Ah, Sweet Mystery of Death
These men know a secret: Dead men DO tell tales.
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An early morning squall line, steel-gray and intimidating, moved north from Galveston at about the same speed the car traveled south from Houston. They met just as the car exited the freeway. “This Choate Road is a favorite dumping ground for some damn reason,” said Thomason. “There’s a lot of bodies picked up down here.” The rain began falling in dense, melancholy sheets.
After two miles of overgrown grass fields, Thomason turned into a narrow private road posted: Exxon Co. USA, Do Not Enter. Four cars were already there—three Plymouths painted in hard, spare colors, and a patrol unit from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. A half-dozen men were gathered at the road’s edge, clad in bright yellow raincoats with “Sheriffs Dept” stenciled across the back. Thomason parked his car, muttered hollow blasphemies at the weather gods and stepped into the downpour. “What’s the matter, J.C.?” greeted a yellow figure. “Can’t they afford to buy raincoats for you folks?”
Thomason swore back and joined the group at roadside, staring toward the body discovered that dawn by an Exxon employee on his way to work. It lay six feet away, curled to one side as if rolled from a waiting car, a notion further supported by the bent, broken grass between it and the pavement. The sheriff’s men had not yet disturbed it. They are instructed not to touch anything until Thomason, or some other investigator from the Harris County Medical Examiner, is on the scene.
Determinedly trying to ignore the rain, the men now set about their business. Thomason fetched his Instamatic and photographed the body from each of the four compass points. He was joined by a sheriffs photographer who took many more pictures with a much better camera.
The body was that of a man past middle age, white hair cut short and stubbly, dressed in a beige nylon shirt, cheap brown cotton pants, and plain black shoes. “Those look like army shoes,” suggested an officer. “Nope,” said another, “army shoes just got four holes for the laces.” “Shit, you can’t tell anymore,” responded the first, “they keep changing uniforms so fast you can’t keep up with ’em.”
There was blood on the man’s face, a scarcely discernible hole in his left cheek and another, more obvious hole in the top of his head, from which small pieces of brain tissue were slowly seeping. “Looks like he got shot in the face and it came out there,” said Klevenhagen, the senior homicide detective from the sheriffs office. Everyone seemed to agree but Thomason, who wiped his glasses and said nothing.
By now the rain, having accomplished its morbid visitation, had passed over, and three more Plymouths had appeared. A dozen sheriff’s investigators fanned out along the roadway searching for shell casings, bloodstains, random artifacts of unknown specification. Ten feet from the body, an empty fifth of Windsor Canadian merited a small conference, much speculation and a roll of film. It was picked up gingerly, finger in neck and carried to one of the Plymouths before anyone realized the grass beneath it was dry and far too withered for it to have been deposited as recently as the body. The bottle was thrown away. Nothing else of any significance was found.
The body car arrived from the funeral home notified by the dispatcher, and the mortician and his assistant emerged. The mortician wore a white shirt, wide muted tie, double-knit slacks, and matched patent leather shoes and belt. He had a razor-cut hair style and looked very effete. He and his assistant donned surgical gloves and withdrew a stretcher from the body car. They were the only people who would actually handle the body. Klevenhagen turned to Thomason. “We ready to turn him over, my man?” Thomason nodded yes.
The body was rolled onto its back. The legs kept their awkwardly angular pose, one arm poked stiffly up at the wet sky. The flesh was discolored to a grayish purple except for a clay white portion of the face that had pressed against the ground. Ants paraded in and out of the ears and nostrils. “How long, my man?” asked Klevenhagen. Five or six hours, guessed Thomason.
“That looks like another wound there,” said an investigator, pointing to the oddly upthrust left arm. They knelt to examine a little black hole in the bicep, carefully measured its location, noted it down, photographed it. “Must’ve been shot a couple times,” observed the investigator. “What do you think?” he asked Thomason, who responded with an ambiguous shrug. “Can’t really tell till we get him in and clean him up a bit.”
The two morticians rifled the dead man’s pockets, producing a small penknife, a checkbook, two neatly folded dollar bills, and a pack of Camels. It was all handed to Thomason. He conferred briefly with the sheriffs men, traded information, then prepared to leave while the morticians loaded the body. Two investigators were pulling up patches of bloodied grass where the body had lain.
During the long trip back to the morgue, Thomason grumbled to himself, half aloud and semi-bitterly, “…wanta stand around in the goddam rain and gape… can’t tell nothing anyway till he’s stripped down and cleaned up,” he muttered. “Might’ve been shot twenty times for all you can tell out there…” His clothes were thoroughly soaked, stuck to his skin and uncomfortable, a condition which transformed his normally placid disposition into assorted ills and aggravations. He disliked these undermanned weekend shifts and the frequent journeys to distant outbacks in the county. He disliked paperwork, bickering morticians, defense lawyers, prima donna cops, slow drivers, and rain.
