Poor Clothing Choices

I was supposed to be in a trapeze class.

“I’m supposed to be in trapeze class.” I wailed to the officers who had called me to the scene of another suicide.

They didn’t look terribly sympathetic.

“Dammit,” I grunted as I surveyed the setting.

On the upside, at least this guy had the decency to off himself outside, rather than in his home… like so many, less conscientious suicide victims who don’t really think about the mess they’re going to leave behind- physically or mentally. Of course, I get that during the dark night of the soul, most folks are thinking about the meaninglessness of life… the slate gray expanse of time that stretches before them like an ocean-less beach on the shores of eternity. They’re not thinking about the fact that their family is going to have to do something about the bullet hole they left in the wall, nor are they considering that a really gruesome bio-hazard clean-up is going to cost their next-of-kin at least a couple thousand dollars…

… and that’s just the corporeal mess.

I’m not sure if I believe in hauntings, possessions, poltergeists and all of that cable TV hooey. All the same, I can’t imagine continuing to live in the same home where a loved one killed himself. Regardless of one’s belief in the metaphysical, it would just be fucking traumatic… to look around and see “the aftermath” every damn day. Seriously, that would utterly suck.

So every time I come to a scene where someone has gone outside to kill themselves, I always kind of want to high-five the corpse for having been a thoughtful person and saving everyone the trouble of bloodstains and brain matter on the carpet. Strong work buddy, you might have been drowning in the inky blackness of self-loathing, but you’re top notch in my book.

Of course… my kudos for this, particular dude were curtailed by the fact that he had opted to hike into the thorny, brambled woods behind his home and then descend the steep face of a 100 foot ravine before he shot himself in the head. His choice in locale for his final exit would mean an extensive extrication effort involving lots of ropes, pulleys and of course my least favorite heavy machinery devices: the fire department.

My last interaction with this, particular, fire department had been anything but satisfactory- It had been Thanksgiving day, and they seemed particularly miffed at the notion of doing some actual work… which rudely pulled them away from their crucial duty of accepting homemade baked goods from the desperate housewives of their neighborhood. These heroes had balked at helping me and a single funeral home employee as we two wrestled a blood-soaked 400 lb homicide victim out of a back room, stuffed him into a body-bag and then hauled him to the front entryway of his residence. But as soon as the time came to actually move the dead guy out of the house…. and into the view of roughly half-a-dozen news crews that had responded to the scene of the “holiday shoot-out” …the fire prima-donnas had scurried forward to seize the dead guy and the stretcher, shoo-ing me and the funeral home guy aside, making sure the media caught an unadulterated view of them earning their pumpkin pies…

… then they ate all our donuts and left.

Jerks.

Back to the present (sorry, I get distracted whenever I am compelled to describe how much I loathe firemen), I had just given the edict to get the fire department headed to our “high-angle rescue” and I was gazing down the ravine with what I can only assume was a dismal expression on my face. A police officer approached, grinning. He had apparently mistook my displeasure for fear because he asked me if I needed to be carried down to the decedent. I turned to look at him and squelched the flashing impulse to punch him in the balls. I didn’t know this cop. He was new, a little young and (I couldn’t help but notice) absolutely adorable. He had at least 5 inches on me- pretty impressive since in my work boots I top out at just about 5’11”. He had wide, blue eyes, a strong jawline, the broad shoulders and narrow waist of a well-trained boxer and when he grinned at me, impish dimples pinched into his cheeks… Not only that but he was also carrying a firearm and hand-cuffs… be still my throbbing…. heart.

I stared blankly at him for a second, then shook off my sudden burst of pheremones. I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could and replied, “Nah, this is no big deal. After all, I’m supposed to be in trapeze class.”

He looked confused… which, truthfully, is how men normally respond to me.

Officer Cutie was what you’d call “a probie”- which is to say he was a new hire and was on probation. This was his first day and his first dead body… like… ever. As four of us (Officer Cutie, his preceptor, another cop and myself) descended to the decedent’s location, Officer Cutie’s preceptor was instructing him to stick close to me, ask a lot of questions and pay attention to everything I said and did. (Meanwhile, I made a mental note to make a generous donation to the Fraternal Order of Police… seriously, the boys in blue really don’t get enough appreciation) As we gingerly picked our way closer to the decedent, my attention was pulled away from the preceptor’s acclaim for my professional talents as I noticed something a little off about our decedent… or rather, I noticed a little something ON him.

Ants.

Our dead guy was covered in ants.

Everybody knows that flies and maggots will go to work on a dead body. Most people are aware that wild animals will dig in as well. But people forget about ants. I know I do. I mean they’re… ants. They’re tiny and boring and… tiny. When you think of the word “scavenger”, the minute, 6 legged pip-squeak of the animal kingdom doesn’t exactly spring to mind. But one should never discount ants. They are capable of some truly remarkable work. For example: A modest army of ants (a battalion?) can completely skeletonize the carcass of a small animal, such as a bird or a lizard, in approximately 9 hours. So, the average adult gecko weighs about 60 grams. Let’s say an adult human carcass weighs about 150lbs… or 68,000 grams. That same group of ants that devoured that gecko could do the same to a human corpse in a little over a year. But, it’s safe to assume that a bigger corpse is going to attract a larger number of scavengers, so double the amount of ants- and you’ve got a human skeleton in 6-7 months. Quadruple the ants, and they can make short work of a human in 90 days. Long story short, even the most docile and benign ants are total BAMFs. They are HUNGRY and they are not fucking around.

