A kid gets killed in the cross fire of a shooting. Someone digs up a human skull while planting begonias. An elderly woman dies in her sleep in an apartment no one has visited in years.
In all these cases, somebody or somebodies has to examine the scene and, well, the bodies to find out what happened. And as any fan of hard-boiled detective stories, CSI, or Quincy, M.E. knows, those somebodies are the forensic team, perhaps most prominently the coroner.
It’s a mysterious job with macabre connotations, imbued with a mix of excitement and dread. A new show on Spike purports to show armchair detectives what it’s really like, with Grand Guignol bravado, but I always wonder, is that really how it is? So I decided to find out.
I start with our own fair city of night, only to discover that the subject of coroners is more complicated than I thought. What TV often portrays as one or two jobs is often many different jobs. And San Francisco County doesn’t have a coroner a position defined as an elected or appointed government official who deals with deaths that raise questions. Instead, it has a medical examiner, whose office is headed by an MD or doctor of osteopathy. The difference may seem like semantics, but it’s an important distinction for people in the field.
I also learn that it will be next to impossible to meet San Francisco’s medical examiner, Dr. Amy Hart. Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Boyd Stephens whose media accessibility and subsequent scrutiny led to controversies about the reuse of needles, improper ventilation against dangerous pathogens in autopsy rooms, misappropriation of funds, and sexual harassment Hart is fairly shy when it comes to the media. Public controversy can be a downside to the job, whether it’s over the contested findings of Los Angeles’ fabled "coroner to the stars" or the unpopular study by Marin County’s coroner of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge.
So I get the basics about the job from Hart’s deputy administrative director, Stephen Gelman, at the ’50s-era Medical Examiner’s Office on the grounds of the Hall of Justice. Gelman, a middle-aged, white-haired former special agent with the Department of the Treasury, explains the makeup of the office: 32 people, including forensic pathologists and anthropologists, toxicologists, chemists, investigators, and administrative personnel.
And becoming part of Hart’s team isn’t easy, especially since forensic-themed TV shows and the office’s involvement with UC San Francisco managed to attract 160 applicants during a recent call for three positions. Preference is given to those with a background in medicine and, at the very least, the funeral industry.
"IT’S CHINATOWN …"
But those are just the facts. My experience at the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau, an art deco, cream-colored building on the outskirts of Chinatown, is much more visceral.
Inside I meet the genial Lt. Jason Arone, who explains that the bureau has been under the jurisdiction of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office since 1989. That gives Sheriff Gregory Ahern the title of chief coroner, but on a day-to-day basis, Arone is the guy in charge. I also meet Mike Yost, a former detective who is now a public administrator, which means he handles the belongings of decedents, from pets to hidden stashes of money.
Downstairs, the morgue is pretty much what movies would have you expect: cold metal and antiseptic green tile. Arone pauses at the sound of a saw we can’t go inside if there’s an autopsy under way. But it’s just carpenters fixing a door. Inside, I’m struck by the lack of sliding-drawer coolers bodies are identified by photograph these days and are kept in less-obvious storage rooms.
Then I meet autopsy technician Smiley Anderson sometimes referred to as "the bullet finder" by resident pathologists. The 25-year veteran started working in his family’s mortuary as young man in the South much the way many in coroner’s offices got their start. But Anderson says the field is changing now. Crossover careers are rarer, and he says the best way to get in is through an education in medicine.
As I sit at his desk outside the autopsy room, I notice what Arone calls "the meat-locker smell." It’s neither the smell of embalming fluid that I associate with funerals nor that of decay just a stale, permeating reminder of what’s inside.
OUT IN THE FIELD
It’s midafternoon when I meet Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau detective Eric Larson, who’s agreed to show me the other side of the job: going out on calls. I wait with the jocular thirtysomething until two calls come in.
One is a follow-up from the night before. A young girl and her brother were at the house of a family friend, which also serves as a rehabilitation facility; soon after dinner both fell ill. The brother recovered, but the young girl died. Larson decides to ask some questions, though the toxicology report is still pending.
The other call is a notification about a suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Sometimes Alameda County representatives will handle calls for Marin County if the next of kin is in the East Bay.)
Larson puts on his flak jacket as part of his routine, and we get into one of the department’s cars. Since it’s not a pickup, he says, we won’t need one of the vans.
The first stop is at a sagging west Oakland house. The man who answers the door is barely coherent but sends us to Children’s Hospital. When we get there, I’m amazed to see the little boy we got the call about bouncing up and down, chewing on a french fry. When he sees Larson, he starts singing, "Bad boys, bad boys …" Larson laughs and says, "That’s my favorite song, buddy." The child’s hale liveliness is heartbreaking with the knowledge I have of his sister.
Larson asks the family friend, who’s at the hospital, for any information on the night before. It’s unclear whether he’ll get answers, and he tells me that sometimes he never does. In fact, that’s one of the hardest parts of the job. "It doesn’t matter how much science you throw at it," he says. "Sometimes it comes out undetermined."
It’s getting late as we head to the home of the suicide victim’s sister in Castro Valley. No one answers the door. Larson checks with the Marin County Coroner’s Office for another address, then stops by a dispatch office to get directions. Notification is important to Larson, as people may otherwise never hear about the fates of their loved ones.
We arrive in a quiet, ’70s-era housing tract in San Leandro, at the house of the victim’s mother. Again, no one is home, but a neighbor with emergency keys checks the house, determining that the victim’s mother has gone for a walk with her dogs. We wait at the house.
When she arrives, she knows what Larson’s going to say before he opens his mouth but the news is no less brutal. When we leave, her neighbors are sitting beside her on the couch, friends from happier, simpler times.
It’s late when we return to the office, and Larson is supposed to work another swing shift tomorrow. But he gets a message from home. The son of a friend died in an accident. The funeral is tomorrow.*