in different ways. Some agencies work every death as though it’s suspicious by sending scene technicians to document the scene and detectives to interview witnesses and take statements. In most cases, it depends on the size and available resources of the agency. As such, it’s not uncommon for a police department to wait for the initial impression of the Medical Examiner before it commits resources to a scene investigation. I’ve worked many deaths that started off as basic unattended deaths but warranted a more in depth scene investigation by law enforcement based on my initial findings. When that happens, I simply stop my part of the investigation until law enforcement has a chance to respond accordingly.

When I got to the scene, the officer directed me to a screened vent in the foundation at the front of the house. Peering through the screen into the dark underneath the house I could just make out an area of scattered bones with a larger accumulation in the center. Fortunately, the area of accumulation appeared to be a pile of random bones rather than the easily identifiable remains of a vertebrae and ribs.

“I don’t see anything that’s obviously human, but it’s hard to see much of anything under there. Where are the bones the plumber brought out?‿

“He didn’t,‿ the officer responded.

Just my luck. The one time I wished someone had disturbed a scene, and it turns out the plumber noticed the bones and immediately crawled out from under the house before disturbing anything.

As much as I would have liked to have determined the bones to be non-human at that point, the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t seen enough. Judging from the duty belt of the officer and the tool belt of the plumber that stood leaning against his van in the street, there was only one of us that was going to fit under the house.

“Where’s the opening to the crawl space?‿

“In the backyard.‿

“Of course it is,‿ I thought to myself as the officer led me around the house.

After seeing the opening, I returned to my car and retrieved flashlight and a Tyvek suit (the white, paper-like coveralls worn on crime dramas or in microchip factories). Within minutes I was crawling my way to the front of the house—though the more accurate word would be “slithering‿ due the fact there wasn’t room to crawl.

I’ve never considered myself to be claustrophobic, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily a fan of willfully threading my body into an area with all the headroom of a coffin. This particular adventure was even more complicated by the presence of pipes and floor joist supports that required me to negotiate a maze of obstructions instead of simply going straight to the front of the house where the bones were located.

Along the way I came across random bones, examining each in turn and placing them into my Tyvek suit to keep my hands free for use. I was happy to see some signs of teeth marks on the bone, but of course that didn’t automatically mean they were non-human. Many of the bones I found in the maze were cut sections of long bones that were much larger in diameter than a section of human long bone would be. Most butcher saws are powered and make a cut that is almost surgical in nature—a nice clean cut with uniform blade marks across a nice even plane. Most hand tool saw marks are more ragged and uneven across a plane. That’s not to say a butcher couldn’t use their saw on a human or a person couldn’t use a powered hand tool on their victim.

As it turned out, the accumulation of bones at the front of the house was more of the same. There were no obvious human bones present anywhere. No skull, no mandible, no vertebrae, and nothing that looked like carpals or tarsals. The closest thing to human bones were the ribs I found, but they were shaped differently than human ribs. None of the bones were fresh. All of them had been under the house long enough to dry out and lose some of their density in the interim. I also dug at the ground a little bit, but all of the bones appeared to have been placed on top of the ground. This point was worth noting because if someone were to have tried to dispose of a body under a house, then chances are they would have buried the body to further limit the possibility of discovery.

As far as I could assume, years ago the house belonged to someone with access to a butcher shop and a dog small enough and determined enough to negotiate the maze I had just crawled through. I didn’t see any reason to call out the crime scene unit. I made my way over to the screened vent and shared my thoughts with the officer, and the homeowner that had joined him. Noticing a small hole in the screen I asked the officer to pass through a plastic bag. When the homeowner went inside to get the bag, the officer asked me why I needed the bag.

“I’m going to pick up all these bones so the poor bastards that replace you and me don’t have to go through this again in 20 years.‿

27
Mar
06

“Whatever Happened To…?

My apologies to anyone who may have been expecting, “The Girl of My Dreams—Part III.? I’m afraid there isn’t one. Part of the reason I ended “Part II? so abruptly with numerous questions left unanswered was to illustrate the fairly routine lack of closure associated with this job. Additional apologies for the delay in completing this post, as I hadn’t meant to delay the explanation this long.

