Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Cold Day [Warning: Disturbing/Graphic] Part 2 of 2

I walk to the cubicle in the back of the room and sit down at the computer.  I Google the address of my fire scene.  I'd heard something about it on the news this morning but didn't pay much attention because the house was presumed abandoned and empty.  

Not far...that's good. I think.  Our medical examiner jurisdiction doesn't just include the Big City, but the entire 1600+ square mile county, as well.  That means a scene out to the farthest reaches could take more than an hour to get to…and that’s without factoring in traffic.

I grab my scene bag out of my locker and check to make sure I’ve got a fresh pair of latex gloves, some paper sacks for any wet or bloody evidence I collect, plastic bags, my camera, a flashlight, a measuring tape, a pair of scissors, flathead and Philips-head screwdrivers, boot covers, masks, a full-body suit (for when you find a body in a dumpster and you don’t want to throw away the clothes you’re wearing that day), and a ruler. 

Then I pull out my Posse Box, a glorified clipboard with a storage area under the writing surface.  I flip open the cover.  Graph paper, body charts, blank first call sheets (in case another body or two are located on-scene), pen, pencil (because pens don’t write in rain or when it’s below freezing), and worksheets to remind me what essential questions must be asked at various types of scenes…baby deaths, autoerotic asphyxiation, plane crashes, etc…

I close the box and Deuce yells from his office, “Polly!” 

I look up, “Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to get a core temperature!”

Foxy hollers from the control room, “Don’t you dare touch that thermometer!  Whoever used it last got goop all over it and didn’t bother to disinfect it afterward.”

I make a face.

“You’re obsessed with core temperatures, Boss!” Adroit pipes in.

Deuce walks to the door of his office and says to the room, “That’s because a good investigator always takes a core temperature.”  Then he walks back into his office and sits behind his desk.
Deuce isn’t serious, of course.  Getting a core temperature means getting a rectal temp.  There is no useful information to be gathered from taking a “core temp” on a burned, then frozen cadaver.  The temperature of the body is only really useful when you’re trying to determine how long the decedent has been dead.  And even then, there are so many variables that can influence how quickly a body cools that it’s almost better to just record the ambient temperature and then note whether the trunk is warmer or cooler than the hands.  If the hands are still warm and pliable, then you know the body hasn’t been down long.  If the hands are cool and the trunk is still warm, that tells you it’s been at least a couple hours.  If both the hands and the trunk are room temperature, you know it’s been several hours and you start to pay closer attention to lividity and rigor mortis. 

I bundle up in my winter garb and head out to my car.  It is bitterly cold out today.  I sigh.  I open the hatch back and peer into the laundry basket I put back there.  I rummage through until I find my ski mittens, ear muffs, and ski pants.  I gather my bundle, close the back, and make my way to the driver’s side. 

After I hop in, I press the button that starts the car, throw everything on the passenger seat and set the heat to high.  I tuck my gloves into my bag and hold up the ski pants.  These look a little small, I think.  I grabbed them off the hanger in the closet at o’dark thirty yesterday morning and shoved them in the laundry basket without a second thought.  Sure enough… these are size 10 child pants.  I suppose I could pull them up over my hips and leave them unbuttoned, but there’s not much I can do about the fact that the pant legs will end mid-calf. 

I sigh again and toss the pants into the back seat.  Oh well.  Nothing to be done about it now. 

I press the talk button on the steering wheel and hear a beep.  I say, “Navigation.” And the calm female voice of my little car programs in the address I feed to it while I drive out of the parking lot. 

I arrive on scene 15 minutes later.  This is a bad part of town.  Most of the buildings are dilapidated.  Gang signs are spray-painted on every other light pole and fence.  I see several people shivering against the cold as they wait for the city bus to pick them up.

The burned out house is still smoldering.  I clip the graph paper to the front of my Posse Box and pull out a pencil.  I write down the time.  Then I take out the camera and loop the strap around my wrist.  I turn it on for a second and make sure that it is, indeed, on picture mode.  It is.  I nod my head in satisfaction. 

Then I hear a knock at my window and turn to see a man in professional clothes and a parka standing there.  This must be the detective. I think.  Beat cops are always in uniform, so plain-clothes police are either detectives or under cover. 

I brace myself for the cold and step out of the car.  I am greeted by a middle-aged man with twinkling eyes and a bright smile.  He has a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of his nose.  “Well, hello!” He says.  “I’m Detective Frolic.  And who might you be?”  He looks at me intently.  I introduce myself and explain that I'm a new medical examiner investigator.  we shake hands.   But he doesn’t let my hand go and I look up at him.  “I sincerely hope we get to work together a lot in the future.  I also hope there’s not a ring under those gloves.” 

I smile and take my hand back.  “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but there is a ring, I’m afraid.” 

