Two years after I began working as a death investigator, I transferred to a different office in another state. While I wasn’t new to the job, my supervisors were keeping a close eye on me.
As I’ve mentioned before, every office works differently. At my first job, the pathologists conducted scene investigations for infant deaths and homicides. At this new office, the investigators did all of the scene responses. So as far as the above-mentioned deaths were concerned, I had a few new procedures to learn.
I began this job in early spring. Temperatures quickly rose and this office found itself buried under bodies that were decomposed beyond visual recognition. Please note: we cannot make a positive identification off the assumption that because the body was found inside of a locked residence, the deceased is the same person as the listed homeowner. Even though that is usually the case, squatters can happen. However, we do use the name on the lease or mortgage as a starting point in our investigation and will contact that individual’s doctors and dentists to obtain records that will lead to a positive identification.
Whenever we receive decedents who aren’t visually recognizable, there are a number of alternative means to confirming their identity.
- Hospital x-rays
- Dental Records
- Medical devices such as pacemakers
Fingerprinting a decomposed body can be challenging. Rolling ink on the fingers won’t always work, depending on the state of the fingers. The other option is using Mikrosil. Mikrosil is a casting material – similar to Silly Puddy – that is used for collecting tool mark impressions. It can also be used for obtaining fingerprints from shriveled hands. Mikrosil is sold as part of a set that includes two toothpaste-like tubes. The first tube is the Mikrosil. The second tube is the hardener. The set also includes popsicle sticks for applying it. The mikrosil is mixed with the hardener and then applied to the fingerprints. Three minutes later, it can be removed and placed into individual, coin envelopes. The outside of the envelope will be labeled with the case number and the R or L for which hand it was recovered from as well as the name of the finger (Forefinger, Pinky, Middle, etc.) From there, the fingerprints are sent off to the latent print examiner who will run the prints in A.F.I.S (Automated Fingerprint Identification System.)
While waiting to find out if prints are in the system, investigators will begin searching for x-rays and dental records. Because decomposed bodies are notorious for hiding injuries they always have to be x-rayed when they arrive at the morgue. ALWAYS! The forensic pathologist can use hospital x-rays to identify the deceased in particular if the deceased has ever suffered any broken bones or had surgeries such as knee replacements. Medical devices such as pacemakers will also show up in the x-rays. Those devices will contain serial numbers that can be used to identify the deceased as well.
DNA is always a last resort. The tests are expensive to run and it can take six months to get the results back.
Yes, that’s right. Six months.
So here I am, a new investigator at this office that has been overrun with decomposed bodies. My supervisors aren’t ready to release me into the wild and exciting world of scene investigations just yet. What do they task me with? Running all over the city to pick up medical records/x-rays/dental records so we can get the bodies identified and released to the funeral home.
I was probably in the car for two hours straight, running from one hospital to the next to get records and x-rays. Near the end of my excursion I had two stops left. A dentist office and one more hospital.
I went to the dentist office first. I walked in, introduced myself, and handed the receptionist a hard copy of the subpoena they received earlier that told them what patient we needed x-rays for. She eyed me suspiciously.
“Wait here,” she said. She left the desk and returned a few minutes later with the dentist who was holding an envelope that I assumed contained the x-rays I needed.
“Why do you need these?” He asked, still clutching them.
“Because his death is under investigation, and” I pointed to the subpoena that was sitting on the receptionist’s desk. “I have the legal authority to collect them.”
“You don’t look old enough to be a doctor,” the receptionist said.
“I’m not a doctor.”
“You have to tell me why you want these records,” the dentist said.
“I just did.” Here’s the thing. My goal wasn’t to be a bitch, sitting on a pedestal that was 17,000 feet tall. I had a job to do and I didn’t appreciate getting the third degree. The subpoena they were holding was a big hint that their cooperation wasn’t optional. “As I mentioned a few minutes ago, his death is under investigation by the county medical examiner’s office. Any information beyond that is released on a need-to-know basis.”
“Well these records aren’t going to do you any good.” He handed them to me. “He didn’t have any teeth.”
“Duly noted. I’ll be sure to let our forensic odontologist know.”
I left the office.
ICYMI – a forensic odontologist is a dentist who specializes in forensics. They are trained to make identifications based on dental x-rays. They can also evaluate bite marks on bodies. You might be thinking “But, A. Marie. He just told you the dead guy didn’t have any teeth. What good will a forensic odontologist do?”
Teeth are always the ideal but the jaw bone can also be used to make a positive identification. And the jaw bone was present in the dental x-rays.
My last stop was at a hospital. I had some records to pick up. I parked the car and as I was walking toward the entrance, an excited security guard ran up to me. We work with hospital security guards all the time. Whenever someone dies at a hospital – assuming the death falls in our jurisdiction – hospital security releases the decedent to our transport team.
“You sure got here fast,” he said.
I’d never seen a security guard so excited to see someone from my office before. There was something really wrong this but I hadn’t a clue.
“Yeah. We have a guy who died from a drug overdose.”
“Okay.” That happens. It’s sad but also very common for someone to be found unresponsive, rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead shortly after arrival. But the security guard’s excited demeanor begged the question, “Where is the deceased?”
“In his hospital room. We found him with a syringe in his arm.”
As always, if you have any questions please leave them in the comments or send an email to email@example.com
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