Notes from the End
Short-form observations on life and death from inside the Monterey County Coroner’s Office.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
• The forensic team members report they’re frequently stunned by eerie parallels in body appearances that arrive the same day: similar appearances – “Like twins,” says forensic technician Tameka Moore – or identical shoes. “It’s almost creepy,” she adds.
• Monterey County averages about one “train vs. pedestrian” death a year.
• Sometimes even the dead won’t die: One car-accident casualty remained in the coroner’s fridge for a record duration because each time they thought they had exhausted all their leads and prepared to fire up the cremation furnace, another one surfaced. Before finally incinerating the corpse, they found the deceased deployed 17 different aliases.
• Monterey County has one of the highest per capita murder rates in California, but the number of suicides and acute substance deaths are each consistently higher, a pattern reflected nationwide.
• There were 12 fewer Monterey County motor vehicle collision deaths than murders in 2010, and a large percentage would have survived by properly wearing their seat belts.
• Forensic pathologist John Hain reports the murder and suicide rate in the state prison population seems to be increasing.
• The rate of sudden unexplained infant deaths decreased by two-thirds once parents were instructed to place their babies on their backs while sleeping.
• A shelf in the autopsy room carries jars of various malevolent items: tapeworms, gallstones, etc. Then there’s a jar with a geoduck clam lingering phallus-like in preservatory fluid. “Someone turned it in to us,” Hain says. “They thought it was an amputated penis.”
• The Monterey County Coroner’s Office offers private postmortem examination (aka autopsy) services to the public at $2,500 per complete exam.
• Coroner’s detectives basically consider all illicit drug deaths accidental. “They definitely intended to use the drug,” Hain says. “But the death was unintended.”
• When it rains, it pours: The Coroner’s Office is currently wondering why there’s been a rash of job-related deaths like plummeting tree-trimmers and tractor accidents. Similarly, come one weekend, the on-call detective will field zero calls. The next, like last Labor Day, it’s 14.
• On top of file cabinets in the main office area of the Monterey County Coroner’s Office are a population of teddy bears. “A stuffed animal can be a powerful thing to give a child who survives a car accident when the parents don’t,” Detective Kevin Gardepie says.
• Despite limited documentation, detectives report little difficulty identifying immigrant corpses. “We don’t really rely on driver’s licenses,” Detective Randall Dyck says. “Fortunately, in the immigrant community, people come forward to I.D. [friends].”
• Morgue staff members acknowledge they look at life differently. “I’m cautious,” Moore says. “Whether it’s [snuffing] a candle before bed or going out with friends who are drinking, I see the chain of events already: This may cause this, this, this.” Then she adds: “I appreciate family and friends a lot more after seeing younger people and babies die.”
• Last year five locals drowned in hot tubs and bathtubs. “They might pass out drunk or be an older person with a heart condition and slip underwater,” Hain says. “It might be a child in the bathtub.”
• One coroner detective’s nomination for the senseless death award of 2010 goes to a gang member in a car chase who insisted on flipping gang signs out the window during a pursuit. When the driver careened a little too close to a building, the gangster lost his arm and his life.
• About 1 percent of the U.S. population (about 2.6 million) dies each year. Only about 10 percent of all deaths in Monterey County require a post mortem examination to properly establish and certify the cause and manner of death.
• One autopsy revealed a sort of death by bad oral hygiene. A 25-year-old son of migrant workers was born with a deformed heart valve, which is prone to becoming infected; the number one cause of heart valve infections, meanwhile, is overgrowth of bacteria in and around neglected teeth and gums.
• One accidental 2010 death is classified as “failure to thrive,” a case of an infant treated negligently where a specific cause (like asphyxia) can’t be identified. “The child could be malnourished, dehydrated,” Hain says. “If babies aren’t held and cared for, and don’t have contact and care, they’ll die, even with food and water.”