He puts his right hand to his heart as if it is breaking.  I laugh.  “So, what’s the story?” 
Frolic gets down to business as we walk to the edge of the crime scene tape on the sidewalk.  I pull out my camera and snap a picture from the side of the house and from the front.  The doors and windows are all blown out and black, sooty ash clings to the brick above them.  The doorway is a dark, open mouth with nothing but blackness inside.

“It wasn’t until the firefighters were finishing up that they found him.  The only thing we know for sure is that it’s a man.  You can guess why.”  He looks at me sideways and wiggles his eyebrows.  I wrinkle my nose.

“We did a canvas of the neighborhood and have a tentative ID for a homeless guy in his 30’s that may have been squatting here.  I’m going to follow up on it and get back to you later today.”
I nod and take more notes.  “So, where is the body?”  I say.

Just then, a young beat cop makes his way over to us.  His teeth are chattering despite all of his cold-weather gear.  I greet him and he smiles.  He looks so innocent, I think.  It makes me sad to imagine how that will change after a few years on the streets.  “I was the first officer on scene and I’ve been out here for the past four hours,” he says proudly.  I want to tell him to go sit in his patrol car for a while and warm up, for Pete’s sake.  He can barely talk without stuttering.  I think his lips and tongue are frozen. 

The three of us start the long walk to the back of the house.  Det. Frolic tells me to hold on to his coat as we make our way through the detritus.  “If you fall down in this you’ll get cut to ribbons,” he says. “And I would never forgive myself.”  There is glass from busted out windows, boards with nails sticking out of them, jagged shafts of splintered wood…everything blackened from the fire and everything coated in a thin sheet of ice from the fire fight this morning.  The officer with the chattering teeth is right behind me and I feel his hand at my elbow.  Well, don’t I just feel like a delicate flower, I think with a smile.  And they say chivalry is dead…

We reach what is left of a wooden fence leading to the backyard and I see what remains of the homeless man who probably started the fire that killed him.  I imagine what it would be like to have no heat on a night with wind chills as low as 30 degrees below zero.  Of course he started a fire.  And once he started to warm up, his exhausted body probably fell into a deep sleep.  And then the fire took him.

He was barely recognizable as human, let alone identifiable.  As Frolic so adeptly noted, you could tell he was male, but that was about it.  He lay on his back, his knees bent and to the sides.  His arms were bent at right angles and his hands were curled into claws.  This is common in fire deaths.  As the muscle tissue burns, it contracts and the body assumes this grotesque pose.  The clothing, if he was wearing any, was completely burned off the body.  His face was an eyeless, featureless gray mass.  There was muscle tissue and tendons exposed.  The scalp was completely burned away…exposing the bare cranium. 

I look closer.  The fire wasn’t super hot.  If it was, his brain would have boiled and his skull would have cracked open.  I don’t see any fractures.  

There isn’t much more for me to do with the body.  Any trace evidence that could be collected is long since gone.  There are no pockets to go through looking for ID.  And we won’t be able to definitively determine manner and cause of death until the autopsy.  It’s a bad idea to assume out of hand that the fire killed the man.  He could have had a fatal heart attack and kicked into the fire.  Or he could have been shot to death and the assailant started the fire to cover his tracks. 

I snap some pictures, step over the body, and get shots of different angles.  I take in the surroundings.  It looks like the front of the house…the brick portion…withstood the fire pretty well.  But the back of the house was a wood-frame add-on and it appears that our homeless guy had been on the second floor and “spilled out” when the floor caved in.    

After I finish taking pictures I step over the body again and we make our way back to the front of the house.  By now, I’m shivering all over and my nose is running.  When we get to the sidewalk, Frolic asks me if I want to take some photographs from inside.  I look up at the yawning black doorway.  “Is it safe?” I ask. 

“Sure!” He answers.  “I’ve been in there a few times already since the fire department left.”

I shrug.  “Sh-sure!”  I try to sound enthusiastic.  “Frolic takes my arm as we climb the ice-coated steps to the front door.  I walk inside.  It smells like a campfire.  Icicles hang from the ceiling.  I walk through what used to be a parlor area.  Water drips onto my head and I sigh. 

I take pictures as I go, ending at the edge of the collapsed portion where the man slid out into the frozen night.  Later on, as I review the photograph, I can just see the dead man’s clawed hand sticking up out of the rubble.   

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Cold Day [Warning: Graphic/Disturbing] Part 1 of 2

"So," I say, "It went pretty well except the camera kept telling me to follow the arrows to the right and then it would shut off.  I finally had to use the camera on my phone."  I hold out my defective camera to show Chief Investigator Deuce.  "See?  I couldn't get it to stop."  I am standing in the cramped quarters of Deuce's office along with Chief Deputy Ethos.

Ethos reaches out and takes the camera from me.  He toggles a switch on the side and hands it back. "There.  You had it on movie mode."