These particular ants were enthusiastically engaged in just such an activity. Having smelled the blood oozing from our decedent’s self-inflicted gun-shot head wound, they had closed in on their task with truly remarkable intent and precision. Naturally, they had been drawn to the open wounds on our guy, as well as the orifices from which he bled. But, as is always the case, the scavengers made a bee-line (ant-line) for the soft tissues first: the eyes and mouth. The little soldiers had formed an assembly line and were busy crowding into the decedent’s face, removing microscopic loads of tissue and blood and carrying our decedent back to their home, one itty-bitty bite at a time. It’s gross and more than just a little disconcerting to see a person who seems to have clumps of dirt on their face, only to realize those clumps are moving. Of course, having viewed dead bodies in a far more… consumed state, I wasn’t terribly put out by the sight, unlike our probie who was doing a really terrible job of hiding his abject disgust. Which probably meant that yet another good-looking cop now had a Pavlovian association between me and rotting carrion. Whatever, I didn’t take this job because I thought it would be a great place to meet men.

“So,” I said to the probie, figuring I might as well just charge right in and get his analytic mind working before his instinctual mind took the wheel and he either vomited or ran away. “The first thing we want to consider here is… ‘Could this have been a homicide’…” and I was off. I chatted away about post-mortem changes, signs of a defensive struggle, how to determine the distance from which a gun was fired judging by the characteristics of the wound it made. All the while I was turning the dead guy’s head back and forth, rolling his body from back to front… and back again, pulling his clothes off and examining his palms and fingertips and blah blah blah.

It wasn’t until I had already covered my gloved hands with TONS of blood and brain matter that I realized my mistake. As I had been fiddling around with this dead dude, I had been brushing the ants off of him with a handful of leaves and branches. Of course, once the ants were out of my line of sight, I completely forgot about them. They, however, were not so easily put aside. Unbeknownst to me, while I had been happily blathering on and on to Officer Hottie, the ants had been slowly making their vengeful way up my pant legs. And in a profound display of poor judgement, I had left for work that morning wearing a brand-new, super-flattering white sweater-top that didn’t tuck into my pants. In what I can only assume was a coordinated assault, all of the ants that had crept up my legs, under my sweater and on to my torso, suddenly began biting me… all at the same time.

I had been right in the middle of explaining to the probie why I examined every dead body’s arm-pits when the blitzkrieg struck.

“So, you have to examine the pits because- HOLY-FUCKING-SHIT!” I shrieked, springing back from the body and jumping around, trying to dislodge the ants from my person. “They’re ON ME! They’re fucking ON ME! OW! OW! OW!.”

“This is our dead body!” I could hear a thousand Lilliputian voices screaming in rage as they chowed down on my bare abdomen. “Go find your own!”

Even in my sudden, needle-like pain, I realized with dismay that I couldn’t yank my shirt up and start brushing the little monsters off of me because I was wearing my brand-new, super-flattering white sweater and my hands were covered with blood and decayed tissue. So I hopped around in futile agony for a moment before the cop, god bless him, decided to take matters into his own hands… literally.

“Hold still!” Commanded the probie as he ran to my side and began swatting at the ants on my legs.

“No!” I howled in misery. “They’re under my shirt! They’re biting me under my shirt! OW! OW! Help me!” The officer saw me fluttering my bloody hands over my white sweater and seemed to “grasp” my dilemma. Being the young go-getter that he was, he didn’t hesitate to dive right in and… um… handle it. He grabbed the hem of my sweater, yanked it up to my chin and began whacking at my belly and breasts like we had just stepped off the pages of “Fifty Shades of Grey”

It was at that moment that I remembered I was wearing my purple-leopard-print bra.

“You’ll never take us alive, copper!” the wee voices screamed as they were forcibly detached from my front and tumbled down into the dirt.

“Oh… MY… GOD…” I gasped as I looked down to see a generous scattering of crimson welts erupting on my pale stomach and chest. At the same time, I could feel the same shade of red spreading up my neck and across my face.

“Um, I think I got them all…” the probie mumbled as he released my shirt and shuffled backwards with his eyes on the ground.

“Right… uh.. okay then.” I delicately plucked the bloodied gloves off my hands in the slow and conscientious manner required to prevent the blood from getting on my hands or flicking into my eyes. “So… anyway… this guy’s dead and it’s a suicide.” I concluded lamely. I turned away from the officers, straightened my clothes and shook out my hair in case any of the little invaders had achieved the summit. “Right,” I said as I turned back around, mustering whatever dignity I could and pretending not to notice that the other officers were really doing a piss-poor job of NOT laughing. “Let’s get the fire department down here.”

With that I clambered back up the hill and spent the rest of the call holed up in the decedent’s living room with his widow- drinking coffee and talking about her favorite crime novels in which the main character is a female medical examiner who, undoubtedly, NEVER gets molested by a legion of ants AND a police trainee in the same afternoon.

Her enthusiasm for the book series was so contagious that I actually went out and bought a few of them. I was right. At no point does the heroine ever get bitten by a bunch of pissed off, territorial ants. A cop DOES end up taking her shirt off in one of the books, although not in the same context that it happened to me…

And although Patricia Cornwell never explicitly says so… I get the distinct impression that Kay Scarpetta is never so short-sighted as to wear a cropped white sweater to a gun-shot suicide.

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Next Of Kin-: Men who F^%k Chickens… and the Women who Look for Them

So, due to an oversight on my part, I accidentally told half a story with my last blog post- a story about a man who managed to fake his own death. It was a case I ran across during my internship in Arizona. I wrote about it at the time and I had gone back into my old archives to find the sordid tale and post it here- in response to all the requests I’ve gotten to PLEASE tell the story about the guy who faked his death.