He liked his job. Before joining the medical examiner’s staff, J. C. Thomason had been an investigator on the Houston police force and then with the district attorney’s office, 25 years all told, enough that he eventually had regular weekday hours with leisurely lunches, and holidays off. He occasionally wondered why he gave it up.
By the time he entered the parking lot at Ben Taub Hospital, the body car was already standing empty beside the elevator landing for the county morgue. Thomason pushed the button for the basement, where the morticians were in the prep room undressing the body. They stuffed the clothing into a paper sack, first calling out sizes and labels to Jay Evans, the sheriff’s office homicide detective assigned to the case. When the body was stripped the morticians lifted it off their stretcher and placed it in one of the morgue trays, thus passing official custodianship to the morgue.
Mateo, one of the dieners (morgue assistants), logged in the body, hand-lettered the case number on a white card, and dropped it on the dead man’s chest. He stepped back to allow Thomason, wielding the Instamatic again, to photograph the newly christened corpse. It was now officially number 75-3786, the only reality it would own unless, and until, positive identification was forthcoming from fingerprints or next-of-kin. The checkbook found in his pocket might or might not prove helpful in this regard, a question Evans had already begun trying to answer. Mateo printed the i.d. number on a manila tag and slipped it over the right big toe. Then he weighed, measured, and fingerprinted 75-3786 and began to wash it down with damp sterile rags.
“Well, what do we have here?” Jachimczyk cheerfully inquired as he ambled into the prep room. “Hello, Doc,” greeted Evans, who summarized where the body was found and what was known about it. “Do you want him done today,” asked Jachimczyk, “or can it wait till tomorrow morning?” Evans said he’d prefer it that day if at all possible. Jachimczyk nodded agreeably, then left to read Thomason’s report and prepare for the autopsy. He had performed four autopsies already that morning. It was eleven o’clock.
75-3786 was wheeled down to the autopsy room where Lee Roy, the other diener on duty, was laying out the equipment. He assembled the specimen containers, sharpened the knives, snapped fresh Bard-Parker blades in the scalpel handles. The plastic handles were heavy and palm-sized, unlike surgical handles, and were designed for comfortable use during the lengthy autopsy, rather than for the tedious work of surgery. Lee Roy placed the knives and scalpels on a wooden carving board.
Jachimczyk stood behind the board, depressed the foot pedal activating a tape recorder, read the case number into the microphone mounted before him, and proceeded to dictate his official autopsy report. “The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, moderately obese, elderly Caucasian male,” he intoned. “It weighed 188 pounds and measured 66 inches in length.” He proceeded to describe 75-3786’s external appearance in scrupulous detail, often pausing while scars were measured and precisely mapped. “Is that a bruise on the lip there?” he wondered aloud at one point, walking around to look more closely. “Sure enough is,” he announced, sounding almost surprised. He returned to his position, stepped on the pedal and spoke into the microphone, “There is a small bruise on the left lower lip, approximately one-half inch in length with a slight superficial cut and moderate hemorrhaging.”
He then moved to examine the bullet wounds. There were two in the left arm, the one in the bicep and another behind that in the tricep muscle, with a dark purple ring surrounding the rent itself. This was a “contact wound,” the ring caused by powder burns from a gun fired less than twenty inches away. Jachimczyk described them to the tape recorder, calling the contact wound an “entrance wound” and the bicep wound an “exit-type wound.” “The wound admitted a probe through the musculature, and did not involve the underlying bone,” he recorded.
Turning to the head wounds, he decided that the perforation in the left cheek was also an entry wound. After shaving the area around the hole in the top of the head he determined that this, too, was an entry wound. He inserted a segment of supple aluminum wire and probed for the bullet, unsuccessfully. “Somewhere in there,” mused Jachimczyk, “there ought to be a couple of bullets.”
He went about his work with casual efficiency, almost with grace, the way every fine craftsman pursues his skill with what seems to be ease and simplicity. Jachimczyk had performed over 20,000 autopsies in his career, and the subjects, or objects, of that labor had long since lost their purchase on his sensibility. They had become just so many numbered cases and bloodless puzzles, the inevitable bookends of irrelevant lives. Their individuality for Jachimczyk lay in the riddles they posed to the scalpel of his science, the clues they offered to the wit of his craft. 75-3786, aptly named, was merely the latest in a series of small but answerable mysteries. “Sometimes you don’t have any witnesses, no clues, nothing but questions,” said Jachimczyk. “But the answers are right here if you look for them. This dead body tells us. It can tell us what happened to it.”
