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Body of Evidence

Forget "CSI" and "Quincy." A real death investigator reveals what happens when someone dies in New Mexico.

By Jack Warner

 

The sun went down more than an hour ago. It is very dark, and twice I miss the dirt road that branches away just before the pavement ends. From the sketchy directions I have, the scene is four miles up this track.

There are no driveways, no sign of houses. After a little more than three miles by the odometer, I see the flashing emergency lights of the sheriff's cruisers blocking the road. A deputy waves a flashlight. "This way," he says.

My scene bag is heavy and I'm puffing a little after an uphill walk to the big State Police crime scene truck. Its headlights bounce off a thicket of scrub trees and brambles. Several Grant County detectives stand by the open doors at the back of the truck. We shake hands, mutter greetings. Norman Rhoades, a State Police homicide investigator from Las Cruces, steps out of the doors.

"We're ready for you," he says.

This is a death scene. I'm a death investigator.

 

New Mexico is one of 16 states that uses a centralized medical examiner system, replacing the old system of elected county coroners. The head office — the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) in Albuquerque — has full-time deputy medical investigators. The rest of the state, county by county, is covered by field deputy medical investigators. We work part-time, on a case-by-case basis.

I'm one of three active investigators in the county now. Melissa Arzaga came on board a few months ago and Mike Barragree just finished his training. We all work under Diane Finney.

By law, OMI must investigate every unattended death — basically the death of anyone not under the immediate care of a physician — and all suspicious deaths.

A family physician or a pathologist must give every death two labels — the cause of death and the manner of death. The cause of death has to be specific — "heart failure" is a mechanism of death, not a cause. Everybody, in the final analysis, dies of heart failure.

There are only five possible manners of death — natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or, rarely, undetermined.

 

I fall in behind Rhoades and we enter the trees, his flashlight marking the way. The deputies come along behind, single file. It's too dense to walk abreast.

The body is no more than 20 yards into the woods. Rhoades and another state crime scene investigator have been working the scene since early afternoon. The flashlight glints off the evidence markers placed around the body.

Judging from the size and the clothing, it's a man. It's difficult to tell any more right now. Nearly all of his head has been destroyed, presumably by the cut-down, sawed-off shotgun lying under his legs. I put down my bag well out of the way and take out the camera.

In a forensic case like this, the death investigator must serve as the eyes and ears of the pathologist. The pathologist will make the judgments — cause and manner of death — based on the autopsy results, my report and law enforcement reports.

I don't shoot as many pictures as usual. It's too dark, and my flash is too limited, to make overall shots that put the body in the context of the environment. The man lies on his right side, partially under a thorn bush. There are a few personal items around, including a folding chair and a semi-auto handgun in a cheap holster.

None of it has been touched. The scene belongs to law enforcement. The body belongs to me. In this case, given the terrain and the darkness, there isn't much for me to do right away except pronounce death. I look at my watch.

"Make it 2100 hours," I say. "Anybody call a funeral home?"

"They're on their way," a detective says. I hope they find the place quicker than I did.

"Looks like suicide," Rhoades says. I agree, but several jurisdictions are involved and there was criminal activity leading up to this man's death. A pathologist is not likely to sign a death certificate until Rhoades completes his investigation.

When the mortuary's recovery team arrives, I put on gloves, open up a white plastic body bag and lay it out next to the corpse. Crouching under the briars, I put paper bags over the hands and secure them with tape. Then I roll the body slightly and begin going through the pockets. It would be nice to find a note, but there is none. Nor is there any ID. Only a fully loaded 9mm magazine — probably for the handgun lying nearby — cigarettes, lighter and a box of five12-gauge buckshot loads, one missing.

We ease the corpse onto the bag and I go around the scene with my flashlight, picking up pieces and putting them into the bag. I zip up the bag and we slide it onto the lowered gurney, which has to be carried out of the scene. It won't roll on this terrain.

When we get to the truck and a source of light, I write out a name tag, open the bag and attach it to one wrist. Then it's zipped shut again. The zippers at the end of the bag are wrapped in tape and covered with a seal identifying the remains, along with my initials and ID number. This is proof of the chain of evidence; the bag must not be unsealed until it reaches OMI headquarters.

A relative has identified the victim. But since not enough of his face remains to confirm the identification, the body will be fingerprinted at OMI and the prints checked for positive ID. Since the victim lived in another county, it will be up to OMI investigators there to try to find ID proof if the fingerprints aren't on file.

In the State Police van, I photograph the death weapon and get all the identification from it, and I'm done at the scene. When I'm back in cell phone range, I call headquarters to report the death, and then go home to do a detailed report, download the digital photos, and get it all to Albuquerque for the pathologists to see before the autopsy begins in the morning.

 

In Grant County, cases like this — forensic cases and not natural deaths — are rare. Probably 80 or 90 percent of death calls are the result of elderly people who have died at home of natural causes. In some cases the deaths are expected; the deceased had a terminal diagnosis. In others, the death may not have been expected, but, given the age and condition of the decedent, it isn't surprising from an objective point of view.

In these cases, I go to the place of death, talk to family or friends, examine the scene and the decedent, pronounce death, make sure there is nothing questionable and then call the decedent's physician. In most cases the doctor is willing to sign the death certificate.

Pronouncing death is a legal necessity. Only physicians, nurses certified by OMI and death investigators can pronounce death. While it has a portentous sound to it, it's not a matter of making sure there's no pulse and then intoning, "I pronounce thee dead." It's merely assigning a formal time of death. I generally use the time I first saw the body. This may, of course, be anything from half an hour to days after actual death.

