Exploring death investigation by way of the guys and gals on the ground.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Curiosity is key. So is compassion. And an ability to assimilate information – including medical science – quickly. Humility also helps: “If you think you didn’t miss anything at the crime scene,” Forensic Pathologist Dr. John Hain says, “you’re definitely missing something.”
Other prerequisites for life as one of Monterey County’s four coroner’s detectives include an impressive track record as a beat deputy that helped earn the promotion, and broad shoulders willing to bear an uncommon burden.
“It’s not just the stress of dealing with deaths,” says division Detective Sgt. Archie Warren, who oversees the group. “It’s also the hours. It’s a cumulative thing.”
It’s also a unique charge, and one explored here through the eyes of each of the acting deputies:
For Detective Kevin Gardepie, the hardest part of the job is easy to identify: telling families their loved one is dead.
“It’s the worst news they’ll hear in their entire lives,” he says.
Specific do’s and don’ts are critical: Do be clear. Do empathize. Do provide instructions – however basic – for what happens next. Don’t dance around the subject. Don’t be afraid to use the word dead.
These are foundation-shaking themes, but Gardepie navigates them articulately, even when they steer into how gruesome deaths affect his family life, and how he depends on a peer counseling network to process “things you’d rather never see.”
He feels he’s able to speak about it smoothly partly because of training as a hostage negotiator, a so-called “collateral assignment” he tested into and is now qualified to take on should the moment arise.
“It definitely dovetails into the job I’m doing now,” he says. “You have to pick up on people’s tendencies, to neutralize hostile feelings, which we get a lot. Part of death is anger for those who survive.”
There are elements of the job he enjoys far more than informing families: In fact, you could say he and his fellow detectives live to investigate a certain sort of death. As in an apparent suicide – a plastic bag over the head – where a closer look reveals that ending was staged. The elderly woman who seems to have collapsed from cardiac arrest, until an indentation on her nose from her glasses indicates her head was pressed into the carpet. A fake hanging at the county jail that turns out to be a cellmate homicide.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Gardepie says. “To come into a scene and say, ‘No, the death isn’t that at all.’ Street cops don’t get to do that.”
Much of the gig is less glorious – time soaked into figuring out just who the deceased is and who should know they’re gone, for instance – despite what TV shows lead people to believe.
“They expect us to age bones on the spot,” Gardepie says. “They love using CSI speak too, thinking they know what they’re talking about. But I’m not an archeologist, I’m just a cop.”
Just a cop who takes on one of the more demanding jobs our area knows.
The pathologist has some pre-autopsy instructions for first-time attending parties: “Remember to do two things: One, breathe. Two, move your fingers and toes. If you stop feeling your hands or feet, get out of the room. You don’t want to get faint in here – the floor is hard.”
At that Detective Randall Dyck perks up. “Faint?” he says. “Lemme get my camera.”
There are other one-liners where that came from. When fellow detective Gardepie has to make a call to payroll on their behalf, Dyck says, “Don’t mess with my check – remember, I control cause and manner of death, and I can do it from my Droid [smartphone].” When Hain marvels at how slow the U.S. has been to adopt the metric system, Dyck replies, “as long as battleship guns are measured in inches, we’ll be OK.”
But Dyck’s abilities are no joke. An undergraduate pre-med background gives him a huge advantage when talking critical medical clues with Hain. Scuba experience makes him a key asset in an area with several diving deaths every year. His work ethic is similarly solid: After a recent relentless on-call weekend that sent him to two traffic deaths, a homicide and the tragic nursing home fire in Marina that killed five, he showed up two hours early on Monday to prep for the autopsies.
“He’s the best we have,” Hain says.
The Toxicology Queen
Though coroner’s cases are distributed at random – whoever’s on call responds – Detective Diana Schumacher has developed a beat of sorts. “She gets the peculiar overdose cases,” Gardepie says, “medications none of us have heard of.”
Schumacher shrugs at the climbing number of prescription-drug fatalities. “People like to feel good,” she says. “They like to be pain free.”
Because the boundary between accidental and intentional can be a hazy one, it’s been a particularly intense research run of late.
“She’s seen the most challenging year,” Hain says. “Pharmaceutical overdoses are the hardest ones. They require you to be very observant at the scene, and anticipate what you won’t know until toxicology reports return in two weeks.”
Schumacher sets up multiple hypotheses, and climbs a steep learning curve with help from relentless photography at the scene and tutelage from Hain alongside the autopsied body.
“You really have to do your homework,” she says. “You think it’s ‘A’… it’s never ‘A.’ Maybe a version of ‘A.’ You have to be methodical, especially with a possible overdose. Something that doesn’t appear important can be critical.”
The location of a vial and amount of meds left can be very revealing. How her kids have been shaped by growing up around the law can be too.
“They know when the pager goes off someone has died,” she says. “They say a little prayer.”
There’s a word they carefully avoid around the coroner’s office.
“We don’t like to use the word quiet,” says Detective Dan Robison. “It has a way of backfiring.”
A morgue-style Murphy’s Law happens at home, too.
“You can guarantee that if you’re on call for the weekend,” he says, “as soon as you plan something you’re called away.”
It happened to him in April 2010 as he settled into the charcoal glow of a backyard barbecue with his wife and four kids after a youth baseball game.
The call would lead him to tell his sergeant, “I’m done.” But it wasn’t because that interruption, the second of the afternoon, was some sort of final straw. It was because of what was waiting under the emergency blanket.
Paramedics told Robison, an avid youth baseball and football coach, to brace himself: A child had died in an ATV accident near River Road in Gonzales. When he pulled back the blanket, he found a dead adolescent in full baseball uniform.
“It could’ve been one of my players,” he says. “It was an instant connection.”
And an instant thump to the gut.
“This is never an easy job,” he says. “It’s tough to be in a hospital when people die, or in labor and delivery when a child is stillborn. But other things, things that should have never happened… ”
He concedes that upon issuing the death certificate he wasn’t ready to let go of the case.
“I thought about the opportunities this child will never have,” he says. “I wanted to let them know I wouldn’t forget.”
Robison invited the family to one of his team’s games. His boys wore the kid’s number on their helmets, signed a ball for the family and promptly played their hearts out.
“It was a life lesson,” Robison says. “I told them, ‘This boy was a star, but he’ll never have that chance again. Play for him. Play every game the way he would want to play.’ That game we played the best they’ve played as a team. By far.”
The parents approached him after the game with an observation: One of the kids played so spectacularly, it reminded them of their own son.
“Their son,” he says, “can live through everybody else.”