When death occurs, sheriff-coroners put the pieces of life’s end
back together: Part I in a four-part series on the business of
Det. Sgt. Chris Greene was watching television around 10pm on Thursday, June 30 when the call came. A biker lay dead on Highway 156 just west of Union Road, the victim of a drunk driving accident. It was time to go to work.
After a quick stop at the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department to pick up the recovery van, Greene was headed to the scene. There, the body of Richard Flores, 53, of Lompoc, was covered with a blanket. California Highway Patrol officers combed the area for evidence, and a slew of emergency vehicles blocked access to the area, keeping curious onlookers at bay and protecting the sanctity of the scene.
Greene is more than a deputy. He’s a coroner, and it’s his job to piece together deaths like Flores,’ to determine not just what killed a person, but the who, how, when and why of death. At the scene of a crime or when a body is found, he is present to collect information and evidence, to investigate deaths that may merit closer inspection (see box) and to transport the body. He doesn’t actually perform autopsies, but he uses the information provided by qualified medical examiners to piece together the end of human lives.
To prepare for the job, Greene and the other sheriff’s officers in San Benito County completed two-week training courses to be deputized coroners. Statewide, it’s how the bulk of California’s 58 counties operate. Some 47 counties rely on sheriff-coroners like Greene to collect and analyze physical evidence, incorporating it into a larger investigation.
Unlike the CBS drama “CSI,” most coroners aren’t strictly medical investigators, said Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Forrester, a 25-year-veteran of the department.
“(Because of the show), we have people contact us all the time wanting to do internships and things,” said Forrester. “You don’t graduate from college and get hired to this kind of job. All of our crime-scene investigators are sergeants or detectives. They know a crime scene, and they know what to look for, so you come up through the department to get here.”
Most coroners and crime-scene investigators can only dream of the gadgetry that television detectives have at their hands, said Forrester. Instead, they fit pieces of witness statements, evidence and medical reports together in a more old-fashioned search for the truth, according to Greene.
“We are observers,” said Greene, who is currently serving as a sheriff’s investigator. “We take medical information or we collect any medication we can find at the scene. We try to find out what a person was doing at the time of their death, and we investigate. You might work on a case involving property crime or sex crime by day and in the evening get called out for a coroner’s case.”
The investigation surrounding a death usually takes around two days, said Greene’s partner, Det. Sgt. Tom Keylon. Of that time, the autopsy is responsible for between two and six hours of the investigation, but cases involving death take precedence over any other work. San Benito County only deals with 40 to 50 per year, he said, far fewer than a larger, more urban area like Santa Clara County.
On that night in June, Greene photographed the man under the blanket, including his severed leg and the accident scene around the mangled remains of his motorcycle. Other officers and firefighters helped the detective transfer the remains into a body bag, which he loaded into the van and drove to the county’s morgue on Southside Road. The next morning, he accompanied the body to Monterey for an autopsy.
All of San Benito County’s autopsies are conducted in Monterey County on a contract basis because San Benito does not employ any medical examiners. Medical examiners are specially trained doctors who are capable of determining cause of death through autopsy. Santa Clara County has it’s own medical examiner’s offices, which are run through the county Sheriff’s department.
A coroner’s work is not a job most law enforcement officers want to deal with, said Keylon, but investigators learn to put the morbid aspects of their careers aside when they step away from the office.
“There are some scenes that are pretty gruesome, but you do your job,” Keylon said. “I don’t remember them after I’m done. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether you ever get used to it – I don’t think you do – but after you’ve seen so much of it, it’s just becomes a job.”
“It doesn’t shock me anymore,” said Forrester. “I don’t know. I don’t care for a decomposed body. I don’t care for the smell, and I still, to this day, feel something inside me when I see a dead child, but I pretty much divorce myself from the scene, from the body.”
Still, no coroner can be completely steeled, Forrester said.
“We have people coming into our office where this is the worst day of their life,” Forrester said. “You have to understand where they’re coming from.”
For Greene, the crash on Hwy. 156 was soon wrapped up. An autopsy the next day confirmed the motorcyclist was killed instantly by the blow he suffered as he was struck by Hollister resident Dolores Ortiz Garcia, 38. Greene is back to regular investigations for now.
Why would the coroner investigate?
Deaths are reportable to the coroner’s office for 21 reasons, though families may request that a body not be autopsied in the course of an investigation on religious grounds.
Deaths are reportable to the coroner if they result from:
Criminal acts by another
Occupational disease or injury
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Contagious disease constituting a health risk, including AIDS
Acute alcoholism or drug addiction
OR when deaths occur in places such as:
Prisons, jails and law enforcement custody
OR situations where:
No history of medical care could be confirmed
No physician had attended the patient in the last 20 days
A physician was truly unable to determine or state a cause of death
A patient was not fully recovered from anesthesia
A patient died alone or was unattended in the time preceding death
A patient was comatose throughout his or her care by a physician
A body could not be identified
No existing next of kin could be found