I take the camera back and inspect it suspiciously.  I look up at Ethos and shrug.  "It's a gizmo.  I have a thing with gizmos."  He raises an eyebrow.  "Contraptions?  New-FANGLED contraptions?" I appeal to his old man-ness.  He just purses his lips.  I try again.  "You see, I am a nerd.  I need users manuals and clear instructions and manufacturer websites to thrive.  Where's my users manual?"

Deuce pipes up from behind his desk.  "Funny you should say that.  I have a new camera for you.  Turn in the old one.  Ethos, will you please go get Polly a new camera bag while I introduce her to the users manual for the new one?"  I smile and push my imaginary taped coke-bottle glasses up on my nose.  Hotdog!  Where's my highlighter?

A while later I am at my desk finishing the inspection report from my visit to the funeral home the day before.  I consult the photographs I took and add some finishing touches to the body chart that I filled out at the time.  I tried to make sure all my ducks were in a row before I got there.  When I walked through the front parlor I was greeted by an old man in his mid 70's.  He was the funeral director.  I introduced myself and he led me back to a room off the garage.  Several bodies in bags lay in the room.  He walked over to one and unzipped it.

I studied the man on the tray.  He had several EKG leads stuck to the skin of his chest and upper arms, testament to the failed effort to revive him in the ER yesterday.  His eyes were slightly parted and the corneas were milky white.  His skin looked in pretty good condition until I glanced below the waist.  Scars ran up and down the inside of his thighs and ended at the stumps of two amputated legs.  I looked at the information on the call sheet again.  Diabetes mellitus.  And no doctor.  He had uncontrolled diabetes and it took his legs before taking his life.  Poor guy.  I pulled out my camera and spent the next several minutes looking like an idiot because I couldn't get it to work properly.  Finally, I pulled out my cell phone.

I asked the funeral director to hold a card with our case number and the date under the dead man's chin so I could take a photo of the face.  He did so.  Then I walked to the end of the tray and took a full-body shot.  I noticed a tattoo and the funeral director and I struggled to break the rigor mortis enough to turn the wrist so I could get a good picture.  Finally, I asked the funeral director to turn the body on its side so I could get a picture of the back.  He quietly complied.  I noticed a large decubitus ulcer on the left buttock...a result of days...weeks...maybe months in bed with constant pressure on one area.  I winced.  It was deep and about 3 inches across.  It must have been agonizing for him during those last weeks.  I took my picture and the funeral director quietly rolled the body back.  I removed my gloves and threw them in a red biohazard bag as he zipped the body back in.

It is only now, as I enter the case into our database that I put two and two together.  The dead man's next-of-kin has the same name as the funeral director.  I feel a cold chill run up my back.  I check the contact phone numbers for the funeral home and the dead man's brother.  The same.  I feel a wave of compassion for the quiet man that helped me inspect the body yesterday.  It was his brother.  I sigh.  I feel like a jerk for not realizing it before now.  I would have at least given him my condolences...

Just then, Deuce yells from his office to nobody in particular, "There's no crying in Investigations!"  I smile as Adroit yells back from his desk, "I thought that was baseball!"

Deuce replies loudly, "A good investigator never thinks!"

I giggle as Foxy, a gorgeous, curvy woman in her mid-40's pops her head out of the control room and says, "Hey, I've got a hot one!  Literally."  She scans the room and her eyes land on me.  "You think you can take a house fire scene all by your lonesome, Polly?"  I jump out of my chair and practically run across the room.  Then I slow before I get to her.  Be cool, Polly.  Smooooth.  I nod once, pointing my chin toward the call sheet.  "I think I can handle it."  Foxy smiles and hands me the paper.  "It was an abandoned row house.  Firefighters didn't even know a body was there until they stumbled upon it.  They think it was a squatter that started the fire to keep warm."

I listen to her carefully trying not to bounce up and down on my toes like an excited first grader.  Then I turn back toward my desk and mentally tick off the gear I'm going to need.  I change into my tactical boots and bundle up.  It's cold out there today in the Big City.

More later...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Down the Drain [Warning: Graphic/Disturbing]: Part 2 of 2

At about 10am the trainer looks at his watch and says, "Okay, kids...wanna go watch an autopsy?" People chatter and shift in their chairs at this.

"How many of you have seen an autopsy before?" he asks.  Three or four of the 50 or so rookie cops in the room raise their hands.  "Well, this should be fun, then."  The trainer walks toward the door and continues to speak.  "Follow me.  If you start to feel sick or dizzy, raise your hand and somebody will escort you out of the post room."  People start following him out the door.  "Oh," he says, "and don't forget to breath through your mouth."  He has a wicked gleam in his eye as he says it.

Core looks at me and rolls his eyes.  "I'm going back to the office," he says.  "I had to assist with autopsies at my old job and I don't need this."  He waits a beat.  "You coming?"

I shake my head.  "Nah.  It's always fun being there when people watch their first autopsy.  Plus, I might learn something new."