They now began the formal autopsy. The spinal canal was tapped with a giant syringe and enough pink spinal fluid drawn off to accommodate the various routine chemical analyses. Then the scalp was slit from ear to ear across the crown of the head and the skin pulled back to reveal the calvarium, the skullcap. Lee Roy plugged in the Stryker Saw, a nonrotating vibrating saw shaped like a drill and developed originally for cutting off casts. Pressure-sensitive, it can saw cleanly through cast or bone without savaging vulnerable underlying tissue. Thirty years earlier, when Jachimczyk was first learning how to do autopsies, he had had to use a hacksaw.
Quickly and easily, amid a faint spray of bone dust, the Stryker sawed the skull in a neat quarter-circle. Removing the calvarium, Jachimczyk gently pushed his little finger into the wound in the now-exposed brain, probing again for the bullet track, again fruitlessly. He carefully removed the brain and placed it on the carving board, washed it and the skullcap with slow-running water. Once washed, the skullcap seemed almost artificial, nearly white and smoothly curved with a modest puncture to the left of center, perfectly round on the outside but beveled and jagged on the inside. “Thirty-eight?” asked Evans, who was watching from a discrete and satisfying distance. “No, I think it’s smaller than that,” answered Jachimczyk.
Evans walked over and produced a .38 caliber bullet from his pistol belt. “Here, try it.” Jachimczyk tested the bullet against the hole, found it much too large. “I think it’s probably a 32, or maybe a 25.” “Want to try a 25?” suggested Evans. “Do you have one of those too?” Evans drew a small pistol from his shoulder holster, unloaded it, and handed over a .25 shell. “This man comes prepared,” deadpanned Jachimczyk. The fit was perfect. Jachimczyk placed the skullcap on a table with the cartridge end sticking straight out like a brass peg, and the bullet head protruding exactly through the opening. “We ought to take a picture of that,” he realized, and Thomason once more supplied his Instamatic for that purpose. “You know,” said Jachimczyk, “that’s really kind of pretty.”
He returned to the brain which still rested sullen and strange on the carving board. Rinsed down, it was light tan and coruscated and looked like a deflated walnut. Jachimczyk surveyed the glands and nerve ends for possible signs of damage or violence, found none and reported this fact to the tape recorder. There was only the one small, terribly final bullet hole.
He took up a knife and began to section the brain, lopping off thin, even slices as if he were carving a roast. The interior showed white with minute red dots. The dots were blood vessels in cross-section, meaning there was blood pooled in the brain at the time of death, which only happens when death is traumatic and fiercely abrupt. There were thick, dark, almost black clots of blood in the left frontal lobe, “caused by massive hemorrhage secondary to the bullet wound.” Jachimczyk picked cautiously through the brain slices until, from one of the edges, he retrieved a flattened, mangled, once-lethal clump of lead. “By darn!” he exclaimed, “it’s a 22, a mashed-up 22. Boy, it’s really smashed.” Evans peered over at the fragment. “Looks like it might be one of those new 22 magnums,” he said. “Maybe so,” Jachimczyk agreed, “maybe we’ll find some more of it. A lot of it is missing.” He started sifting through the mutilated brain some more.
Lee Roy meantime had been searching in the vicinity of the left jaw for the second bullet, to no avail. He wheeled 75-3786 outside to the X-ray machine and shot some pictures of the area. Jachimczyk occupied himself dissecting the neck organs, which Lee Roy had previously removed. They revealed no evidence of hemorrhage and the hyoid, a fragile wishbone-shaped bone at the base of the tongue that is almost always snapped when strangulation is attempted, was still intact. Jachimczyk dutifully informed his tape recorder of this news, then turned to peruse the X-rays. They betrayed a twisted piece of metal imbedded deep in the jawbone.
Guided by the X-rays, they had little trouble recovering the second bullet. “It’s torn up almost as bad as the other one. They’re gonna have a helluva time trying to do much with these,” scowled Jachimczyk, referring to the ballistics experts at the police lab. He scratched a tiny identifying J in the base of each fragment where the mark wouldn’t obscure the remaining microscopic riflings on the tip, and dropped them into a small cardboard box.
Speaking again to the tape recorder, Jachimczyk characterized the bullets vaguely as “small caliber.” Although he might speculate more precisely for his own benefit, he would not incorporate into his autopsy report anything to which he could not ultimately testify beyond a reasonable doubt. “They can weigh them over at the lab,” he said. “They’ll probably figure out what they are.” Like most specialists, he resented unqualified intruders into his own field of expertise, so he too avoided venturing into another’s domain.