Well, I found the old journal entry- but the story of the faked death was tied into a much longer, elaborate tale…. and to be honest… much like motherless siblings up for adoption, I just couldn’t bear to separate them. Moreover, having just suffered another profound personal loss… a heart-break that I’ll likely never get over… I dunno, the whole thing just felt very… appropriate. So here it is-

NEXT OF KIN: Men who F&^k Chickens and the Women who Look for Them

The files have little red flags on the margins. The case numbers are written on the whiteboard in the middle of the office, under a heading that reads, “No NOK!” in big, block letters. Each one represents months of fruitless labor, endless hours on the phone and surfing the internet more than a ‘tween-girl “Twilight” fan. Each little red flag is a story, an epic… a colossal pain in the ass.

One of the functions of the coroner’s office is finding and notifying the dead person’s next of kin.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

But to say that the investigators at a coroner’s office locate and notify next of kin is something like saying that the guys at NASA like to look at stars… there’s a little more to it than that

I can’t speak for most American cities- never having lived in them, but it seems like THIS city has an inordinately large homeless population. This might be a skewed perspective on my part. I imagine people who work in an insane asylum feel as though the entire world is inundated with whack-a-doodles. My friend who is a night security guard at a 24-hour grocery store swears, hand-to-God, that this town is populated by pot-heads who are addicted to Totino’s Pizzas. It could be that my city has a profoundly affluent population who are all well adjusted, generous and loving individuals… if so, I’ve never met them. In my experience, our streets are littered with disenfranchised, homeless drug addicts who are all estranged from their families and have never met a single one of their 13 children by different women. What can I say- these are my people… the people I come in contact with… the people that I meet each day . Rich people who have lots of money don’t need my services. They know exactly where their families are… they’re all poised over the death-bed, wondering who’s going to get that antique Tiffany watch when grandma finally kicks it.

Finding Next of Kin is of debatable significance, according to this profession. One side of the argument states that if someone WANTED their family to be made aware of their death- they would have kept in touch with their “kin” in the first place. Tracking down the rumored one-night-stand offspring of some sleazy tool we found under a bridge with a dirty needle in his arm … it takes up resources and time. Especially when we aren’t even certain if the alleged spawn actually exists. Sometimes the only clue we have to go on is a story from a guy named Bobo who lived behind the Good-Times hamburger-stand on Broadway- Bobo once heard our dead guy talk about being from Minnesota? Michigan? An M-state anyway. He said he had a kid back there. The kid’s name was John or something… Jane, it could have been a girl… Bobo ain’t sure, if you buy him a vanilla shake he might remember more.

By now, there’s a good chance the kid (if he/she exists) is going by the mother’s last name… or is going by the name of some other guy entirely who adopted him/her later in life. A human family can break apart in a million different ways, how much effort can a government agency REALLY commit to retracing every thread of that fracture?

Government agency answers: That’s what the interns are for!

My first Next of Kin case was a monster. I have to admit, even now I’m amazed at the task I was presented.

The decedent was homeless and decomposed, which made him my kind of guy right off the bat. He had been found in a condemned house downtown- surrounded by trash and drug paraphernalia. My first week as an investigative intern, he had already been a corpse for a couple of months. (A bad sign. The more time goes by that no one misses the decedent, the less the likelihood they have any family at all). My handler, Tina, shoved the case-file at me and gave a clipped, businesslike lecture on finding Next of Kin.

“This case is solvable!” she declared with irrefutable certainty. “This guy was only 62 years old. (‘only 62?’) and we have a birth certificate. I’m going to let you figure this out for yourself.” With that she shoveled the already substantially thick case file into my arms and bade me return to my desk. Tina was a big believer in the honor… no… the SANCTITY of the Next of Kin search. While some investigators closed “kin-less” cases with very little regard or concern, Tina never put them down and refused to admit defeat.

“Everyone came from SOMEWHERE” she would insist, “No one was born on the moon!” A local newspaper even did a story on Tina and her NOK cases once. This paper rarely compliments anyone and more often delights in exposing the incompetence of any government agency. But even they had to bow in respect to Tina’s relentless pursuit of the truth.

I sat down with the case file and started reading. We didn’t really have a birth certificate, rather we had a replica issued by the county government in Indiana where the decedent had been born. It listed his city of birth and his parents names. That was it.

The search was horrific. I remember spending hours on the phone with every civil office in Indiana, then Florida, then Tennessee… tracking down marriage licenses, birth certificates, divorce records. I called every homeless shelter in Phoenix asking for names, dates, hints. Did anyone know this guy? Talk to him? Did he mention kids? Wives? Parents? Who the hell was this guy and where had he been? What had he been up to?

The first person I remember finding was his mom- an easy task because she was dead too… and therefore had stopped moving around and wasn’t going to get remarried or change her name again. The next person I found was his Dad- who was also dead (I couldn’t loose!). From there I found his Dad’s second wife- who directed me towards our decedent’s brothers and sisters. I remember speaking with the older sister, who took the news as well as could be expected. I have no doubt that she cried- but not while she was on the phone with me. She told me our dead guy had been married twice and had two children, one from each relationship,a boy and a girl. Neither child was aware of the existence of the other. She also mentioned that one of her siblings had launched a search for this prodigal brother. Now, they knew. Of course, legally speaking, we hadn’t notified Next of Kin until I made contact with the adult children of the decedent. That’s the steel-walled truth of the matter. I still had to find at least one of those kids
“If you find the children…” the sister pleaded quietly, “would you give them our number?”

