I was still in the new job daze. My body was not used to getting up at 6 in the morning so that I could be at work by 7. The brain was clouded with all the information I was trying to comprehend and techniques I was trying to learn. By the time it was 3, I was just ready to drive home, hit the bed, and fall off to sleep.
The day had been the normal grind. Nothing much had happened at work. Nearly one week down and the only crime scene I had responded to was a burglary. I knew in the back of my mind that I would soon have to deal with death, but I down played it. It did not seem like a reality of the job.
Three o clock came and I headed for home. I was looking forward to the weekend. That first weekend off after working at a new job is as welcome as a vacation that you have been planning for months. I remember driving on 23rd Street, a main road in Independence, when it happened. The sound I would soon grow accustomed to hate more than the twang of country music started beeping in my truck. It started as a soft beep that gradually got louder, piercing my ears as my stomach dropped. I knew that something must have happened at work. I pulled my truck over at the nearest pay phone and made the call back to the number on the pager. "We have a dead body if you want to come back to work", the voice on the other end stated. I knew that if I said I wanted to go home that I would not be able to enjoy my weekend. I would worry about what my new coworkers thought of me. I would also wonder about the dead body. Could I handle it? I was so tired, but knew what I had to do. "I will be right in", I reluctantly said.
It seemed like a dream from that moment on. I felt as if I was not in my body. I really feared the unknown. I was an untrained crime scene investigator responding to a dead body. Somebody's life had ended. I began thinking of the uncertainty of life. We are here one moment and then gone the next. I had no clue as to what happens after death to a body. I have seen movies, but I knew that they were not accurate. I was just a scared young man trying not to let my emotions show.
I got back to work and was told the known circumstances. The only information we had was that a female had been found deceased in a garage. OK. I think I can handle that. My fear at the time was on the site of decomposing flesh. I had seen dead people in caskets and thought most of our calls would have people looking like that. I was nervous but I believed this would be a good call to get my start. As we headed down Noland Road, I looked at all the sites that were so familiar to me. We passed the dealership where I had bought my truck. We went by numerous restaurants that I had shared meals with families and friends. Everything was so innocent and friendly in the past. I new that my world would never be the same.
We turned down 35th Street and headed towards familiar territory. This area is where I spent a lot of my youth. My cousins used to live in this neighborhood. We would always trek around this side of town drumming up adventures, games, and good times. I remembered a bridge we had built in the woods, walking through creeks, playing baseball in the park. It seemed just like yesterday. Bad things did not happen here.
As we pulled up to the house, I saw a crowd of people gathered in the street. Neighbors were wondering what had happened. I looked into the driveway and saw numerous officers and detectives. They were milling around, probably talking about the case. We got out of the van and approached the officers. I felt so out of place. What was I doing on this side of the police line. I didn't even have a uniform on. I thought about the people on the other side of the tape. They probably were glaring at me wondering who that clown was. I felt like the entire world was staring at me.
We reached the officers and they began to fill us in. A female school teacher was dead on the garage floor near the tailpipe to her vehicle. The car had been running when she was found. It was unclear at this time as to if it was suicide or homicide. I peaked through the cracks of people trying to get a glimpse of what they were talking about. I know they said more information, but my mind was focused on what lied beyond the ring of workers. Then I saw it. Lying on the ground I could see a large quantity of blonde colored hair. That was all I could see. My immediate thought was this was fake. I was being set up. As ridiculous as this sounds, I thought the people I was working with were planning this whole scene. I would walk up to the body and it would be a dummy or even someone who would jump up and scream "Boo!". I reluctantly made my way towards the corpse. The garage was extremely hot from the exhaust of the car that had been running. It didn't help that it was a warm autumn day and I was wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt.
I could smell death in the air. Wait a minute, this was real. Here was a human being that just the other day was living like I was. Now, she is dead. I could not see her face because she was face down on a pillow. Thinking back, it was obvious that this was suicide as opposed to a natural death or homicide. A body just does not fall onto a pillow in the garage located below the exhaust pipe of a running car. A murderer probably does not stage a suicide in this manner. I did not know this at the time. I just looked at the body like a scared little kid. A coworker of mine tapped me and said, "You can take the pictures."