If the decedent's physician is willing to sign the death certificate, I'm basically done and the body is released to a funeral home. All I need do is file a report on the case.

In some cases, however, the decedent doesn't have a primary care physician — some people just don't like to go to the doctor. In other cases, the doctor's records reveal no reason why the individual might have died — even though there's no indication that the death was anything but natural.

In that case, I consult with a deputy investigator in Albuquerque, who frequently will in turn consult the pathologist on duty. There are two possibilities. If the decedent was relatively young — "too young to die" — the body will probably be sent to OMI for autopsy. If the individual is older, I may have to do an external examination. Sometimes I do an external examination in cases of accidental death where the cause is obvious, or a suicide if there's no question about the manner of death and no bullet — "projectile" in forensic-speak — to recover.

At the funeral home of the family's choice, I disrobe the corpse and examine it from head to toe for any sign of trauma. I use a double-sided form, just like the ones you see in the multitude of forensic programs on television, to note anything unusual.

Then I draw fluids for toxicological examination. These include vitreous fluid, taken from the eyes, blood and urine. These will generally give a pathologist a good idea of the cause of death.

 

When I joined OMI about two and a half years ago, friends said "Wow, just like 'CSI'" or "Hey, a new 'Quincy!'" Not exactly. Television dramas like "CSI" seriously distort every field of forensic investigation. Cable series like "Dr. G," "North Mission Road" and the newer "Dead Men Talking" tend to distort by omission. They concentrate, obviously, on the strange or dramatic cases, not on the routine ones.

Not one of the more than 170 cases I have handled was dramatic, although a few were fairly strange.

So why join OMI? Certainly the financial compensation is not an attraction. The reward, I suppose, is doing a job that has to be done, and that very few people are willing to do. Certainly, when I was younger, I couldn't have done it. I'm not sure why I can do it now.

The dead are gone. They are indifferent. Dealing with their families and friends is a much more complicated matter, but I've never found it very difficult. I do not offer hollow condolences. I try to be gentle, understanding and businesslike. In nearly every unattended death, law enforcement is already present, and the officer has already explained that OMI has to be called.

I have to ask a lot of questions concerning the deceased's medical history, what led up to the death and how it happened. I've rarely had any difficulty getting the answers. In the few cases where the closest relatives were too distraught to be interviewed, there has always been someone else ready to help. In return, I try to answer any questions the family may have about the procedures that have to be followed.

The hardest question to answer comes from wives who believe their husbands are indestructible: "Why did he die? He was never sick a day in his life." The answer, basically, is that I have no idea why he died, nor can a doctor give me any idea because although he was 70 years old, he never saw a physician. I generally try to explain, gently, the need for annual physical exams as one grows older.

Some people assume I'm a doctor. Not even close. OMI looks for two qualifications in its field deputies — a medical background, such as nursing, or law enforcement. Mine is law enforcement, but I wish it was medical. It would be far more useful.

But I've learned enough to tell people whose loved one had no recorded medical history and simply fell over dead on a fine summer day that, unless toxicology reveals something unexpected, the cause of death will likely be "ASCD," or arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. This covers just about anything that can go wrong concerning the heart and the blood delivery system.

In a perfect society, or in a very wealthy state, every death such as this ought to be autopsied. But society isn't quite perfect and New Mexico is poor. OMI goes for many years without a real budget increase. Body transport is the department's second-largest expense, next to salaries. Thus pathologists are more much likely to order a body brought in from Grant County if the questions surrounding death are forensic, and not just medical.

But an autopsy is far from the magical process television might lead one to believe. Unless there is tissue damage or positive toxicological evidence, a pathologist may have to make an educated guess, based on all available evidence, as to the cause of death.

Fiction, written and filmed, has instilled a lot of misconceptions. "I thought he had just gone to sleep." I have seen one corpse that really did look as if he was merely asleep, so much so that I had to check for a pulse even though EMS had come and gone. Most dead people look very dead indeed.

Victims of violent death never, in my experience, have looks of horror on their faces. They don't look any different, in that respect, than those who die in their sleep.

Caring neighbors, I believe, are the greatest blessing a death investigator has. Quite a few of my cases have been the deaths of elderly people living alone. In nearly every one of them, the death has been discovered quickly by a concerned neighbor.

The alternative is a decomposed corpse. Decomposition is relative, of course. It begins almost immediately, but it takes hours to become pronounced, depending largely on ambient temperature. After a couple of days it becomes very unpleasant. I've had cases undiscovered for weeks. I've been told that some people put a dab of liniment under their nose before they enter the scene. I've never seen that done.

I remember one case in particular, not because it was so bad but because of a question a disturbed friend asked.

The decedent lived alone and died in bed about 36 hours before the body was found. It was the middle of winter and the house was rather cold, so it shouldn't have been bad. Unfortunately, his electric blanket was still working.

A friend of the deceased, a very gentle lady, turned to me as she left.

"Is this how death smells?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied, but I didn't tell her it can get a lot worse. In any case, you'll never mistake it for anything else, and it can suddenly come back to you days or weeks later for no reason at all.

 

Jack Warner, a veteran journalist with UPI and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the author of the novel Shikar, released in paperback last year as Maneater. He is a reserve deputy with the Grant County sheriff's office, and last month, OMI named him one of two Field Deputy Investigators of the Year. The other is Carole Shireffs of Dona Ana County.

 

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