The trail went on and on. Sometimes I hit upon a hint- a moment- a name or a phone number which sprung up like a land-mine and I was certain that the next phone call would conclude the whole mess, but it never did. After a month, I finally ended up on the line with… (stay with me now) the decedent’s second wife’s ex-husband’s sister in law… and that’s how I found the dead guy’s daughter. After making contact with the 23-year-old- a girl who was now going by a different last name and never met this man who had married her mother on Valentine’s Day in 1980- I stepped around to Tina’s cubicle, head held high and proud, and slapped the file down on her desk.

“Found the daughter, notified her.” I stated, my voice ringing in triumph.
Tina even didn’t look up from the papers on her desk.
“And that’s enough for you?” she muttered.
I don’t know what I said in response, some inane drivel about one child being just as good as 2, but I remember Tina looked up, leveling her piercing stare on my quickly withering exultation.
“If he was your father… wouldn’t you want to know?”

I picked the file up and went back to my desk.

Ultimately, I found the entire bunch. The son was my age, married, and had kids of his own. I gave the “kids” the aunt’s phone number, and at their request… gave them each other’s phone number as well. I don’t know what happened after that, because that time, when I slapped the file down on Tina’s desk, I left it there. (okay, I didn’t slap it down that time… I made sure to bow every three steps of my approach and laid it before her like I was offering a freshly slain goat to an old-testament god.)

Tina picked the file up and thumbed through my notes as I described the conversations with each family member. She held the file up to me, and for a moment, I wondered who the hell else there was to find.
“Go ahead,” she said, a spark of maternal pride glimmering in her eye, “You closed it, you get to take the red tag off it.”
I reached forward and pulled the little red tag off the case-file. Tina held out her hand, and I gave her the tag. “There now…” she said, “doesn’t that feel better?” I nodded, and without skipping a beat, Tina pressed the little red tag on the corner of another case file that had been sitting on her desk. She held it out to me and without looking up, commanded “Now do it again.”

I’ve saved lives.
I’m not bragging in saying so, I was a paramedic, it’s what I was trained to do. And if I hadn’t been there to save those people’s lives- someone else would have been there… another paramedic, probably a better one. There were a lot of calls that I was proud of, and just as many that I still think about today- calls I’m ashamed of, where I could have, SHOULD have done better. Yes, calls in which I can say that I killed someone- or at least, didn’t help their chances of surviving. Someone else may have done better, they may have done worse. The patient may have died anyway even if I had been a pre-hospital genius. And the lives I saved- well… who’s to say that it’s because of anything I did? Could be they would have pulled through no matter which hapless moron had been jabbing them with needles.

Finding Next of Kin, though, was a different experience from any I had encountered on the ambulance. As a paramedic, there was always a certain detachment, a healthy lack of interest. I didn’t want to know the people on my stretcher. Nothing I did ultimately mattered anyway. The sick would stay sick- a trip in my bus was simply one moment in a lifetime of bad choices that certainly wouldn’t alter because of another visit to the emergency department.

At the coroner’s office, in finding that man’s family, I felt as though something had altered, something had changed, something had been healed and reconciled. Oh sure… maybe that brother and sister would talk and realize that they hated each other. Maybe the kids would have been an enormous disappointment to their aunts and uncles. Regardless of the results, I felt I had given them something they deserved- something they had been denied by the body in the cooler downstairs. If nothing else- they had the truth now. And that’s one inheritance everyone’s entitled to… the horrible, wonderful, miserable, redeeming, condemning truth.

The second week of my internship at the coroner’s office, my life fell apart. For anyone who wasn’t present for the melt-down, you can read the chronicle of the tragedy in the blog entry “I got yer number” a couple of entries back.

Months later, I was still ghost-walking… I was this immaterial phantom drifting from one responsibility to the next. I know in that time I must have eaten, I must have found a new job and gone to work when required to do so. I must have slept. I must have carried on- but I have no recollection of any of these activities. The only thing I remember clearly is the red tags- the only thing I cared about was the red tags. Each new search presented to me was an obsession that I embraced with every synapse still firing in my devastated brain. The people at the coroner’s office marveled at my uncanny ability to locate a lost son or daughter, an alienated mother, an unsuspecting sibling. Case files would be wordlessly slapped down on my desk, the assigned investigator knowing that if there was anyone at all to locate- it would be done within the week. One day I solved 3 cases in one afternoon, two of which involved hunting down family members in foreign countries.

I wish I could say these were selfless acts…. they weren’t. The sense of resolution I got was addictive. In my own emotional state, where so much was misunderstood and unsettled, I became the voice of finality, the voice of completion…

Not that everything always went smoothly. One man I called up to tell him his brother had died in our jurisdiction about a week before- and he responded in a fashion I had never experienced before or since.

“No he didn’t-” The guy countered.

“Uh… yes he did?” I said, frantically shuffling through my notes to make sure I had called the correct number… always a concern.

“No, he didn’t!” He snapped with unwavering certainty.

“Yeah, he did…” I snapped back- thinking this was the fiercest 1st stage of denial I had ever seen.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Look, I don’t know what you THINK you KNOW,” the guy sneered at me, “but my brother died in Louisiana 5 years ago.”

“Um… are you sure?” I asked, the flood of implications threatening to knock me out of my chair. The first and foremost of which being: If this guy is right, I wonder whose body is in the cooler downstairs.

Well, it turns out he wasn’t right. His brother saw Hurricane Katrina as the perfect opportunity to escape from a wide array of financial problems. Our decedent had faked his own disappearance, left everything behind, and restarted his life as a drag queen in Phoenix. I had to resist the school-yard urge to taunt the brother with “I TOLD you SO!” or “Nanny-nanny boo-boo” when the truth came out.

Then her file came to me.