Core shrugs and breaks off from the group, heading back toward the Investigations division.  So, me and a whole lot of nervous young men and women walk through Intake and pause outside one of the three autopsy rooms.  We put on masks and booties and then push through the heavy double doors.  There are six stations set up in each room and they are all occupied.  One body is already up on blocks, the chest cavity elevated and open in the usual Y-shaped incision.  The chest piece has already been removed and is lying on a drain board next to the sink.  Another body, that of a wizened old man, lies naked on a tray being photographed by an autopsy technician.   Still another body, this one very tiny, lies under a sheet in one corner.  My heart squeezes and I look away.

We barely file in when two young men turn on their heals and walk back into the hallway.  Hmmm, I think to myself, forgot to breath through their mouths, I bet.  There is a huge chunk of olfactory information that you just can't get from watching a true crime or forensics show.  That, in addition to the visual assault of seeing mutilated bodies, can be too much for some people.  Smells have a way of triggering us on a visceral (har har) level.  They stimulate parts of the brain that would otherwise lie under the surface of our conscious control.  There is something primitive and maybe even terrifying about the smell of human blood and decomposition that often catches people off guard.  For me, it's such a strong instinct that, to this day, I can't walk through the meat department at a grocery store without feeling a strong sense of aversion.

Half the group is in one suite and half is in the other.  I walk through the breezeway between the rooms to see what's happening on the other side.  There is a cluster of observers around a table in the far corner.  I walk around the edge until I'm almost behind the pathologist.  On the table is a small woman.  She's a very young and very pretty girl with Hispanic features...medium skin, dark eyes, dark hair.  She's got multiple inexpensive, possibly homemade tattoos all over her body and it occurs to me that she's very young to have accumulated that much ink.  They haven't started the post yet, so her nude body is only marked by the injuries that brought her to the Big City morgue.

I see a laceration about two inches wide running from the outside of her right eyebrow and into her temple.  It's an ugly wound but would not have killed her.  The bone in that part of the skull is very thick and it looks like the blade glanced off of it.  I look at her left hand and see that her middle and index fingers have deep defensive wounds in them, as if she used her hand to try and block the blade coming at her face.  Again, a serious injury, but not something that would kill her.  As I am thinking this, the doctor, who is noting all of these injuries carefully on a body chart, asks the autopsy tech to roll her over.

As her body is unceremoniously turned, I see an inch-long gap between the ribs on the left side of her back...just under her armpit.  The wound is an elongated tear-shape, which tells me the knife used had a single sharp edge.  The location of this stab-wound gives me a few good guesses as to what probably happened.  Either she was stabbed through the heart, stabbed through a lung, or stabbed through a major blood vessel.  Even a small wound to the heart might fill the space between the pericardium and the heart with blood...building up pressure until the heart can no longer beat (cardiac tamponade).  And, of course, a larger wound can cause exsanguination (the medical term for bleeding out) within moments.  In a similar manner, injury to the lungs might cause the pleural space to fill with blood and prevent the lungs from expanding.  And if a major vessel was hit, she would have bled out.

I ask the doc, "So, what's her story?"  The doctor looks over to me and says, "She was at a party last night.  Nobody told the police much about what happened after the fact, but 911 was called because a fight broke out."  I think about that for a moment.  "Was the weapon recovered?" I ask.  The doctor nods.  "It was a kitchen knife."

The body is repositioned on its back and a block of wood is placed under the shoulder blades to elevated the upper chest and draw the head back so the chin is pointing to the ceiling.  A Y-shaped incision is made from shoulder blades to the top of the sternum and then down to the pubic bone.  The tech does this while the doctor continues writing notes.  The tech then flays back the skin with a scalpel and exposes the ribcage.  He walks to the edge of the station and picks up a bone saw.  It makes an ugly sound as it cuts through ribs.  I watch as a couple more people walk out of the room.  As the breastplate is removed, it's clear there's a lot of internal bleeding.  Her whole chest cavity is full of blood.  The doctor notes this and the tech uses a tube to suction off the excess blood and the gurgling sound of the suction sends a couple more people out to the hallway.

The doctor peers into the chest cavity.  She uses her hand to push the lungs and heart aside so she can see the path of the knife.  She pushes her finger through the entrance wound and watches where it enters into the chest.  She nods to the tech and he begins removing organs, placing them on a cutting board at the end of the station.  The doctor examines the heart first.  I am struck by how very tiny this heart is.  It's only slightly larger than a golf ball.  I look at the woman again and realize that she's only maybe 4'10" tall.

The doctor looks over at us and says, "There is no injury to the heart."  She then examines the left lung.  There is a puncture wound.  She tells us that it could have killed her if she lived long enough after the stabbing but that she didn't believe it was the immediate cause of death.  Then, she goes back to the chest cavity and examines the blood vessels branching from the ascending aorta.  One, the left subclavian artery that feeds the left arm, was almost completely severed.  It must have been a really long knife and it must have been angled upward from where it entered under her armpit.  This, the pathologist declares, was the cause of death.  Exsanguination.