Evans walked back into the autopsy room. He had by now confirmed the dead man’s identity and had spoken to his ex-wife and an in-law who had been with him the night before. “He was pretty drunk when they saw him last,” advised Evans. “We’ll check that out,” answered Jachimczyk. A blood-alcohol test is standard in all autopsies, as are drug and narcotics screens in all homicide cases.
Jachimczyk continued with the remainder of the autopsy. Mateo had already cut the Y in 75-3786, twin incisions from each shoulder which met at the solar plexus and then extended down to the bottom of the belly. The internal organs had been removed and placed in a tray next to the carving board, where Jachimczyk began to inspect them one at a time. It was doubtful that these would affect his finding on cause of death, that being grimly apparent, but they were still essential items in a complete and thorough autopsy. His certainties had been waylaid before, and he knew it could happen again. “Nothing is ever obvious,” was his motto. “Always be suspicious.”
He reached for the little rust-red engine that is the heart, weighed it, scrutinized it, dissected it, sought out whatever stray facts it could yield to him. “Oooh boy,” he whistled, pointing to the tiny mounds of cholesterol plaque that gathered in the aorta and clogged the ventricle. “Here was a prime candidate for a coronary occlusion.” In somewhat more clinical language, he confided the tangible secrets of 75-3786’s heart to his tape machine, then moved on. “This fellow was a real smoker,” he observed, “look at all that heavy black streaking throughout his lungs.” Jachimczyk knew nothing of the Camels that were found in the man’s pocket.
“Paragraph liver,” he dictated, indirectly, to his typist. “The liver weighed one-nine-six-zero grams, the capsule was smooth and glistening. On section the cut surfaces revealed a homogeneous, relatively dry, tan-brown lobulated appearance. The gall bladder contained ten milliliters of green viscid bile. The mucosa was intact…”
In this fashion, progressing to the kidneys and spleen and stomach and elsewhere, he relentlessly explored the physical reality of 75-3786, recorded it all in prodigious detail. The body was reduced to so many paragraphs of dense terminology, preserved for the time when it might testify through Jachimczyk against its murderer. Two years and 3000 autopsies from now, when the case might conceivably go to trial, Jachimczyk could sit in the witness box, report in hand, and re-create the whole of it with remarkable exactitude. “You can always challenge an opinion,” he said, ‘but you can’t dispute a fact. This man was killed by a gunshot wound in the head and that’s a fact that can’t be avoided.”
His own opinion was that a struggle had occurred, which accounted for the bruised lip and explained the paths of the bullets. The track through the arm traveled upward and back-to-front, as if the arm had been raised in protest or defense, and the shot was fired from extremely close range. The bullet that penetrated the arm, Jachimczyk felt, was the same one that struck the face and lodged in the jaw.
“The question,” he proposed, “is whether the first bullet could have killed him. The answer is probably not.” The question was important because, in that hypothetical future courtroom, the first bullet could be plausibly argued as self-defense, and the case tried as manslaughter. But if only the second shot would have been fatal, then it was murder.
“We’ve found the car,” Evans announced excitedly as he hurriedly returned to the autopsy room. When the man was last seen alone, he was in his own car and intoxicated to the point of passing out. “It was abandoned in a shopping center off the Gulf Freeway.”
“Looks like robbery,” remarked Jachimczyk, to no one in particular. He had developed a kind of instinct where murder was concerned, had seen enough homicides to recognize the patterns and probabilities. The man had been drunk and alone late at night; he was found without a wallet. The likelihood was robbery. “There’s not much that’s unusual about this one,” he said. “It’s a fairly typical murder.”
“I’ll check back with you on the bullets,” said Evans, rushing out the door.
“Keep me posted,” called Jachimczyk. He ordinarily worked closely with the police, talked with them frequently while a case was in progress, and found this mutually helpful. He was also curious. An avid reader of murder mysteries and detective novels, as well as a friend to detectives and a solver of mysteries, Jachimczyk had a connoisseur’s appreciation for nuance and subtlety.
Thomason came up to say that the man’s brother was on the way down to claim the body. “They don’t know he’s been killed yet,” he said. “They think it was a heart attack. They said they’ve been expecting it ’cause he’s been having a lot of heart problems.”
Jachimczyk replied that he would wait and talk to the brother. Another of his bywords was: “There’s nothing you can do to help dead people anymore, but you can still have some compassion for the families they left behind.” Sometimes he told little white lies where he thought it might help. This case, however, didn’t afford much room for that.