She was old, in her eighties. She had been homeless up until the age of approximately 75- at which point she had been rescued by a local mission and spent the remainder of her days in a low-income housing building. She lived there for almost ten years- right up until the day when she collapsed in the elevator- leaving nothing but a mystery and an apartment full of cheap jewelry behind.

The investigator who took the initial report didn’t delve too deeply into the story of how the dead woman came about her circumstances- which, I suppose, is how the case file came to me. Pretty much the only thing we had on this woman was a sufficiently strange name- the kind that made you think, “Well… how many people with THAT last name can be wandering around the world?” (As it turns out… plenty)

I started with calling the apartment complex where our decedent lived. For the sake of expediency, let’s call the dead woman “Elsa”. I asked the apartment manager if she knew Elsa at all, and if she didn’t -did she know of anyone who DID know Elsa well? In response, I was put on the phone with Elsa’s neighbor and best friend- who had all the prime info- having shared many a long chat with our elusive decedent. This neighbor didn’t exactly paint a pleasant life for Elsa- quite the opposite actually:

Elsa was from Germany and came to America a very long time ago. She had been married to a man for a few years. The marriage did not end well. Neighbor didn’t really know much about the break-up, as Elsa would get extremely choked up whenever the topic arose- and as decorum dictated, the neighbor would then change the subject. What we did know was that Elsa had a son who was stolen from her. After the divorce from her ex-husband, Elsa was unable to financially support both herself and the child. In an unprecedented show of charity, the ex-husband offered to take the boy until Elsa got on her feet. Elsa agreed to this arrangement- and never saw her son again. The ex-husband, who was a Texas state trooper, not only never returned custody… but also forbade Elsa from ever having any contact at all with her child.

The rest of the tale consisted, essentially of Elsa’s downward spiral into alcoholism and homelessness. She was found half-dead on the streets of Phoenix and social services took over… placing her in the apartment building where we found her.

My heart broke for Elsa. I couldn’t imagine. And learning of her heartbreak in such close proximity to my own, I instantly felt a profound connection with her. Abandonment… betrayal… a loss so gut wrenching she had disintegrated into addiction and the subsequent oblivion… it sounded so familiar. I myself was polishing off almost a bottle of sake a night and had recently been adding a vicodan or two in order to ensure sleep. I didn’t want anything other than release from waking life- for the grid-locked fist of reality to let me leak out from around it’s fingers and just fall… fall… fall…

“I’m gonna find him for you, Elsa… ” I quietly vowed to her- to myself- “I will find your boy and make sure he knows you loved him.”

At first everything went fine- went great. I traced Elsa back through the western states- from homeless shelters and arrest records to Amarillo, where I managed to finagle a copy of her divorce decree from 1953- which stated not only her son’s name, but also his birth-date and an address where the whole family was living at the time. In addition, the divorce decree stated the particulars regarding Elsa’s allegations against her ex-husband. He had been cheating on her, he had beaten her on several occasions, he had kept her living in a constant state of fear and intimidation. The divorce decree initially awarded custody of the boy to Elsa, but an addendum had been made approximately 2 years later- in which custody was reassigned to the ex…. apparently Elsa hadn’t shown up for the hearing… nothing more than that was indicated by the paperwork. The ex got custody because he was the only one in court.

I remember thinking that with the discovery of the divorce and custody decrees- everything would be easy. However- i liken the gradual decline of the investigation to the experience of hearing a song shift from a major to a minor key. With every new fact that I found- the overall tone of the story became increasingly more… ominous. I traced the kid (who was now 48) into the 4-corners area… with some difficulty. I had his name and birth-date, so he should have been fairly simple to locate, but he wasn’t. I discovered his father had left the state patrol and died in 1980- no obituary. It was a struggle to even figure out where Elsa’s son had gone after leaving his home state of Texas. The major down-turn happened when I did a criminal check on him. A respectably long rap sheet unfolded on my computer screen. I scanned for the general nature of his offenses- my eyes finally snagging on the last few arrests: domestic assaults.

My heart sank.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to find out about this guy. I think I had idealized him as a good-natured sort who had prevailed against his ass-hole of a father to become a relatively decent human being… with a wife, a couple of kids and a mortgage payment. I imagined that he always wondered what happened to his mother- and thought about her when he gazed lovingly upon the sleeping heads of his own offspring. I would swoop in, Hollywood style, and solve that great, lingering mystery in his life. I was Mother Teresa, I was Princess Diana, I was Jesus, I was Elvis… but no… I was, quite frankly, disgusted.

“The sins of the fathers… will be visited upon the… offspring? the sons? the children?”

I’m not sure how the quote goes. I think it’s a Bible verse, but I can never be sure. I was told a lot of things were in the bible that turned out not to be. My mother was a big fan of claiming every admonishment that came out of her mouth was a direct excerpt from the holy scriptures- probably because she learned early on that it was the only way to keep me from arguing with her. At any rate, the sentiment was clear and applicable- it seemed the guy I was looking for had turned out to be a wife-beating dead-beat… just like his Dad.

Despite this revelation, I continued the search. I had a job to notify the Next of Kin… regardless of who they were or what they’d done. So I phoned the sheriff’s department in the last town listed on the guy’s rap sheet.

I asked the woman who answered all my typical questions after giving my typical introduction. The instant you tell someone that there has been a death and you’re trying to find the family in order to make notification, they become the informational equivalent of an easy lay- a dirty slut who can’t wait to give it all up. This woman was no exception.

“It looks like the last contact we had with him was at the ********** motel- that’s the address he gave as a residence.”

“Oh yeah baby”… I thought… “that’s it… keep going…”

However, what I actually SAID was this:

“Just out of curiosity… what was he contacted for? What were the circumstances?”