Despite already having determined what killed the girl, the autopsy continues.  Each abdominal organ is brought to the board, sectioned, and pieces dropped into formalin or into cards to be sealed in paraffin.  These specimens will be prepared and then examined under a microscope later.  Sectioned organs are placed in a five gallon bucket that is lined with a red biohazard bag.

The tech asks the doctor if he should open the head and she nods.  He first takes a scalpel and draws it from ear to ear up over the crown of the cranium.  Then, similar to a mask, the and peeled back to the eyebrows and down to the neck.  One more guy leaves the room.  Then the bone saw comes out again and a 90 degree wedge is made from about where the hairline would be to the crown.  A tool is used to pop the cranium from the rest of the skull and the bone is set aside.  Her brain looks normal.  Pink and tan.  Very mooshy, as is common in young people.

The doctor takes a look at the membranes surrounding the brain to check for hemorrhaging or fractures.  She nods to the tech and he draws back the frontal lobe so he can cut the two optic nerves just before they cross at the optic chiasma.  Then he carefully removes the brain and hands it to the doctor.  She drops it onto the cutting board and walks over to the empty skull.  Again, she examines the meninges to determine if there were any hemorrhages or fractures.  She nods to the tech and walks back to the cutting board.  She first removes the cerebellum and brain stem.  She sections them, checking for anything abnormal.  She does the same with the cerebrum, checking the ventricles and taking specimens of the hypothalamus and cortex for  later microscopic examination.

While the doctor does this, the tech uses a pair of pliers to grasp the membranes that are adhered to the inside of the cranium and tear them loose.  The ripping sound that it makes is my least favorite part of an autopsy.  Sadly, we lose one more rookie cop.

The sectioned brain is scooped into the bag with the rest of the organs.  The brain cavity is filled with rolled sheets of cotton, the cranium repositioned, and the scalp drawn back over the skull.  The tech uses a needle and twine to stitch it closed.  The tech then suctions out the body.  The red biohazard bag is tied closed and placed inside the abdominal cavity.  The breastplate is replaced and the Y-incision is sewn back together.  The tech pours a cleaning solution over the body and rinses blood and tissue from the surface.  He dries it off and moves it to another tray that's lined with a body bag.

As we leave the room, I watch as he closes the bag around this young woman who was alive and vibrant not 12 hours earlier.  I wonder if she was caught up in gangs.  I wonder if she got into fights often or if she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I wonder if she has parents that are mourning her.  I wonder a lot of things.  Most of all, I'm sad.      

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Down the Drain [Warning: Disturbing] Part 1

I am sitting in the middle of a room full of rookie cops.  This is the first of a two day death investigation training that they are required to attend when they first come onto the force.  I am here because the chief thinks it's a good idea for us to understand the perspective of the beat cops.

Next to me is Core.  He was hired a couple weeks before me.  I haven't really had a chance to bond with him yet.  But to be fair, I haven't really given it much effort.  You see, Core seems to have a pretty strong undercurrent of hostility that bubbles to the surface at odd moments.  He takes "constructive" criticism from the bosses personally, complaining under his breath rather than looking at it as an opportunity to improve.  I guess that if I were to designate people with either a positive outlook on life or a negative outlook on life Core would have a big, fat minus sign hovering over his head.

I am listening to the retired officer conducting the seminar regale us with stories from his days as a homicide detective.  I marvel that he's a perfect archetype of the seasoned cop...right down to the bushy mustache and the impressive ability to use all of the top ten most popular cuss words in just about every sentence he utters.

He spends the first hour just trying convince the green cops in the room that he's one of them.  He does this by poking fun anybody who isn't police...the pathologists, the officials at city hall, anybody in authority in law enforcement, and especially the various citizens that one might encounter as a beat cop in a Big City. It's a tough crowd, but after a while he seems to be making some headway at branding himself as "just one of the regular guys".

Now, I'm going to preface the next bit by saying I really hate training conferences on death investigation techniques.  I've been to enough of them to realize they all make it a goal to present the audience with the most horrifying, soul-crushing and sensational cases imaginable.  Often serving no other purpose than to pollute a new batch of investigators with images of cruelty, suffering, and victimhood so foul that they leave you shattered for weeks afterward.

More later....

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Occam's Razor

Ring! Ring!

"Medical Examiner's Office, this is Polly."

"Hi, my name is Kyle.  I called earlier but I wanted to call back and talk to a different person."

Uh oh... I look over at Brutus and mouth "Kyle?"  Brutus, a large African American man in his mid-forties, gives me a wicked grin, points to the side of his head with his index finger and performs the universal sign for "that guy is nuts" by circling his ear a few times.  

Brutus has been training me in the control booth all day.  The control booth is where initial calls are taken.  These calls could be from a funeral director looking for a death certificate, a police officer or nurse reporting a death, media fishing for information, or a family member calling about a deceased loved one.

