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July 28, 2014

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At coroner’s office, everyday life is death

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Leila Navidi

Coroner investigator Lara Davies takes photos of a scene with a dead body in Las Vegas.

Coroner Investigators

Coroner investigator Richard Jones speaks with responding North Las Vegas Police Officer Loran McAlister outside of the scene where a dead body was found in North Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

A slightly acidic odor spills from the second-floor bedroom of a home in an upper-income, northwest Las Vegas neighborhood. Expensive art adorns the walls. A luxury vehicle is parked in the garage.

The odor doesn’t fit. But it’s not what causes the stomach to start churning.

It’s the man himself. It's that he’s naked on the floor. It's his wide-open, lifeless eyes staring in an expression of total surprise at the ceiling. It's the personal artifacts and writings throughout the room, items he certainly would have stashed in a drawer if he were expecting visitors. It's the prescription drugs — painkillers, muscle relaxers, antidepressants — in the bathroom.

It's that he was alone. If not for worried calls to Metro Police from his soon-to-be ex-wife, he might have lain there much longer than the estimated 20 hours that passed before authorities arrived.

And it’s the sense of intrusion as a cop, a Metro crime scene analyst, a reporter and the coroner investigator take all those details and piece together a story — fair or not — of this man’s life and what brought him to this point.

The Metro officer securing the death scene swears he doesn’t do that anymore. He doesn’t judge.

“I honestly can’t say my life is any better or worse than any of these people,” he says of the dozens, if not hundreds, of dead he has seen over the years.

Rick Jones can’t say that. He has to come up with a story. It’s his job.

As one of 29 death investigators — 15 full- and 14 part-time — for the Clark County Coroner’s Office, Jones must determine a cause of death. So he casts an eye over the entire room. Then he pulls a chair off the man’s body; in falling, the man somehow pulled the chair over him. Jones gently grabs the man’s head in two hands and shifts and squeezes, checking for looseness or cracks in the skull. Someone turns the body sideways and he photographs the back, checking for trauma and the settling of blood.

This is routine stuff. Jones has done it hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Despite the job’s pervasiveness, the world of the coroner investigator is one few people see. Maybe few want to see it. But what they do — and what they do is as far from “C.S.I.” as East Fremont is from the Strip — is as integral to societal flow as police, pothole fillers and trash pickup.

•••

Since the early 2000s, deaths have risen in Clark County but the number of coroner’s office investigations has dipped slightly.

In 2001, Clark County deaths numbered 11,562. Ten years later in 2011, the number had grown to 14,454, a 25 percent increase. (Nationwide, deaths in 2000 numbered 2,403,351; in 2011, they numbered 2,437,163, or a 1.4 percent increase.)

Despite the growth in deaths, the number of cases accepted by the coroner’s office for investigation fell from 3,060 to 2,891 from 2001 to 2011. Coroner Michael Murphy credits the decline to better communication between his office and physicians. When investigators can get ahold of doctors, they can learn about someone’s health history faster, which can make it easier and quicker to determine a cause of death.

“It means quicker turnaround, and that’s better for families in the long run,” Murphy says.

Jones’ current case won’t be resolved so quickly. The cause of death isn’t immediately apparent in the dead man’s bedroom.

As Jones steps through the room gingerly, almost politely, the police officer gives a blow-by-blow of what he did after pulling up to the house. No one answered the door, first of all. (A roommate was upstairs in her bedroom but didn’t hear the officer's knocks; she had been gone a week and only just returned.)

The officer picked the lock of the front door. Once inside, he went upstairs and found the man in his bedroom.

“I gloved up, touched the wrist, tried to get a pulse and couldn’t find it,” the cop says. “Didn’t seem like much (rigor mortis) at all. Didn’t smell anything. Then as I came out and started going downstairs, the roommate came out, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

Click to enlarge photo

Coroner investigator Richard Jones removes jewelry from a decedent in North Las Vegas. All the property and valuables found on the decedent are given to the next of kin.

“I bet that shocked the hell out of you,” Jones says.

“Oh yeah,” the cop says.

They walk into the bathroom.

“Nothing’s been touched or moved, it’s exactly how it was,” the officer says, then points to orange prescription bottles. “All the meds there, meds there, meds there and meds there.”

The man’s estranged wife has been calling to find out what happened. Jones calls her.

“My name is Rick Jones,” he begins. “I’m an investigator, and I’m calling about (the deceased). He’s related to you how?”

Then begins several minutes of conversation in which Jones almost imperceptibly retrieves information about the man while at the same time comforting the woman.