“Ummmmmmm… ” I could hear her clicking down the screen of her computer “… Criminal sexual penetration…”

“… um… what?” I stuttered.

She repeated herself “Criminal Sexual Penetration- but there was no arrest, he was just contacted…”

I thanked her numbly, hung up the phone and stared at the screen of my computer, wondering exactly how to phrase the supplemental report that I had to write about this “progress” I’d just made on the case. Chuck, the investigator with whom I was working that day, wandered around the corner of my cubicle and asked me what was up.

“Well… I got a lead on that case… The guy was contacted by the Farmington police department in 2008 for….” and I couldn’t quite get the words out.

“For….?” Chuck prompted.

“Criminal sexual penetration.”

Chuck was silent- a confused crease folded into his face.

“Of what?” he finally asked.

“I don’t know… Chickens?”

Chuck shook his head “Seriously,” he marveled, “I’ve never even heard of that… Criminal sexual penetration… what the hell?”

“Yeah, and he WASN’T arrested.”

Chuck wandered away, mumbling incredulously- “Chickens… criminal… Jesus…”

It’s funny in that not funny way.

Carl Sandburg once wrote:

“Hey man, I don’t care who you are; I know a woman is looking for you.” it’s from his poem “Haze”. When first I heard it, some drunk guy was reciting it at the top of his lungs in a bar in Chicago. I remember that line gripped me-

” I don’t care who you are…”

I think there are two kinds of lost- there’s the lost when you don’t know where you are- and then there’s the lost when no one’s looking for you. According to his criminal history, this guy beat his girlfriends, did drugs, drove without a license, failed to appear for his court dates and sexually penetrated… something…. criminally. But I was still looking for him… which meant somehow he was worth looking for. Whoever the hell this guy was- he deserved to know that his mother loved him. And maybe- knowing that would settle something for him – heal something in him.

A week passed- then a month. The trail ended at that motel- where Elsa’s little boy had done something so debauched they had to invent a whole new classification of offense for it…. and still didn’t know whether or not the act was actually illegal. The social security number got us nowhere. The birth-date got us nowhere. It’s like he evaporated that night. I searched the jails, I searched the parolees, I searched the escaped convicts in every state- and never found him. BY then, my own life had started to knit together around the scar that faded beneath the fresh coat of paint each new day brushed over it- and my fervor to find Elsa’s son dimmed to a flicker. He was a mystery only addressed when nothing else was going on. But the fact is- I was out of options. The bag of tricks was empty. Some wounds never disappear completely- things remain unresolved, The fact is- some shit you just have to live with.

Elsa’s case was closed, she was buried in the state plot by social services. The widely held belief amongst the coroner’s office is that Elsa’s son is buried in a shallow grave in the ******* desert somewhere, having violated the wrong chicken in the wrong town- where such proclivities aren’t tolerated. But we’re still on the lookout for him, in case you happen to stumble upon a Robert, son of Elsa, from Amarillo Texas. Robert would be about 50 now, who was once almost arrested in Farmington New Mexico for most likely fucking a chicken, let him know… you know a woman who’s looking for him.

… And the faker’s gonna fake fake fake….

It came across the pager as another suuuuuuper ambiguous message from the office:
“Susan Smith called asking for the identity of the woman who died in the car accident on Highway 21 last week. She didn’t say who she was. Please call her back.”

Messages like this one make my psycho-sense tingle like crazy, though granted, it all sounded perfectly reasonable on the surface. This person called and asked a question that the medical examiner’s office should be able to answer, right? Clean, easy, simple. Except it’s not. There was a whole subtext of chaos and peril present in these benign, few words that notified me of a missed call. Allow me to explain.

During business hours, that is 8am-5pm on weekdays, we have a lovely young lady named Angie who answers the medical examiner’s office phone. If we are not in the office at the time of the call- (usually because we’re on a scene investigation or something)- she sends the information to our pager. One should note that Angie is not a medical examiner herself and so she doesn’t really ask any questions, she just relays the message as she gets it. However, even though Angie doesn’t ask any questions, she still manages to convey a wealth of information regarding our calls. Let’s break down this call in particular and I can show you how I knew I was about to talk to a lunatic:

1. “Susan Smith called asking for the identity of the woman who died in the car accident on Highway 21 last week”-
Hmmmmmm….The woman died in a car accident last week. Why was this Susan Smith person calling now? She can’t be family or anyone close to the deceased because anyone of consequence either already knew who died, or they would have called sooner.

2. “She didn’t say who she was”-
Yeah… about that… There are only a few people with whom we are willing to share the details regarding a death. We will either talk to the decedent’s family, or we will share information with other official agencies. For example, if a military chaplain is calling to confirm a death because that chaplain has to give the news to someone in active service… we will talk to them. If a dead person’s parole officer calls in order to confirm their death so that the deceased can be cleared from the parole system, we will talk to them. If a dead person’s mother calls to ask about the location of the decedent’s wallet or phone… we will talk to them. Of course, the key feature in such calls is that all of these callers will identify themselves right away. When someone comes prodding around for information and they don’t immediately explain their relationship to the dead person… it’s because they don’t have one. Or they are hiding something. They want information they shouldn’t have and they think they’re being sneaky by omitting their identity.

They’re not being sneaky. We’re on to them.

And so, armed with far more knowledge about Susan Smith than she could have ever anticipated. I dialed the phone number on the pager and waited for her to answer.

When she did answer, Susan Smith surprised me a little… not much, just a little.

“Hello!” I greeted her warmly, if a bit maniacally… since I kind of expected her to be a maniac herself. “This is the Oswald County medical examiner calling you back! What can I do for you today?”