Lee Roy and Mateo by now finished closing up the body. The chest cavity was tacked back together, the scalp sutured into more or less normal shape. After the embalmer and then the mortician took their turns and added their skills, 75-3786 would appear to be a man who had succumbed peacefully and whole. Even the wound in his face would be invisible.
In 1956 the Texas Legislature created the office of County Medical Examiner, and required that every large metropolitan county find someone to fill it. The medical examiner was to assume the responsibility, previously defaulted to amateur coroners, of establishing cause of death in all cases covered by the statute, basically those involving violent or unattended deaths. Prior to the law, justices of the peace generally doubled as coroners in most places, and still do in many, regardless of their qualification for the work. The medical examiner, on the other hand, was expected to be a duly certified forensic pathologist, schooled in both law and the branch of medicine devoted to studying death.
In an effort to fill this new post, the Harris County Commissioners Court offered the job to Doctor Joseph Jachimczyk (pronounced ya-HIM-chick), assistant professor of legal medicine at Harvard School of Medicine. The $20,000 salary represented a step down for him, but Jachimczyk, the son of an immigrant iceman, felt subtly discriminated against at Harvard. Ivy League institutions, he wrote, “whether they like to admit it or not, are bound by musty tradition which does not ignore wealth and prestige.” He accepted the offer to come to Houston.
At least one commissioner didn’t want anyone to have the job. “How many deaths can be nailed down to something like poison?” Phil Sayers wanted to know. “If somebody is poisoned, so what? Is it worth it to the taxpayers to try and find out?” Jachimczyk got the job anyway.
Within a year of Sayers’ futile outburst, the new coroner was called in as outside consultant after a man died strangely and inexplicably in the Houston Veterans Hospital. The man’s week-long ailment had mystified VA doctors, but he’d already been buried and his death certificate, citing unknown gastric disorders, had been signed before Jachimczyk ever entered the picture. He proved it to be Texas’ first known case of arsenic poisoning. An excitable local columnist declared that it marked Houston’s emergence into “the modern era of criminal investigation.”
“Some places are still pretty primitive,” says Jachimczyk, leading a visitor on a short tour of his very unprimitive morgue. “The sheriff or a JP or somebody’ll come in, take a quick peek at the body and say ‘Oh-ho, there’s a hole there, musta been shot.’ It’s ridiculous.”
Like most professionals trained in the hard sciences, Jachimczyk swears by the untainted, superior validity of empirical fact, and is convinced that the scientific method, properly applied, can subdue all problems and resolve all riddles. He embodies the philosophy etched in stone above the entrance to the morgue at the Yale University School of Medicine: Hie Locus Ubi Mortuii Docent Vivos—This is the place where the dead teach the living. When he lectures to police cadets, or law or medical students, he always enjoins them to “obey the one great commandment: rely primarily, and I hasten to emphasize this, on medical evidence and scientific findings.” He once co-authored an article debunking the “myth,” as he called it, that crimes of violence increase noticeably during the full moon, a myth that nonetheless has considerable currency in police departments and, ironically, in his own office.
He opens a large, airtight door and leads his visitor into the “cold room,” a sort of walk-in vault kept at slightly above 40 degrees. “Except for weekends, we usually don’t have to use it that much,” says Jachimczyk. “We try to release a body within 24 hours of the time we get it, and we usually make it.” The room seems bare and empty, with part of it given over to storage space. Off in one corner is a grim little pile of green plastic body bags containing shapeless bodies, the nameless remains of six young boys, the last of the 27 unearthed more than two years ago in the Houston homosexual mass murders. “I don’t know if we’ll ever identify them,” he says, shaking his head. “We’ve got enough dental work on one of them, but we’ve never been able to match it up anywhere.”
In a normal year lacking such a ghoulish windfall, only three or four of the more than 5000 bodies that pass through the morgue are impossible to identify. These few are buried in the county paupers’ cemetery, beneath small brass plates with the simple engraving U, for unknown. One of the unknowns, however, is officially carried on state records as being buried at the county morgue, and has been for eleven years. “We call him Stubby,” explains Jachimczyk, pointing out the padlocked freezer locker that contains the corpse. “I guess you could say we’ve grown kind of attached to him around here.”
Stubby is a man’s torso—headless, legless, and armless—with no identifying marks save a small cyst that was found on a rural Fort Bend County roadside in 1964. “It was some kind of gangland-style killing; he was left there on purpose so the message would get out. We think that’s why nobody’s come forward to identify him, because they’re afraid to. One of these days they will though, then we can take Stubby out and give him your proverbial Christian burial.”