"I think you guys made a mistake.  See, my dad was in remission from stage four lung cancer.  He had high blood pressure, but he just went to the doctor a week ago and was in perfect health. There was no reason for him to die.  But when the police came out they said you guys released him to a funeral home instead of taking him in for an autopsy." Kyle says.

"Okay," I say.  "How old was your dad?"  

"He was 80-yrs-old."

"So, he had cancer and he was 80-yrs-old.  He had high blood pressure and he had a family doctor that he saw on a regular basis who was willing to sign the death certificate.  I think the reason that the investigator released the body to a funeral home was because it sounds like a natural death.  What were the circumstances?  Was there anything to make you think otherwise?"  I ask.  

"Yes!" He says.  "So, Dad's toilet was clogged.  He called the super to come fix it.  Well, when I found him today he was on the floor in the bathroom.  And there was a tissue with blood on it sitting by the bathroom sink."

I wait a second... "How much blood was on the tissue?  Was it a lot?"  


"Did the police officer examine your father's body at the scene?"  

"Yes!  That's the other weird thing!  I thought maybe Dad slipped and hit his head while trying to unclog the toilet but the police guy said there were no injuries!  That seems really suspicious to me."

I wait for a moment for him to continue but he doesn't.  I prompt, " is that suspicious?"
"Because of the blood on the tissue!  And if dad collapsed he should have injuries."

"Alright," I say. It's been a very long day taking constant calls and I'm tired.  I rub my hand over my face and try to be patient.  "Maybe your dad had a bloody nose earlier in the day.  You said he had lung cancer...maybe he coughed up some blood."

"But don't you think it's suspicious that he had no injuries?  The EMT's and the police found no blood anywhere on him!"

I am honestly perplexed at what this guy is trying to get at and say, "Well, I don't think that's suspicious at all.  If the EMT's and the police found no blood and no injuries than that means your father's death was based on natural causes.  So, what is your concern again?"

"The tissue!  If that wasn't my father's blood then it must be somebody else's!  He may have been murdered!"

"Wait...what?  Who would have done that?"

"The super! My dad had called him to come fix the toilet earlier in the day, remember?"

"Was there bad blood between your dad and the super?"

"Not that I know of." 

"And didn't you just say the police and EMT's found no injuries?"


"Look," I take a different tack, "I think I understand where you're coming from.  You want to know exactly what happened to your dad.  But your father was 80-years-old.  Bodies wear out over time.  And, on top of that, he had a lot of health issues.  Which do you think is more likely, somebody entered your dad's apartment and somehow managed to kill him without leaving any evidence on the body...oh, and making the sloppy mistake of leaving a bloody tissue..with his own blood on it, no the scene?  Or is it just that your dad finally succumbed?" I let that sink in for a second.  "Bringing him in for autopsy just isn't necessary in this situation.  And anyway, a bloody tissue with the super's DNA on it doesn't mean anything except the super bled onto a tissue and that tissue was in your father's bathroom.  He might have cut his finger while fixing the toilet or something."

"So what you're saying is it's okay for him to be murdered if he's old?" he blurts. "I bet you'd handle the situation totally differently if he was 16-yrs-old and he was found dead on the bathroom floor and there was a bloody tissue on the sink.  I bet it would be a big deal and you'd take that tissue and do DNA testing on it to rule out a homicide!"  

He says this accusingly and I lean forward in my chair and talk into the phone quietly because my buddy Kyle here has just danced all over my last nerve.  "Yes!  You bet I would!  Because 16-yr-old bodies don't just stop working.  That would be like driving a brand new car off the lot and then having it break down on the side of the road on your way home.  But the body of an 80-yr-old is like an old beater with a couple hundred thousand miles on it.  You might be running along fine but if you suddenly break down it isn't entirely surprising because your parts are all worn out.  We just... break down over time."

Kyle keeps talking and the phone keeps ringing and I know no matter what I say, Kyle will remain firmly convinced that his father met with foul play.  And I've taken two similar calls since starting this job.

I did tell him that if he was really concerned he should contact law enforcement.  And if law enforcement dismisses him, hire an attorney, a private investigator, and have a private autopsy performed on his father.

Later, Brutus, who has worked here for 20 years says, "The problem with the people in Big City is they've been watching too much CSI and crap. We never got calls like this back when I started. Now everybody thinks they're freakin' Dr. G."

I don't know about that, but I do think that the simplest explanation is usually...not always, but usually...the correct one.


Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Back in the Saddle [Warning: Disturbing] Part 2 of 2

We’re greeted at the door by two huge beat cops, both as big as linebackers in matching navy blue uniforms.  Behind them stands a thin, frail-looking woman.  Her eyes are red-rimmed and swollen from crying.  Her short salt-and-pepper hair is standing up on end as if she recently ran her fingers through it.  Our eyes meet and I nod my head to her in acknowledgement while Adroit busily exchanges names and badge numbers with the officers.  The three of them spend a moment writing information down on their notepads.  Then Adroit asks where the body is.  One of the linebackers hitches a thumb over his shoulder and says, “He’s in the basement.”