If anyone does, Jones personifies the words of a motto hanging throughout the coroner’s office: "Remember … Families entrust us with one of their most precious possessions. Keep faith with them by conducting yourself as though the family were present. The body is dear to them … treat it reverently."

“OK, but you’re still presently married?” Jones asks. “OK. Is anybody there with you? I have some bad news to talk to you about.”

The woman is in the medical field, she tells Jones.

“OK, it’s a lot different when it’s family,” he replies. “I’m so sorry to do this on the phone like this, but unfortunately (he) was found deceased in his residence here.”

Jones doesn’t say anything for a while.

“Are you able to talk right now?" he says. "I’d like you to get a supervisor or somebody there with you. Can you see if you can locate a supervisor or co-worker? I’d just like someone to be with you.”

Jones tells the woman he can call back later.

“We don’t know what has happened yet,” Jones says. “They’ll do toxicology and see if we can find out what happened. He’s under a doctor’s care, I assume, so he has prescriptions — does he have any conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, any of those?”

The woman tells Jones the decedent was depressed about their pending divorce.

“I apologize for this next question,” Jones begins. “Is there any reason to believe he may have done something to end his life?”

He listens for a minute and nods.

“We’re going to treat him with great dignity and respect, and we’re so sorry you had to go through this,” he says, and the phone call ends.

Now moving toward the body, he addresses the other officer and the crime-scene analyst who hover nearby.

“Going through a divorce," he says. "She doesn’t think he’s suicidal. Looking for a job. Still depressed about the divorce. He was an accountant. Treated for depression, but she couldn’t think of anything else. She was obviously caught off guard.”

“It all seems legit to me,” the crime-scene analyst says, meaning there doesn’t appear to be any foul play.

Two men from a mortuary silently appear. They lift the body into a blue-plastic body bag. One on each end, they carry him down the stairs, hoist him onto a gurney and wheel away the body. They take the body to the coroner, where blood will be drawn for toxicology; maybe an autopsy will be performed.

•••

Driving back to the office, Jones has stories that, in the retelling, still get him choked up. There was the investigator, for instance, who was about to tell a mother and father their son in Las Vegas had died.

But when she got there, she was surprised to find them already crying. How did they know?

“Well, they didn’t know about their son,” Jones said. “They had just found out that their daughter died in a car accident in Texas.”

The parents lost a son and a daughter on the same day.

Then there was Jones’ own near-death. Maybe 10 years ago driving from Reno to a Lake Tahoe dinner cruise with his wife and teenaged daughter, the daughter kept asking to stop at a noted haunted house on the way.

Jones wanted to get to the lake. But his daughter was persistent, asking over and over. Finally, he said OK. He pulled onto the shoulder of the road so he could figure out how to get to the haunted house.

A car that had been following them passed by — and was immediately hit by an oncoming car whose drunken driver crossed the centerline. The driver of the car that had been following Jones and his family was killed instantly.

“My daughter saved our lives,” he says.

•••

Decades ago, the coroner’s office on Pinto Lane was fashioned out of an old church. A stained-glass window from the church is set into the wall inside the oft-remodeled building.

The building is sectioned into cubicles for investigators, offices for medical examiners and chilled rooms for bodies.

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy sits inside his office on Thursday, October 11, 2012.

As cold as the rooms are and as good as the ventilation is, there’s no way of getting around the smell. People die; people decay. In the first mildly cool room, a half-dozen bodies sit on gurneys awaiting further examination or a trip to the mortuary. Look under the sheets and you’ll find sturdy clear plastic bags containing their intestines, livers, hearts and other organs.

Giving a tour, Murphy pushes a button at the end of a cord hanging from the ceiling. Doors open to a room that is much colder. Inside are decomposed bodies, people who may not have been found for weeks after their death. The smell is so powerful it feels like a physical presence invading every pore of your body.

Murphy could walk through the building blindfolded, he knows it so well. In the “autopsy suites,” he opens the drawers of metallic toolboxes, pointing out how forensic pathology technicians decorate their stainless steel tools with specific colors of nail polish. That’s so the technicians, most of whom are women, don’t mix them and lose them.

Murphy laughs when asked if the “suites” come with complimentary champagne and have a nice view of the Strip. His humor and extroverted personality go a long way, staff say, to making work in the office more tolerable.

Death investigator Lara Davies says Murphy has created a caring atmosphere in the office, encouraging investigators to talk to each other about cases. Davies was hired full-time earlier this year after volunteering three years, then working part-time four years.

“I mean, it can be stressful at times, but we are like a big family, and I have a great support system here and at home,” she says. “And there are some stories you just don’t ever forget. I do get emotional. But you come back here and talk to your colleagues about the situation and scenario, and it helps. And you have to leave work at the door when you go home.”

