Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Rookie Detective's First Autopsy by Lt. Pata

Ah…the autopsy. The tried and true staple of any good cop flick is the puking rookie cop into the autopsy-room garbage can. Well, there certainly is a particular unsavory aspect of being a guest to the intimate examination of another’s viscera, but I am guessing that the proprietor of said viscera has a bigger gripe, so I try to keep my lunch to myself and not share.

Of course it is every good senior officer’s job to try with every fiber of their being to make the new guy sick at autopsy, but often times the build up is worse than the event… Unless, of course, the benefactor of the examination has been missing for a week or more or succumbed to a rapid unhealthy increase in temperature change resulting in their thermally induced demise. Those still bug me a little. Sorry for the “bug” inference.

So, my peers are always making fun of my close association with the dead. It’s not so much that I have a pathological relationship with them, I’m just a little curious about what makes people tick. I was the kid who used to poke at the dead stuff on the side of the road. I look at those gems of my life as learning my first lessons into the world of investigation. Think that’s weird? How many of you slow down to get a peek at the car wreck? I rest my case.

If you are analytical with maybe a little twist of macabre and are interested in the “off switch of life”, where do you go for the answer? If you are me, you drop by for an autopsy every now and then. Dead folks are not so bad. Most of them don’t really bother you, they keep to themselves and when you are done learning from them, you can put them back in the drawer. (Go ahead and cut this Lt. Dan…I dare you.) They are not clingy and don’t stick around for long. They are usually gone in a couple of days and are replaced by new folks.

By now you know that I used to work for the Marin Coroner and San Francisco – Medical Examiner’s Office. Both were good jobs. I learned about what not to do and how to stay alive. Things like, wearing rubber boots to clean out some types of farm equipment machines…not a good idea. (Rubber is good on pavement, not so good on steel. It’s like ice skating around a hole in the ice, while a Great White shark is patiently waiting for you to slip.) Another lesson I learned was that it was not so smart to try to make a buck by recycling semi precious metals, like copper… forgetting to turn off the power to the ka-gillion watt power grid before doing so. That was my most current example. (Pun – completely intended.)

I have taken a number of new officers to their first autopsy. Actually, I think I have been to small towns that had fewer people inhabited in them than people who I have been acquainted with in death. I was kind of the den-father of death for the new kids. I don’t remember all of them, but I will never forget bringing then Detective Raul Aguilar to his first.

Raul and I were in detectives back in the early part of this century. He was a sex assault detective and I was a homicide – violent crimes guy. I had the easier job. I remember getting the call from my boss asking me to take Raul out to the cemetery for his first postmortem exam. I look back on it now and it totally played out like a Hitchcock movie.

I drove my Crown Victoria to the front of our detective’s building. I remember that it was a cold but crisp-clear day. Raul and I have a great relationship, but remember it was my unofficial and non-sanctioned job to enhance this experience and do my best to reverse his breakfast intake.

Raul and I were going to a homicide autopsy. The victim was on the receiving end of an instrument normally reserved for disarticulating vegetables and rendering them into small edible parts. Some would call it, a knife, but it’s not as sexy of a word and I have been dying to use the word disarticulation for some time.

When I picked Raul up, I noticed that he was not his usual cheerful self. He was quiet, but looked great in his new detective suit. Raul is one of those terminally cheerful types. That morning, his beautiful wife clearly picked his attire and, as I suspect, she left the suit on their bed like a little deflated man for him. I was in my usual sport coat and open collared shirt. By now I knew the routine, keep a spare tie in my car and in my drawer in case I needed to look the part. I also remembered Detective Rule # 3 never wear a tie to an autopsy. Why you ask? Uh, bending over to get a closer look at something, formerly associated with non-exterior portion of the victim, will almost always cause you to have to cut off and throw away the tie. Get my sanitized drift? Ya, yuck.

I always figured that people, who dropped dead be it accidently or on purpose, by virtue of nature, karma maybe by gross consumption or as a result of some sinister act, deserved at least a detective-looking guy or gal to come to the location of their departure or discovery, looking sharp. It is the old-school respect thing that I have always had for serious crimes, but especially for the family of those who died. Breaking the news of a death, while in a Hawaiian shirt, with a gal depicted on your chest – dancing, dressed in coconut shell bikini, grass skirt and lei, is not so professional, but definitely cheery.

I’ll never forget one casual Friday where my whole team wore Hawaiian shirts (tasteful of course) and we were called out to investigate a dead guy, found behind a debris box, downtown. A citizen interacted with the team for a few minutes then asked: “Hey are you guys cops?” That was it. From that point on I always had a coat and tie nearby. Plus, honestly, I have to, I’m Italian…and yes the buttons on the Hawaiian shirts were made from coconut shells, not plastic. C’mon we’re not barbarians!