I’ve long since become accustomed to this particular aspect of the job, so I suppose it affects the people I know even more. For every “remarkable? or unusual case I work, I may mention the particulars to a few people. If these few people are curious enough, they naturally ask me about the outcome of the case down the road.

I always feel like I’m somehow disappointing friends, family, and police officers when they ask questions like:

“What was the little girl’s cause of death??

“Whatever happened to the parents??

“Isn’t it a homicide if she died because of neglect??

It’s at that point I’m forced to admit that I have no idea what the ultimate outcome was on a case.

Here’s why:

Once I’ve done the scene investigation and prepared the paperwork, my role in the investigation is for the most part completed. Unless the case requires some immediate follow up work at the time of the autopsy, I’m pretty much done with the case as soon as I inform the respective agency as to what our findings were. The dynamics are a little different on a homicide case, requiring more work to collect evidence and more conversations with the respective agency about the particulars of the case.

So beyond the day after the autopsy, there’s a very good chance that I’ll never have any involvement with a particular case again. Many of our cases require further investigation such as toxicology and histology. These additional tests mean that it could be months before the pathologist determines a cause of death. During this span of time, I will likely have brought in several dozen more cases.

When a case is finally closed, it’s basically a clerical matter that is handled in the front office and nothing that I ever see again unless I go and check. Unless I’ve remained in contact with the investigating agency or seen an update on the news, I may never know the final determination on a case.

I’m not sure if I ever knew what the little girl’s cause of death was. I don’t remember her name, but I recall enough of the details that with a little effort I could pull her case and find out. But then I think, in the grand scheme of things, “What difference would that make??

Of course, that only explains why I don’t know the cause of death. As for what happened to the parents and whether she died from neglect—I can’t explain those at all. I can only assume that the case workers from child welfare arrived shortly after I left. Whether or not anything positive came from their visit is a separate issue. Neglect isn’t a pathological finding discovered at autopsy and is generally an issue for the judge, jury, and attorneys to sort out. To a certain degree, I’d rather remain blissfully ignorant on both issues.

So how do I answer those questions from friends and family? I typically don’t. I’ll offer something along the lines of, “I forgot all about that one,? and politely pretend to be as curious as they are as to what the answer might be. Depending on the case, that may or may not be a true statement, but it’s a lot easier that explaining all I’ve written here. I’m pretty sure no one wants to hear the sad truth–that for every case that sticks out in my mind, there are a hundred that I forget completely.

20
Feb
06

Click here for “The Girl of My Dreams—Part I?

I’ve walked into scenes spattered with blood before and not been shocked—reason being that when someone has been beaten to death with a hatchet it’s natural to walk in expecting to see some blood. But this scene was nothing like that. Not a drop of blood, and yet I was shocked nonetheless.

The bedroom itself appeared as though a laundromat had exploded. There were clothes scattered everywhere with the exception of two places. The first was an area on the full size bed that had been cleared just enough for an adult to sleep. The second was an area of floor in the corner of the room with one of the large round cushions that are available at any pet supply store. The fact that it was made for a large animal to sleep on didn’t discourage the girl’s caregivers from concluding it was an appropriate spot to place a child needing special care.

I understand that not everyone in this world can afford a crib or a bed and that some people have to make do or improvise. If that were the only issue, it could have easily been overlooked.

But it wasn’t.

The girl was lying face up in the center of the cushion. Scattered around the perimeter of the cushion and the room were dozens of empty cans of Pediasure that—when used with the tiny funnel and syringe that was present—were apparently administered through the girl’s feeding tube.

I snapped a few distant photos and as I stood counting the empty cans, one of the technicians asked, “What’s with all the baby powder??

He was referring to the white powder that had been scattered all over the girl and the pad as though she had been dusted with powdered sugar like a pastry. As I knelt down in the garbage next to the pad I noticed a small canister that was different from the Pediasure cans. Examining the canister I realized the baby powder was actually lice powder and a closer look at the girls head confirmed the presence of insect activity on her scalp.

During the entire external exam, it felt like there were bugs crawling all over my forearms. Thankfully, it was just my imagination. Part of me wanted to find some sign of trauma so I could at least go home knowing that the little girl’s parents would spend the night in jail. I borrowed the cleanest baby blanket I could find and spread it out on top of the cans, diapers, and clothing and wrapped the little girl inside.