He relates all this rather matter-of-factly, casual almost, as though it were entirely reasonable to bury someone in your office refrigerator. But he says it also with a genial lilt to his voice, a gentle glimmer in his friendly hazel eyes. The lilt and the glimmer are always present, always threatening to change into unreserved laughter at the first good opportunity. Short and squat and fanciful, Jachimczyk seems altogether too good-natured, too gregarious, too boisterous and alive to do the work he does.
It seems contradictory to the visitor. Coroners were always supposed to be Sydney Greenstreet in deep shadow and three-quarter profile. Now along comes this Polish leprechaun with a marvelous sense of humor who plays boogie piano and collects tattoos. Actually (and contrary to some rumors) they’re just photographs of tattoos. “There was one man who had a big arrow pointing down his spine to the anus, and inside the arrow it said ‘foxhole.’” Then there was the woman with “sweet” and “sour” beneath her breasts, and the other women with “Whitey’s Property” and “Pay to Enter” tattooed just where you’d expect to find them. “Some of them are really imaginative,” chortles Jachimczyk.
“They can also be very helpful for identification purposes,” he adds, a little more soberly. “Many people have had their social security numbers tattooed on, sometimes their blood type, too. I think that’s an awfully good idea. There have been proposals made to have everybody do it, but nothing ever happens with them, there’s too much emotional opposition to it. It does make sense, though. At least the blood group.”
Impish humor and barren proposition, the leprechaun and the scientist. These two sides are most apparent when Jachimczyk goes to court, wearing his shiny bow tie and resembling the jovial host of a Saturday morning kiddie show. No sooner is he installed in the witness stand, with the jury wondering who this nice man is, when the prosecutor asks his credentials and Jachimczyk unleashes a resume that sounds like course work for a Nobel Prize. “You should never let him get that far,” counsels a defense attorney who’s been to trial with him. “Once he gets all that out about Harvard and Johns Hopkins and all those degrees, the jury’ll believe anything he says. You should just stipulate that he’s acceptable as an expert witness and leave it at that.”
During his testimony, Jachimczyk explains himself lucidly and thoroughly, slowing up to elaborate on critical points, then rambling off into fascinating digressions while jurors and slow-thinking defense lawyers sit raptly attentive. His language is precise and formal, heavily salted with medical jargon, but his presentation is pure vaudeville. At the same time he’s describing a bullet hole as “thirteen inches below the suprasternal notch and four inches to the left of the midline” he’s sticking fingers in himself to indicate the wounds, twisting around to illustrate the track, generally contorting himself into some kind of Emmett Kelly parody. He’s the ideal witness—a combination of good theater and effective testimony.
“Doc’s just straight as an arrow,” observes J. C. Thomason. “Me, I’m kind of inclined toward the prosecution, I guess, and I know some other doctors who lean that way a little. I’ve seen ’em almost cause mistrials leaning too far. But Jachimczyk won’t give you an inch from telling it the way he sees it.”
That’s because he doesn’t see himself as belonging among the authorities. Jachimczyk rather regards himself as a neutral observer of the fact—a Dick Tracy Rosetta Stone, an analytical tool to be employed by whatever parties might find it useful. “Our records are available to anyone who’s legitimately involved in a case,” he says. “I spend as much time talking to defense lawyers as I do prosecutors. We just present our findings and leave the interpretations to the judge and the jury.
“Actually, I’d probably prefer to see a hundred guys go free than to let some poor innocent slob go to jail because of a sloppy investigation.” Jachimczyk considers this for a moment, considers his work in general, and then he remarks, “The greatest pleasure I get, I suppose, is when we have a case that to all outward appearance is murder and I prove it to be a natural. That’s really satisfying for me. You can get big headlines by showing that a natural was a murder, and catching whoever did it, but that’s not as satisfying to me as the other way around. I don’t like sending people to prison.”
“There really isn’t any practical laboratory test for marijuana,” says Howard Hagan. “At least not from biological specimens. You can test from saliva, though, and I’ve read about a fingertip test, too, but they’ll only give results within 30 minutes from the time it’s smoked. That isn’t much help in the morgue.”
The young chemist measures out 100 milliliters of half-normal sodium hydroxide and cants it into a solution that, three or four stages earlier, had been blood. “Most common drugs you can pick up easiest from liver tissue, but it depends on what you’re looking for, what you’ve got available, lots of things.