In Marin, they do not have a central morgue, so selected funeral homes and cemeteries have facilities to do embalming. You don’t need much to do an autopsy; all you need is a table, a sink, and a nice collection of shiny instruments, some jars to collect samples. Oh and a saw. You need a saw.

The drive out with Raul was kind of surreal. I remember the low volume of the radio playing in my car of some string quartet as we drove from the downtown to a really quiet and nice neighborhood. I can recall seeing and hearing the kids at the local school playing in the school yard as I looked over and saw Raul staring straight ahead not saying a word. As I drove I remember seeing the sun shining in his face and shadows of the tree lined street breaking through the bright sun, but I don’t think he blinked the entire ride.

By the time we arrived at the cemetery I drove back to the rear of the complex. I decided to point out one of the experience enhancing moments to Raul as I noticed the heat coming off the building we were going to enter. “Hey look Raul! I think they are doing cremations today.” That little statement got him to actually blink for what I think was the first time during the 10 minute ride to the cemetery. I discovered that I also possess magical powers, as suddenly I was able to blanch and discolor his face with that simple statement.

When I parked, we got out of the car and collected our police stuff, camera, notebooks and pens. As we walked toward the unmarked entrance, to the windowless room, I said “hi” to a guy who looked like he stepped right out of central casting for a horror movie. This guy was a gravedigger or “groundskeeper.” He had on overalls and a ball cap. He was also covered in dirt. I could not have set this one up any better. This guy was seated on a planter box eating a tuna sandwich. I remember him saying hello mid-chew. He had this partially chewed lump of food in his mouth. When he did this, I noticed that he was devoid of some esthetic frontal dentition. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that explained the soft tuna sandwich and absence of a wedding ring. By now I could feel Raul’s polite but palpable tension. Raul looked like he had rode the “zipper” at the county fair – after lunch. The only thing missing was the banjo music.

When I opened the side door to the mortuary, there was a customer in the head up position. The person was not lying down, but almost standing. I am guessing they were trying to get some normal color back or maybe they ran out of space. Who knows, maybe she was the like the Wal-Mart greeter. I have to admit, I was a little taken back when I opened the door and right in front of me, was this person looking right at us. I think I actually said hello to her.

Raul and I navigated our way past the overnight guests who were resting eternally, in their small but functional wood and metal cottages. We made our way into the autopsy room and met the rent-a-pathologist. I remember the room was cold. I also remember the doctor was preparing his equipment for the autopsy. I offered a little gracious “hey how ya doing-how are the kids?” while putting on the mask, as he got his sample jars ready. It was part of my disarming tactic designed for Raul’s impending and calculated cerebral tornado I was trying to stir up and eventual evacuation of his stomach contents. I was feeling frisky. I admit it…I am a bad man.

Raul stopped short of entering the room willfully as the surgeon unzipped the bag containing the once vibrant, if not artificially, and usually unlawfully-stimulated life of a petty criminal. This guy met his demise the night before at the hands of an old friend.

Its friends like this, who would be by your side as you leave the planet that really demonstrate the meaning of “friend for life.” Actually, he was more like behind him at the time of expiration, not by his side. He also gave his pal a pat on the back, several times, but forgot to remove the steak knife from his meaty fist. Remember, if you, the victim, do not consent to being stabbed and you die, well, then those “friends” are just despicable murderers.

I told Raul that I had to use the bathroom. He quietly said he also had to use the restroom. I walked across the ceramic tile-showroom that is every autopsy-embalming room and opened the door to the inner sanctum of the mortuary. The casket storage room and, yes, the cremation room.

Picture a dark room with a distant light leading to an open door about 50 yards away. That light was our passage to salvation, the restroom. The serenity of the dark room with the light struck me as having a weird coincidence to what people, who have described a similar circumstance from returning from their near-death experience. The dark room became a little brighter, after the technician opened the door to the retort (cremation device), as we started to walk toward the restroom. While you are visualizing that little vignette - pipe in the sound of heavy-duty fans.

I made it to the restroom, but Raul didn’t. I think I said something to Raul and looked over my shoulder only to find he was no longer behind me. Raul retreated to the autopsy room, which – all by itself was not so safe for his psyche either, but better in some regards, than the room before it with the standing deceased person and her friends and way better, if not colder, than the cremation room.

Raul never became sick, and I could not bring myself to enhance his already perfect storm of nausea and fear. He remains my valedictorian in death 101. Raul was not so happy during the procedure, but never complained. He stood with his back against the corner wall like he was hung on it and took pictures of our victim using the telephoto lens, but still, he stuck it out. The pictures by the way were all of my back. Thankfully this case never went to trial because the bad guy pled guilty.

I am certain Raul is a different man for it. I think that was his first and last autopsy. Raul is now a sergeant and doesn’t have to go to these anymore. I’m telling you, he’s missing out. I’ve gotta go. I’m hungry.

Trust me, there’s more. Stay safe – Ralph.