Davies is one of 20 female investigators; nine are men. Neither Murphy nor anyone else can explain why so many women are getting into the business.

“Men just don’t apply for the jobs as much anymore,” Murphys says. “I don’t know why.”

Davies got hooked while watching the JonBenét Ramsey case on television and seeing the testimony of forensic scientist Henry Lee.

“I saw what he was doing and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Davies said.

Davies admits to loving the job but makes sure that isn’t taken the wrong way. She’s not drawn to the job by the dead, she clarifies, but by the living.

“It’s very rewarding being able to help families and give them closure,” she says. “It makes this job everything I dreamed it would be.”

•••

Family will sometimes hug the body of the recently deceased, begging mom or dad or brother or sister to awaken, whispering words of love, then yelling at them, then quieting again, wincing and wishing they had said more when the ears still could hear.

For investigators, stepping into such situations can feel like a violation.

In the early evening, Davies goes to the home of a deceased middle-aged woman. A Metro officer already is there. The deceased's 20- and 30-something children are outside in various states of distress.

Davies goes into the house and goes through her protocol: feeling the woman’s head for any movement or fractures, taking photos, then logging the various prescription drugs lying about the house.

Click to enlarge photo

Forensic assistant Lindsay Hanes cleans the hands of a decedent, prepping to take fingerprints upon its arrival at the Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner in Las Vegas.

The sons and daughter outside, who can be heard crying, are let inside. They kneel next to their mom, they hug her, and one of them begs her to get up, tells her she can’t be dead.

Davies finds some painkillers mixed in a pill bottle labeled as a different kind of medicine. The woman’s ex-husband says painkiller addiction is a problem in the family.

Police at the scene say they see prescription drug overdoses way too often. A sergeant says he won’t even take them when they are prescribed, he is so afraid of getting hooked or accidentally overdosing.

After an hour, Davies gathers the family members and tells them whom to call and when to line up a mortuary.

“Thank you,” one of the children says.

As the two mortuary employees wheel the body into a waiting van, one of the sons calls out, “Mom!”

“Don’t,” says his sister, who moments ago begged her mom to get up. “That’s not her anymore. She’s gone.”

•••

Death investigators are led into the secret chambers of people’s lives and are given access to facets that person may never have shown another soul.

What’s heartening to Murphy and his staff is that rarely do survivors complain about the job the coroner's office has done. More often, survivors call or write letters of thanks.

When someone dies, the death investigator might be the one person survivors feel closest to understanding the deceased. There may be a connection borne of the intrusion, of the fact that the investigator now knows what the survivor knows. And the death investigators don’t judge. They are there to help.

“It’s amazing, honestly,” Murphy says of the cards and letters. “People thank us for being kind, of understanding, of treating them appropriately in their time of need. It’s about our people being able to connect with them, and they remember that.”

In a way, the job helps the investigators, too.

The job has changed all of them. Jones gets teary-eyed saying he is sure to tell his family he loves them whenever he can. Davies says she takes less for granted, knowing how quickly and unexpectedly death may come.

Murphy can barely count the many ways a decade on the job has altered his thinking.

“When you’re here, you have a choice to either let it affect you positively or negatively, and I think the majority for me has been positive,” he says.

Like Jones, Murphy says he never leaves the house without saying "goodbye" and "I love you." The reason?

“Because I may never get that opportunity again,” Murphy said.

When he staged a pool party for a granddaughter, the first task Murphy did was hire a professional lifeguard.

“I don’t know if I would have done that prior to this job, but I have now seen what happens," he says. "After just one moment of inattention, you could end up losing the life of someone you love very dearly.”

Then there are all the smoke detectors in his home.

And the fact that he pointedly tries every Tuesday to take his granddaughter to swimming lessons.

“Years ago, I might not have done that, but now I try not to miss it," he says. "I try very, very hard not to miss that because it has value to me.”

He keeps going, and you can hear the emotion welling in his voice. Murphy gets enormous satisfaction from doing the job, but he also feels enormous responsibility to those his staff reach every day.

“The job we have,” he says — he barely gets the words out — “it’s an honor and a privilege to do what we do.”

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  1. Great article. When I pass on I hope I have people as professional as the individuals mentioned here to take care of me and console my family.

  2. Chunky says:

    This is an excellent well-written article about a very difficult and mysterious topic.

    Blessings and thanks to the women and men who perform this largely unnoticed profession in our society.

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  3. Excellent article. And such insight re 5th paragraph or so about not presuming your life is any better or worse that the other guy's. I also note that many people are employed in occupations that have less-than-pleasant responsibilities yet behave well.