As we pass the woman on our way to the stairs, Adroit asks if she’s the wife.  She stutters a bit, her voice hitching on a sob and says, “Y-yes. I just can’t..can’t believe this is happening...”  She turns and paces toward the kitchen table, running a hand through her mop of hair.

The stairs are bare wood and they lead to an unfinished concrete slab basement that is longer than it is wide.  It is full of boxes and bags and the wide variety of items one would expect in a basement that is used primarily for storage.  There is a three foot wide path leading about halfway down the length of the room. As we continue walking toward the body on the floor, both officers stay by the stairs.

Up until now I have been a good girl, following Adroit’s lead and respecting his position as the lead investigator on this case.  But as I draw closer to the body my senses keen and I start to try and piece together the scene.  The man is lying on the ground.  The rope he’d hung from has been cut and the frayed ends are still looped over a three-inch pipe.  The ceiling is quite low and the pipe is even lower.  He didn't have enough room to create any space between his feet and the floor.  He must have just leaned back and allowed himself to lose consciousness.  

Adroit asks the officers who cut him down and they confirm that it was the wife.  I point to a pair of garden shears sitting on a table nearby.  “I bet she used those.”

Then, I focus my attention on the body.  As often happens in a hanging, his lips are blue and his tongue protrudes slightly from his mouth.  He appears to be in full rigor mortis, but I don’t have any gloves to check for sure.  The house is cool...on the verge of being cold.  I’d estimate it’s about 55 degrees.  

“Oh, look at the chin...lividity is set.”  I say.  “And the ligature marks...they’re consistent with post-mortem artifacts.”

Suddenly, a voice pipes up from behind me.  “What was that again? How can you tell?”  I turn to see a slim, short woman with straight blond hair peering at the body from around my right shoulder.  She’s holding a notepad and is vigorously writing things down.  She must be the detective assigned to this case.  

What are you, a cat? I think. I had thought Adroit and I were alone or I wouldn’t have spoken so freely.  “, medical examiners that I’ve worked with in the past have shown me how to identify injuries that occur at the time of death or shortly thereafter.  Do you see the yellowish coloring?  Only postmortem injuries have that.”  Adroit is looking at me with a curious expression on his face.  I pretend to ignore him and continue.  “And do you see the purpling on his chin and fingers?  When the heart stops, the blood takes around four hours to pool at the lowest point of gravity.  In his case, his lividity indicates he was vertical...the blood is pooled in his chin and fingers.  And,” I add, “he must have been hanging for at least 6-8 hours because the blood had completely congealed and didn’t “reset” when he was laid horizontally by the wife.”

Adroit proceeds to take some photographs and examines the ligature, which matches the impression marks on the throat perfectly.  

After we finish with the body we walk back to the linebackers.  “Can we call in the evidence technicians?” One of them asks Adroit.  He nods toward the little detective and says, “Don’t ask me. It’s not my call.”  Everybody turns toward her and she tells them that, yes, they should call in the ET’s.  The three of us start filing up the stairs and the linebackers stop me.  “So, do you know who’s taking him in?  Should we call somebody?”  

“Well,” I say, “It’s only my second day on the job, but my understanding is that the law enforcement agencies of each jurisdiction are responsible for transporting the body to the ME’s office.  Do you know who your city has contracted with for body removal?”  We talk for a few more minutes until the two of them seem clear on what will be happening next and I make my way up the stairs to the living room.  

Adroit and the detective are both sitting in chairs facing the wife, who is on the couch.  She’s in tears again.  “I came home last night and he was already drinking.  He’s been depressed for so long.  I should have stayed up with him.  I was just so tired and I didn’t know…”  She trails off and starts rocking back and forth, obviously blaming herself for her husband’s suicide.  "I came down this morning and he wasn't on the couch where he usually passes out. I checked the guest room and he wasn't there, either. Then I started to panic and that's when I went downstairs." She pauses. "I thought he was just standing there at first but it was all wrong." She rubs her eyes. "So I went to him and tried to hold him, but he was so stiff and cold. That's when I cut him down." I keep my mouth shut while the other two ask questions. I forgot how much this part sucks. I think. 

So, I look around. I turn toward the kitchen and see a young man on the back porch talking on a cell phone.  He must be freezing, I think.  There are several plants in the corner of the room that have been knocked over, their soil spilling out onto the hardwood floor.  Mail is on the kitchen table.  An iPhone is on the countertop.  I wonder if that’s his phone?

I go back to standing behind Adroit’s chair and listen as the wife mentions her husband saw a psychiatrist was on medication for depression.  Adroit asks for the names of the meds but she doesn’t know.  He asks if there are pill bottles around the house and, again, she doesn’t know.  I ask, “Do you have the names and contact information for his family doctor and his psychiatrist?”  I wait a beat.  “Also, who is that young man out on the deck?”  