I exited the house with the lieutenant, gave the funeral home the go ahead to remove the body, and asked the lieutenant to introduce me to the family. At this point I was simply going through the same routine I always did with families: introduce myself, let them know what I’m doing there and where their loved one is going, and answer any questions they have at that time. If I hadn’t just been going through the motions, God only knows what I would have said to them.

After giving them one of my cards, the lieutenant walked with me back to my car.

“Do you think we ought to call Homicide out?? he asked.

“No. But if you’re not going to call Child Welfare, I damn sure am.?

“They’re on their way,? he assured me.

I got in the car and headed home, scratching my forearms from time to time.

13
Feb
06

Late one night I was called out to a house in one of the lower economic regions of the city. It was actually my first trip to this particular area. I’d driven past it numerous times on the expressway and never even knew it was there. There are several of these types of areas in this and every other city I suppose. Thousands drive past them on the interstates and main roads and never actually go through them. These are areas of the city I would never drive through if it weren’t for the fact that there were police officers waiting for me.

This particular part of the city was certainly known to law enforcement. The fact that one of the major thoroughfares for rail traffic in the city was only two blocks to the west would have made one think that I was now on the wrong side of the tracks. One look down the street to the neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, and I was immediately aware that neither side was particularly enviable.

As I parked across the street from the address, a police lieutenant appeared from nowhere as I opened the door. He spoke quietly so that only I could hear, “We’ll talk inside.?

He then ushered me past a large group of people that had accumulated in the driveway and we made our way to the front porch. An officer on the porch nodded at me with a look as though he recognized me from some previous scene and opened the screen door. I nodded back politely, though in truth I didn’t specifically recall him. It’s fairly easy for thousands of officers to remember a dozen or so death investigators. It’s not so easy the other way around.

My first clue that the inside of this house was going to be an absolute pit was the circuitous route that the lieutenant and I made to the front porch as we navigated our way through car parts, appliances, and broken toys. People who give little regard to the impression their front yard makes seem to care even less when it comes to the part of their property that is not in the public eye. I have yet to walk across such a yard and enter a house where I would consider sitting down or touching anything without gloves on.

As I entered the house I couldn’t help notice the pie-shaped “snow angel? pattern that the front door had carved in the debris that covered the living room floor. Beyond that, a small path had been trampled in the garbage that forked at the other end of the room and led to other parts of the house. It was along this path that the lieutenant and I now stood along with another officer and two crime scene technicians, each of us seemingly afraid to step off the main path into the surrounding area.

I got the rest of the information I needed from the officer inside the house. A mother had gone to check on her two and a half year old girl and called 911 when the little girl didn’t respond. The officer had arrived at the scene shortly after the paramedics who were in the process of checking for vital signs. The lack of vital signs and the obvious presence of rigor mortis was enough for the paramedics to pronounce the girl dead at the scene. The little girl was also known to have some sort of debilitating disease because paramedics noticed that she had a gastric feeding tube in place.

After the briefing in the living room, I carefully followed the two crime scene technicians into the back bedroom of the house. To say that I was shocked by what I saw is an understatement. The significance of first exposure to that scene was evidenced by the way that both crime scene technicians were looking at me to see my reaction.

Stay tuned for Part II…

02
Nov
05

Lost in the shuffle between Halloween and Christmas is a holiday that a growing segment of Americans hold in higher regard than Thanksgiving—the Day of the Dead. Of the “minor holidays?—those that don’t provide a day off from work but still validate the consumption of alcohol—the Day of the Dead intrigues me the most.

Beyond being able to butcher the pronunciation of “Dia de los Muertos,? I’m no expert on the subject by any means. My understanding of the Day of the Dead is that it’s essentially the pagan tradition of honoring dead ancestors practiced by the indigenous civilizations of Mexico combined with their Spanish conqueror’s celebration of All Saint’s Day (the day sandwiched between Halloween and All Souls Day). I like the idea of a holiday where those that have passed are honored by celebrating.

To me, that makes much more sense than taking flowers to a place where the recipient will never see them. After seeing a number of bodies that have been exhumed, I have a tendency to view cemeteries as nothing more than an underground biological reclamation site. To me, visiting a grave site makes as much sense as going to a library where books with blank pages have been archived.

For more information on the Day of the Dead, consult your local library. For best results, consult one where the books have words.