Brunhilda and I were working alone on a Saturday afternoon when we were called out to a suicide in the suburbs. As you can imagine, I was eager to get out of there since I had spent several very uncomfortable and silent hours in the same room with the barracuda.
It is December and a bit chilly outside so we put on our standard navy blue windbreakers that say "Medical Examiner" across the back. I grab the camera and some film. Brunhilda gathers some gloves and the cell phone. After we load up the Explorer we drive about 20 miles to a middle income neighborhood on the north side. There are cop cars all over the place in front of the house.
Brunhilda goes off to talk to the detectives while I examine the scene. The vic is a white male, 44 years, 6'1" tall, 240 lbs. The garage door is open and there is a red sedan inside. As I approach I notice one end of a garden hose stuck in the tailpipe. The other end is threaded through a crack in the passenger side window. Carbon monoxide poisoning. I have not seen it before, but I read about what to expect. Cherry colored skin. Accelerated decomposition...
I walk up to the driver's side door and peer inside. The victim is hunched over toward the center console of the car. His skin, far from cherry-colored, is black. "Are you sure this is a white guy?" I ask Det. Blue as he walks up to join me. He chuckles and gets an amused glint in his eye. "Never saw one of these before, huh?" I don't answer, but instead put on a pair of latex gloves.
The smell of decomposition is strong and my eyes start to water as soon as I open the door. The body has been here for less than 12 hours and I am surpised to see skin slippage already apparent on his forearms and thighs. Skin slippage begins with big, fluid-filled blisters that errupt just under the epidermis. Over time, these blisters spread and then burst so that the outer layer of skin is loose and appears to be "slipping" off the body.
Det. Blue makes an unpleasant sound and backs up when the smell hits him. He steps out of the garage and into fresher air. My instincts tell me to breath out of my mouth, but I know from experience that this is not advisable. The smell of decomposition is so powerful you can actually taste it if you breath through your mouth.
I lean my head in the car and notice that the keys are in the ignition. "Did one of you guys turn off the car?" I call to Det. Blue. He tells me that when patrol came out on the scene they reached in and turned it off. He assures me they used gloves and no prints will be disturbed.
The victim's head is leaning into the passenger seat. His nose and mouth are purging decomp fluid, which, to the untrained eye looks like blood. I can't tell you how many times people have happened upon bodies with bloody discharge coming from the nose and mouth and immediately suspected foul play. Even green patrol officers make that mistake from time to time. I note that a puddle of discharge has formed on the cloth interior of the seat. I look away.
With some difficulty, I attempt to lift the victim's right arm to test for rigor mortis. It is stiff and unwilling to move. As I'd suspected, rigor is full. Given the accelerated rate of decomposition, I am estimating his time since death between 6 and 9 hours. It'll be fun trying to extract him from the car with his legs and arms stiff and uncooperative. And getting him into the body bag will be an even better trick. For the umpteenth time I think how much I would hate to have Dwight's job.
I am holding the arm up with some difficulty. The underside, the part that was in contact with the middle console, is blanched white and mottled with lividity. Lividity looks like angry red bruising. It is the result of blood settling to the lowest point after it stops flowing. I note that the faux-leather pattern from the console is deeply engraved in his damp skin. My grip loosens and his wet arm slips from my fingers. It slaps back down to its previous position with an angry thud.
I hear a familiar voice. Dwight just pulled in. I walk out of the garage and wave. He greets me cheerfully, as usual. After a few minutes of chatting I say, "You'll need a vinyl body bag for this one, Dwight." "Oh," he laughs, "a stinker!" He shuffles off to his van and starts digging around.
Meanwhile, Brunhilda approaches me with a big smile on her face. She hands me the suicide note. Apparently, the guy was upset because his "girlfriend" just left him a few days ago. But not before said girlfriend drained his bank accounts and put him $20k in debt. Nice. Seems that when the gravy train ran dry, she moved on. Poor guy.
Brunhilda waits until I'm done reading and says, "He threw the Christmas tree out the back door. Lights and all. Someone didn't have the Christmas Spirit." I smile despite myself. I walk in the house and look out the back door. Sure enough, the tree is lying on its side four or five feet from the house. A line of plugs and ornaments lead from the door like a trail of bread crumbs. "Bah, humbug," I say under my breath.
As Brunhilda and I walk back into the garage we notice a patrol officer speaking to an elderly lady. It's the victim's mother. I take a deep breath. The mother was the one that called the police this morning to have them check on her son. She knew he was depressed and when she couldn't raise him on the phone, she became concerned. She'd driven all the way from Daytona to get here.
The mother was pale but seemed pretty put together. Brunhilda and I approached her and told her what we knew. She blinked a few times but did not, as many family members do, question that her son had killed himself. Instead, she said she wanted to see him. "He's right there, isn't he? In the car?" Oh, no. I glance over at Brunhilda, who looks as distressed as I feel.
Brunhilda tells her that he is not viewable. The mother asks why. I get this technical, emotionless tone in my voice as I explain the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. I hope that detaching like that will somehow make it less difficult for the mom to hear. Or maybe it makes it less difficult for me to say.
In any case, dispite all our efforts, the mother is moving toward the garage. Brunhilda and I are backing up in front of her, shielding her and trying to reason with her, each of us imploring her to stop. "You don't want to remember him like that." Brunhilda says with tears pricking her eyes.
The mother starts yelling that it is her son and she has a right to see him. She darts around us and heads into the garage. I hear her scream. Brunhilda and I look at each other and for an instant we are friends, united in our grief for this woman who will now have to live with that awful image of her dead son for the rest of her life.
We turn into the garage. Dwight has already pulled the body out of the car and the vic is lying on the black vinyl bag, his legs and arms rising above his torso in the same position as they were in the car, skin black and bloated and oozing. The mother is on her knees weeping a few feet away and two detectives are flanking her on either side. They pick her up and bring her into the house. The door shuts behind them amid her pitiful cries.
I rub my eyes. It is silent for a good minute. Finally, Brunhilda tells Dwight to hurry up so we can get out of here.