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