In a standard drug screen we’ll test from blood, urine, liver, and stomach contents.” He lights a cigarette and waits for the centrifuge to finish whipping the solution. “Cerebral spinal fluid will show about the same alcohol level as blood, but the test is a lot easier to do, so we use that. And this barb screen could be done other ways, but blood is the simplest.”
When he’s finished extracting and concentrating whatever barbiturates reside in the solution, Hagan passes it through the impressively futuristic, dial-festooned spectrophotometer. The machine bombards it with ultraviolet rays, then graphs the absorption pattern where the drug’s chemical molecules thwart the rays at specific, individual wavelengths. Graph in hand, he turns to “look it up in Clarke,” that being E. G. C. Clarke, Isolation and Identification of Drugs, a bulky, four-inch-thick tome containing the absorption graphs of every drug known to medical science.
Dr. Ethel Erickson, a pleasantly serene, matronly woman, enters the toxicology lab and asks, “Have you got anything on that young boy yet, Howard?” One of the two assistant medical examiners, she had performed an autopsy the day before on an unidentified youth thought to be in his late teens, whom she suspected was the victim of a drug overdose.
“No, it’ll probably be a good while longer,” replies Hagan. “There’s still no i.d. on him either, is there?” The body had been discovered in a field, ten days dead already, badly decomposed, and almost totally dehydrated. “There was very little left that might have had any fluids,” says Erickson, “and the brain maggots had pretty much eaten away everything there. But I did find two testes and I thought, well, if Howard can get a positive on testes he could really make a name for himself.”
“I did a CO once on a piece of bone marrow,” remembers Hagan, meaning a carbon monoxide test, “and it was awfully hard. This one isn’t any easier.”
Given the enormous variety of chemicals currently in fashion, postmortem testing for them requires breathtaking foresight on the part of the pathologist, as well as a high index of suspicion bolstered by a fertile imagination. “If you get one that’s a possible freon, for example, you should stick a needle in the trachea and get an air sample right away,” Erickson explains. “Once you open the body all the gas will escape, so if you’ve forgotten the air sample you need to pack the lungs right away. The lab can get enough from seepage to test with. But if you really forget and cut up the lungs and throw them out before you think to look for freon, then the only thing you can do is get a big section of brain.”
“And that’s a pretty difficult test,” interjects Hagan. Freon, the propellant in most aerosol sprays, is rapidly outstripping glue sniffing as the preferred turn-on of lower-class mid-teens. “We’ve had them as young as twelve or thirteen,” Erickson says. “It’s gotten to where it’s the first thing that comes to mind if I see a youngster with no traumatic injuries.”
“It’s just incredible some of the things people will take,” offers Hagan. “They’ll eat those roach pellets, those big white ones, then have cardiac arrest from the sodium fluoride. Some of them even drink the stuff from those five-day deodorant pads that have heavy nicotine base. And Drano, they’ll drink Drano and char their whole esophagus.”
“A lot of those are probably suicides,” suggests Erickson. “That’s the hardest part of this job, calling a death a suicide. Sometimes it just breaks your heart. I’ve had families come in for two- or three-hour talks, just absolutely refusing to believe that someone they loved could have committed suicide. It’s as grueling as psychoanalysis.
“But the saddest thing,” she reflects, “is that the biggest arguments are because of money. The beneficiaries have double indemnity clauses where enormous amounts are paid out for accidental deaths, or else they lose their insurance if it’s ruled a suicide. That’s when it gets really nasty.”
“That’s one of the things that surprised me about this job, the number of suicides,” says Hagan, who’s been on the morgue staff two years. “You never read about them, but there are as many people killing themselves as are getting killed. We must run a dozen trace metal tests a week around here.”
In shooting deaths where suicide is a possible explanation, a trace metal test can determine whether the victim had recently handled a gun. The decedent’s hands are sprayed with a chemical agent and observed under ultraviolet light, revealing by fluorescence the presence of any metallic particles, and the kind—and sometimes the shape—of the metal. Contrary to televised lore, one cannot tell if a person has fired a gun, only if he’s held one.
Dr. Erickson walks next door to the investigators’ office to see if any progress has been made in identifying the dead youth. “It’s such a shame, he couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty,” she says. “And he seemed so healthy, he had perfect teeth!”
Two of Jachimczyk’s investigators, Harry Hall and J. L. “Tooter” Turner, both seem to be deeply engrossed in their telephones. “How old was she?” Hall inquires of his phone. “Who found the body? Yeah… When’d he last see his wife alive? …8 p.m.? Was she in bed?” He’s speaking to someone at the scene of a death—a policeman, mortician, ambulance driver, or whoever was there and knew enough to call it in.