“Hello,” she mumbled nervously, her voice taking on the hesitant high-pitched wobble of a person who knows they’re about to ask an utterly ridiculous question. “I was calling about Joann Blythe, she died in a car accident last week…”

“Okay…” I said carefully… Sure, Joann Blythe HAD died in a car accident last week. It was Henry’s case and I had heard all about it, but I wasn’t about to share that information with just any old Susan Smith. More than anything I was wondering why the hell this woman was calling for an ID on the decedent since she clearly already KNEW who it was.

“Well,” Susan Smith continued. “Um… so… I was wondering… how do you know it’s her? Did you fingerprint her?”

I dropped any form of polite decorum right then and there. In my book you don’t get to ask questions like that unless I have a firm grasp on your intentions.

“Okay, look.” My voice dropped by several octaves as I went ahead and seared-off my tone with a sizzle of menace. “You need to tell me what your relationship is to this person and why you want to know.”

Susan Smith sighed deeply and took a deep breath. “Well, she’s my sister…” She confessed, her defeated and resigned attitude sounded the same as if she had just admitted to having herpes. “Joann faked her death a few years ago and I just… I’ve learned to double check any news I get about her… I just want to be sure it’s her.”

I blinked.

“I’m sorry… did you say she faked her death?”

“Yes.”

“Okay… how, exactly did she do that?”

… and Susan Smith launched into her story.

Which brings us to the theme of our little informational meeting today: Faking a death.

Long story short- it never happens.

Long story a tiny bit longer- when someone DOES attempt such a thing, they can’t really pull it off.

People faking a death, either their own or someone else’s, is a common plot device for any number of drama-laced TV shows and movies. And much like ridiculous notions such as poisoned Halloween candy and smart firemen… it just doesn’t happen in real life. Or rather, it happens so rarely that we don’t even really bother to consider such an outlandish possibility.

Using this current incident as an example, allow me to explain:

Susan Smith stated that Joann Blythe had faked her death in the past. But there’s a BIG difference between simply dropping off the radar for a while and flat-out convincing your friends, family and the powers that be (namely, ME) that you have laid down to take the long, dirt nap.

When I questioned the issue further, Susan had to admit that she wasn’t SURE if Joann had managed to REALLY fake her death. But apparently, Joann had been incommunicado for a couple of years and when she re-surfaced to her family, she said to them: “You may have heard that I died in a trailer fire…”

I guess this was evidence enough to Susan that Joann was a criminal mastermind who had managed to pull a fast one on whatever investigative agencies were around when this alleged trailer fire occurred. Whatever, I can’t speak to the talents or capabilities of other people in other times… so instead, let’s address what it would have taken for Joann to fake her death in the here and now… what it would take for ANYONE to fake their death in the here and now.

Of course, it’s difficult to separate the rationale from the situation, so first and foremost, let me impart to you how our lovely Ms. Blythe lived… and subsequently died.

Ms. Blythe was… well there’s no delicate way to put it. She was an obese drug addict with a criminal record and a wide array of scars. And when I say obese, I mean big. The girl weighed almost 400 lbs. In her lifetime, She had been shot in the chest… back when someone wanted her dead in a hurry and it was not yet evident that if this would-be killer had just waited around, Joann’s cholesterol level would have done the job for him and saved him a felony assault charge. Since that event, Joann had also managed to pick-up an old-school appendectomy scar (the kind that looks like someone attempted to carve an eye-less Jack-o-lantern into your belly) as well as a cardiac surgery scar running the vertical length of her sternum. (Such a mark is usually referred to as “the cardiac zipper”, because that’s exactly what it looks like) Furthermore, her arms were liberally decorated with a meandering tangle of track-marks due to her heroin addiction and subsequent willingness to doggedly stick a needle into any vein she could find.

Ms. Joann Blythe died much the way she had lived- messily and totally out of control. She had been riding in the back-seat of a friend’s car on a local highway. There were two people up front, the driver and another friend. Somehow (not sure of the story), the driver lost control of the car, swerved, fish-tailed and slammed into a tree. The car struck the tree on the driver’s side- creating a kind of twisting motion as far as the momentum went. While the driver and the front seat passenger walked away from this incident with a couple of bumps and bruises, Joann was not so fortunate. The combination of the directional forces involved, combined with the inertia produced by a 400lb weight in the back of the car, combined with the speed of the vehicle and the placement of the shoulder-strap seat-belt Joann was wearing… Well… Whatever supernatural forces that had intervened on the day Joann was shot, they were apparently out to lunch at the time of this accident, because Joann nearly lost her head… literally. The shoulder-strap of her seat belt sliced into Joann’s neck and she bled out. It was a one-in-a-million freak accident and should in no way lead people to believe it’s an excuse to stop wearing seat-belts.

So… what would it take for Joann to fake her death here?

More than anything else, if someone wants to legitimately fake their death- they’re going to need money… lots of it… significantly more than one would generally need to live comfortably for a year or two. We’re talking lottery winnings here, people. I mean CASH.

First of all, Joann would have needed the cooperation of the two people in the front seats of the car. She would have somehow needed to get their consent to deliberately get into a big, fat car accident that was calamitous enough to kill at least one person in the vehicle. I don’t know what it would take to persuade two people to participate in an event that was more or less guaranteed to kill 33% of those involved, but I’m guessing she would either need to be paying them a vast amount of money- or she would have to have something over them… something big… big enough that they would have both been willing to risk their lives and then lie to the police about the identity of the woman in the back seat. That’s pretty big.