“That’s our son.”  She says.  

Adroit says, “Well, he doesn’t have to stand out there...he must be freezing!”  He stands up and waves the man into the house.  Instead of just one, two men in their early twenties walk through the sliding glass door.  “And the other one?”  

“He’s our son, too.  But only Jack lives with us.”

Neither of the young men looked surprised or terribly shocked.  Perhaps a little subdued, but far less of an emotional reaction than I’d have expected seeing as their father just killed himself. I turn to the wife and ask, “How much do you think he drank last night?”  

“I don’t know.” She says. “A lot.”  She runs her hand through her hair again. “He always drank a lot. He was probably an alcoholic.”  

I wonder how that must have affected the boys growing up.  An unstable, alcoholic father that had threatened suicide on numerous occasions.  Maybe that’s why they weren't reacting “normally”. Maybe they had been preparing for it for years.

I ask again about contact information for his attending physician and psychiatrist and one of the men pick up the phone on the counter top and brings up names and phone numbers for both.  “And here’s his cell number.” he adds.  

Adroit asks a few more questions and then says, “You know, he used a lasso to hang himself and I noticed there were a couple saddles down there…Did he ride?  Did that have any special significance to him?”  

The wife nods.  “He loves riding.”  She pauses and smiles a little as if she’s looking at a scene on the wall behind us.  “Now that I think about it, over the past few years...the only times I really saw him smile… not forced but the kind that really reached his eyes...was when he was on a horse.”

As we drive back to the office, Adroit and I talk about suicide.  I tell him I used to feel sorry for people that killed themselves, imagining how awful it must be to feel that hopeless. But not anymore.  Suicide is an earthquake that damages the lives anybody connected to that person.  It only took one conversation with a mother who found her son’s body when she couldn't rouse him for school for me to realize what a selfish choice it can be.  His girlfriend had broken up with him the day before and his note said that he was killing himself as a type of revenge.  

I can’t imagine how hard it would be to bring a child into this world, love him, teach him, invest everything in him...and then to know that he chose to end it all over something as stupid and transient as a high school break up.  

Adroit feels differently, though.  He tells me he believes people in that state aren't sane anymore. They can’t be responsible for their actions and it is obvious that their pain is more than they can bear.  I tell him that we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one...

Back in the Saddle [Warning: Disturbing] Part 1 of 2

Adroit and I are riding west in a black, unmarked Honda.  The sun is blinding and I pull down the visor as I put “get sunglasses” on my mental list of things to add to my investigator bag.  Which reminds me...I need to add “get investigator bag” to that list, too.

I just met Adroit this morning.  He’s middle-aged, balding, and has a full-on beer belly.  He’s also very quick-witted, funny and has a kind of wisdom that comes from years of dealing with people.  I have met people like him before.  They seem very mild-mannered, but it would be foolish to mistake that for weakness.  I feel comfortable around him right away and think we will be friends.  

Adroit used to be a cop in Arizona.  He has a son and an ex-wife there (and another ex in Ohio) and tries to get back to visit whenever he can.  He misses his son, who is 11-yrs-old, and I can see a shadow pass over his countenance when he talks about it.  So, I change the subject and ask him about the case we’re going out on while we cruise through the traffic of the Big City.

“It’s a hanging.” He says.  “Male, white.  The wife found him in the basement this morning.”  Okay.  I’m assuming suicide.  Although I start thinking about how easy it would be to fake a suicide that way.  Drug the victim at gunpoint.  Maybe make them write a suicide note, but not entirely necessary.  Then, when they’re unconscious, string them up.  

I shake my head.  It’s scary that I can think that way.  And anyway, there’s no reason to suspect anything other than a straight-up suicide.  The man was 50-yrs-old.  That tends to be just about prime suicide age.  When I started doing this kind of work years ago it surprised me how many suicides  there were.  I was unprepared for the volume of middle-aged people coming in with self-inflicted gunshot wounds and overdoses.  I’d thought suicide was primarily a teen angst kind of thing.  In reality, people just don’t talk about it when grown adults take their lives.  It’s a hushed, shameful thing.  And if the family chooses to generate an obituary it is purposely vague...saying things like “Lois died suddenly...blah blah blah”.  I think it has something to do with life dreams and expectations not being met.  People have an idea of where they’ll be, what they’ll be doing, and who they’ll be doing it with by the time they reach the apex of their lives.  Then, when they start telling themselves they’re too old, sick, or tired to make it happen, they lose hope.  

I shake my head again as we pull into a parking spot along a snowy street.  I look around.  It’s a pleasant enough neighborhood, lined with hundred year old trees and equally old brick row houses.  Adroit doesn't bother pulling all the way into the spot.  I shrug and get out of the car, pulling on my gloves and buttoning the collar of my jacket as I step into the bitter cold.  After Adroit gathers his equipment, we walk across the street and climb the stairs to the front door, kicking snow off our boots as we go.

More later...