Virtually all of the county’s unattended deaths, or those occurring other than in hospitals or in the presence of physicians, are called into the morgue as soon as they’ve been reported. “No signs of any trauma?” asks Hall. “What kind of medical history she got? …Ask him, yeah… Cardiac problems? Ask him who her doctor was…” By grilling their witnesses over the phone, the investigators can decide if it’s necessary to inspect the scene themselves. “Yeah, well, lemme go ahead and call Dr. Arnold and if he’ll sign it you can go ahead and release it to the funeral home. I’ll call you right back.”
If a death is a natural one, and a doctor is prepared to attest to that fact and sign the death certificate, then the body need never come to the morgue. Only those resulting from unnatural causes or violence, whether accidental, homicidal, or suicidal, are deposited there. And of these, only about half will require autopsies. As Jachimczyk puts it in his job description, “Autopsies are done when it is necessary to distinguish between violent and natural deaths, not simply for the distinction between the various natural causes of death. If the cause and manner of death can be ascertained beyond a reasonable doubt without an autopsy, then an autopsy is not done.”
“Dr. Arnold, one of your patients has just passed away…” Hall is on the phone again. Somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent of all cases can be dealt with over the phone. “You were expecting her to die, then… this quick?… What kind of cardiac problems was she having?… You’ll sign it coronary occlusion, then?… Thank you, Doctor.”
He hangs up and turns around to face Tooter Turner. “He’s gonna sign it,” reports Hall. “Said he just saw her yesterday, been treating her for two years. Didn’t think it’d be that quick, though.”
“I wish that other doctor’d call back,” replies Tooter. “I’m gonna tell ’em to just bring it on in if he don’t hurry up.” Tooter is the genial, white-haired elder of the morgue, the senior employee with twenty years on the staff, and with twenty more running a funeral home prior to that. “I’ve made all the really big ones,” he says, “the Texas City blowup, the Gulf Hotel fire in ’64, the New London School up in East Texas. I was at all of ’em.”
He says this in the same way that any old-timer might recall the landmarks of his life, partly regretful and partly proud, with a wispy affection for the days that were. He’s friendly and relaxed and open and looks like someone’s favorite uncle. He’s also the Ahab of the Stubby saga, a man grimly obsessed with solving a mystery that for eleven years has been locked in a county morgue cooler at 40 degrees. “For eleven years now, and you probably think I’m nuts, I’ve walked in here every day and checked that gauge. And if that needle’s up past 42 I’m raising hell and gettin’ it fixed straight off.”
When Stubby’s torso was found in 1964 there was absolutely no way to identify it. The body’s original height, weight, and age could be fairly closely approximated, but nothing more. All that was known was that a man, formerly about 5′ 10″, 160 pounds, and 50 years old, had somehow had his arms, legs, and head severed and the rest of him dropped by the side of the road. “To me, and I may be wrong, it was a typical gangster killing,” Tooter says. “It’s been the most interesting case since I’ve been here, and there’ve been some lulus in there.”
Shortly after the discovery, “I got a crazy hunch, just an idea,” he remembers. “I ran down leads day and night, called all over the country, sent out more police flyers than any other case the county ever had.” It did no good at all. Even when everyone else gave up on it, Tooter pursued the case zealously on his own time, on vacations, weekends, holidays. Unmarried and with few major distractions, he found himself devoting more and more of his attention to the case the farther it receded in time. He refused to allow the torso to be buried in the paupers’ cemetery; instead he had it embalmed by a friendly mortician and filed a death certificate, listing place of burial as the Harris County Morgue. Then he locked Stubby in a cooler and pocketed the key.
“I still say that one of these days something’ll happen,” argues Tooter, sounding very convinced, if not necessarily convincing. “And I’ll say something else, the day after he’s taken out of here and buried then somethin’ sure’ll turn up.” He still checks out leads whenever he has any that need checking, still sends out flyers and reads the missing person bulletins, still stands ready to respond day or night to any calls regarding the Stubby investigation. The last caller, he very quietly admits, “was five or six months ago.”
Once, almost a decade ago now, on a small stack of three-by-five cards, Tooter wrote down everything that was known about Stubby and the case. He wrapped a green rubber band around them and put the cards in his shirt pocket, where they’ve been ever since. “I make sure I’ve got ’em with me every morning,” he says. “Can’t ever be sure when I might need ’em.”
He pulls out the cards to hand them to a visitor, seems a little disappointed when the offer is ignored. “I’ve laid in bed half the night many a time thinking over some of the leads in this case,” says Tooter. “I’m really sure that we’ll turn something up soon. And I think that after I find out, then I’ll be ready to retire I guess.”