… and speaking of big, Joann would have also needed a dead body. And they’re actually pretty difficult to come by. This isn’t the dark ages. You can’t just grab a random plague victim off the corner, dress them in your clothes and call it good. Additionally, not just any dead body would do for Joann’s purposes. Joann would have needed a 400 lb dead woman who was approximately her same age. This spare corpse would also need facial features, coloring and appropriately aged scars that were uncannily similar to Joann’s. Now, I know that America is a nation of fat people, but you don’t run across 400 lb dead women everyday… Unless you’re a funeral director in Mississippi- and even then, I imagine someone would notice if one of your clients just happened to go missing. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to overlook. So, if Joann was going to acquire this pesky little item for her great escape, she’d either have to kill some woman herself, hire someone to do it, or persuade someone (funeral director, hospital staff, medical examiner) to give her a dead body that wouldn’t otherwise be missed. Once again… she would need money… enough to make the risk worth it for anyone involved. Furthermore, she would then be faced with the dilemma of getting her 400 lb dead woman into the backseat of a car… there isn’t a shoe-horn in the world that could facilitate that trick.

Of course, she could have always gotten a LIVE 400 lb woman in the back of the car- but how the hell would she talk that person into such a scheme:

JOANN- Hey! you look a lot like me. You should TOTALLY go for a ride with my two friends.
RANDOM VICTIM- Uhhh, why?
JOANN- No reason! I just think you’d have a lot of fun! Here, take my purse. And don’t bring your own I.D.
RANDOM VICTIM- Where are we going?
JOANN- Well… I’M going to Tijuana!

Or maybe Joann might have had something big on her doppleganger as well as her accomplices- or she might have offered this look-a-like a lot of money to give to her next of kin… There it is again… money.

Lastly, Joanne would need somewhere to go- and a means of getting there… somewhere distant, where she could live anonymously, somewhere she wouldn’t stick out. And once Joann got to this magical land-of-faraway where no one takes note of dodgy- looking 400lb women (once again… maybe Mississippi), she would have had to engage in perhaps the most difficult part of the plan: keeping her trap shut. Joann would have to resist the urge to contact former friends and family. She would also have to come up with a new identity and back-story… then faithfully stick to both without wavering. Seeing as how Joann had already proven herself completely incapable of any of these tasks during her first “faked death”, I figured it was a safe assumption that she wouldn’t be able to pull it off a second time either…

The fact is, pretty much the only situations in which normal people (which is to say, people who AREN’T evil geniuses with a shit-ton of money at their disposal) manage to even briefly fake their deaths is when there is a disaster of such epic proportions that there is a surplus of either completely unidentifiable or missing bodies… I mean events such as apocalyptic earthquakes, plane crashes, terrorist bombings. Think Hurricane Katrina or 9-11. And even then, if people DO manage to put themselves in the path of such a disaster and then slink away during the ensuing chaos, that last caveat always gets them in the end. They get curious, they get chatty. Like Lot’s wife in the book of Genesis, they can’t help looking over their shoulder to see if they really got away with it.

Of course, trying to convince Joann’s sister, Susan Smith, of any of this was a completely lost cause. Logic be damned, Susan wanted fingerprints.

“I just don’t believe anything I hear about her anymore,” Susan told me, completely ignoring anything I had said as to how utterly unlikely it really was that her sister was the reincarnated love-child of Machiavelli and Houdini. “So, I want you to take finger-prints.”

“Well, look…” I was starting to lose my good humor as Susan’s “question” suddenly became a demand. “Joann is being transferred to the funeral home today and her body is more or less intact. If you don’t believe it, you can take a look for yourself.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t do that,” Susan gasped, as though I had just suggested she cross Antarctica on a tricycle. “I live over an hour away…”

Which brings us to the moral of the story, and perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Susan Smith and Joann Blythe. And that lesson is this: I didn’t really care if Susan believed that the corpse in the morgue downstairs was her sister… what was important was, I believed it.

The medical examiner’s office is not a Burger King. It’s not “Your Way, Right Away” in the morgues around America. You don’t get to just call up and say that you want your dead granny to get an autopsy, or that you DON’T want your granny to get an autopsy. Nor do you get to call us and demand that we change the cause of death on your brother’s death certificate because you don’t agree with the investigation’s findings. And you certainly don’t get to elbow your way into my day and tell me it’s my god-damned job to prove to YOU that your sister is dead… especially when you aren’t willing to put any effort into the question yourself. Besides, I already proved it to anyone whose opinion matters.

We live in a customer service world. That’s what capitalism has brought us. Everyone in America is stomping from place to place demanding service and satisfaction and mistakenly thinking that their happiness is the goal of anyone nearby. From the barista at Starbucks to the dude behind the counter at Jiffy Lube, we expect a world of comfort and convenience, facilitated by all the staff-members around us.

That’s the beauty of my job. I have only one customer: the truth.

Sure, everything is easier and happier if people accept the truth about a person’s death when I give it to them… but a their acceptance or lack thereof doesn’t change anything. The truth may not be comfortable, it may not be convenient… but it’s not going to change, no matter how many complaints you file with my supervisor.

So, Joann Blythe died and Susan Smith didn’t believe it. The good news is, due to Joann’s criminal history, the police came round the funeral home and fingerprinted the body so they could clear her record from their files. So, I WAS ultimately able to tell Susan that Joann had been fingerprinted and, yes, it was actually Joann…

Of course, there’s always the possibility that with all of her ill-gotten riches from her lifetime of treachery, Joann managed to surgically graft her own fingerprints on to the corpse of some poor soul who was unfortunate enough to look just like her… I mean, sky’s the limit when you’re dealing with a faker… because once they’ve gotten started, a fakers gonna fake and fake and fake and fake…

Huh… someone should put that in a song….