My training up to the moment on our Canon 35mm camera consisted of taking pictures of my house and cats. I had never owned a camera, new nothing about pictures, lighting, F-Stops, etc. All of a sudden I was thrust into photographing the last moment of a person's life. Talk about being thrown into the fire. I did the best I could. All I knew was to put it on automatic and start shooting. Digital cameras had just came out, but were of to poor quality to use. I knew with them I would at least know what pictures I had. With the 35mm, I might have pictures of my thumb blocking the lens. I took the photographs, trying to stay as far away from the body as possible. I still thought the scene could turn into Poltergeist at any moment, with the lady grabbing my leg at any time. I tried to not focus on the smell and the heat of the garage, but I could feel those sweat beads forming like they do after mixing too much alcohol into my body. I needed some air. Fortunately or unfortunately, the medical examiner arrived and everyone began to focus on him.
The examiner began his investigation. I stayed in the driveway, breathing in that precious air. I could see what was going on, but I did not want to get to close to the body. I did not want them expecting me to touch the body or offer any assistance. The time came to roll the body over. I was curious, but still afraid. To this point the corpse did not have a face. I remember focusing in on the body as it was rolled. It is weird how the mind works. I was a pitcher in college and any line drives hit right back to you suddenly see things in slow motion. This effect allows a player to react to the ball and make the play. The same effect was happening as the body was rolled. There was tunnel vision. I slowly saw the face.
The face was unrecognizable. It was green colored, bloated, and blood and fluids were running out of the nose and mouth. The heat from the exhaust had cooked and sped up the decomposing process on the body. It looked fake, like a bad horror film. I was literally in shock. Then the smell hit me. I must have been down wind, because a stench that can not be described hit me like a huge lineman sacking me before I completed a pass. My eyes watered, sweat beads formed, and my stomach turned over. I turned towards the grass and bent over. Quickly, I allowed my mind to take over and try to talk me out of what I knew was going to happen. I knew my face was probably as green as the head on the dead body. "Don't puke", I thought over and over. The small heaves that precede the big event started. Somehow, though, I got through it. The big puking event never occurred. A few people asked if I was alright. "Yes", was all I could say.
I remained on the scene well into the night. All I could think of was the face of death and the smell of decay. I can't do this job I thought. This is not for me. I have no business here. When the day finally ended, I headed for home. I was still in a daze. I got home and immediately got into bed. I could not sleep. Food was the last thing I needed. I felt like crying, but there really was nothing to cry about. I did not know who this lady that died was. Maybe I could cry about being such a wimp or about having to quit a job that I had been so excited to get. I really couldn't talk to anyone. I did not know what I was going to do.
The next morning I had to attend the autopsy of the decomposed lady. I had thought all night about how I never wanted to see that face again. I could have quit, but thought I will just tough out the next two weeks and then find a normal job. I don't want to be reminded of death on a daily basis. What kind of life is that? As we drove towards the medical examiner's office, the coworker I was with talked about his first experiences with death. He understood me. I can honestly say that without his compassion, I would have never returned to work the following Monday.
The medical examiner's office is weird place. It is located on the back side of a major hospital. Entrance into the place is through a back door. As we went through the door, I could instantly smell death. It was not the decomposing rotten smell, but just a smell that signals death in the mind. I expected to see drawers with bodies, but instead they are in a large cooler. Our victim was in a special room to contain the smell, but the stench still permeated the office. I put on a mask to try and eliminate the smell. I felt like a wimp, but I did not care. At least I was there and had not quit. A medical examiner employee walked by me and said, "You don't need that. You will never make it if you have to wear a mask." Those words really hurt me. It was as if I was less a man because I did not want to smell decaying flesh. A few other employees came up to me and said not to let him bother me. They understood that I was new and was trying to cope with a new situation. It didn't matter. I now felt anger towards this man. How dare he say that to me.
I watched the autopsy with horror. I could not eat or sleep for days after. I wanted to quit, but was to afraid to. How can I deal with the tragedies of the world? I did not have any answers, but after that weekend, something happened. The brain is such a wonderous machine. Somehow, someway, it changed me. Gradually I became used to dealing with death. Dead bodies became just objects. I have never gotten over the smell and still will wear a mask to this day. If someone says something to me, I just reply with, " Why should I smell this if I don't have to?" Who cares what other people think. I am doing a job that most people would rather not do. My experiences as a crime scene investigator have opened my eyes and mind to a whole new world. Death has become a reality of life. I have learned that the mind and body can adapt almost instantly to circumstances. If they didn't then anyone with a soul could not deal with the tragedies I have seen.
Article submitted by the author
Article posted October 22, 2005