By Edna Buchanan, The Miami Herald
MIAMI -- Miami's greatest marvel is its best-kept secret, never
listed in tourist or Chamber of Commerce brochures.
Brilliant scientists and students destined for distinguished careers
in medicine and research flock here from all over the world to study
and learn. But for more than 3,000 visitors a year, it is also the
last stop en route to the cemetery.
The morgue, it used to be called. Now it is the Joseph H. Davis
Center for Forensic Pathology, or the Miami-Dade County medical
examiner's office. Dr. Bruce Hyma, 46, the county's chief medical
examiner, presides over 62 employees and a $6 million budget. Dr.
Joseph H. Davis, 78, the genius who planned the building and retired
after 40 years as medical examiner, still maintains a small office.
The two men have investigated nearly 100,000 deaths between them and
share certain values and character traits _ one perhaps illustrated
by Hyma's courtroom encounter with a criminal-defense attorney. In
attempting to impeach the expert witness' testimony, the lawyer kept
introducing books on forensic pathology.
"Do you accept this book as authoritative?" he asked each time. Each
answer was no. Advances in the field are so rapid that many texts are
obsolete by the publication date. No one author covers everything,
and there is no way that multiple authors ever agree on everything.
"Is there any book you accept as authoritative?" the frustrated
defense lawyer thundered.
"That one," Hyma said, and pointed to the Bible on the judge's bench.
With high-tech forensics the hottest trend in TV crime dramas and
movies, a question is often asked: Is it fact or fiction? Hyma
worries that his fictional counterparts contribute to false
Even the police sometimes stumble over the blurred line between fact
and fiction. Homicide detectives once visited the crime lab to demand
a lightlike tool used by New York police. Turn it on, they said, and
it instantly illuminates every fingerprint in a building. But that
fancy new toy was fiction. Lights can and are used to find prints,
but not that easily.
"The 'Quincy' Phenomenon is a total fabrication," said Dr. Lee Hearn,
a 16-year veteran, chief of the largest human toxicological
laboratory in the Southeast. "People expect a case to be solved in an
hour. What really happens is that we cast a wide net, then keep
narrowing it until we identify the responsible chemical agents. We
have to be very inventive and entrepreneurial."
"They see all that razzle-dazzle on TV," Davis said. "The medical
examiner's office does not focus on bells and whistles but on
perfectly documented evidence."
Much of the dramatic medical-detective work accomplished on TV shows
such as "Crossing Jordan," "Law and Order" and "CSI" is possible. The
real thing just takes longer.
A steely eyed TV detective focuses on a blood spatter and instantly
deduces from which direction the fatal blow came, the sort of weapon
used, and that the assailant wielding it had to be 6 feet tall,
right-handed and standing in a precise spot. Real life-and-death
experts measure meticulously for hours, using strings to trace the
spot to the source of the blood, but it can be done.
TV detectives receive preposterously rapid DNA results. While blood
typing might take an hour or two, DNA results take a minimum of 10 to
12 working days. However, research is under way on field tests that
may provide quicker DNA answers, a case of life imitating art.
A TV medical examiner or detective lifts a hair with tweezers,
scrutinizes it with the naked eye and identifies it as a pubic hair.
Truth: It may look like one, with similar consistency, but no one
knows for sure until it is under a microscope _ and the owner's sex
or race cannot be determined at the crime scene. It's even tougher in
the lab these days because of the blending of races.
Fictional investigators find a bone chip or a fragment of skeletal
material and know exactly where in the spinal column that bone came
from. In real life, only forensic anthropologists can determine its
source _ and even then, after study.
But the good news is that Miami-Dade medical examiners can and do
solve elusive mysteries. It just takes a little longer than on TV.
The $12.4 million building on three acres at 1 Bob Hope Road does not
look or smell like a morgue. With its soft lighting,
raspberry-colored furniture, patterned carpet and potted palms, the
lobby might be mistaken for a resort hotel, except for the mission
statement over the front desk:
"To provide accurate, timely, dignified, compassionate and
professional death investigative services for the citizens of
Miami-Dade County, together with educating, consultation and research
for local and national medical, legal and academic and
Electronic air scrubbers minimize odors. Davis borrowed the idea from
airports where no one ever smells jet fuel. At the tiny and cramped
old medical examiner's office, adjacent to Jackson Memorial Hospital,
even those at the emergency room next door complained about the odors.
Florida paintings and photos are displayed throughout the building. A
bronze cannon salvaged from the Santa Margarita, a Spanish galleon
that sank with all aboard during a hurricane off Florida's coast
nearly 400 years ago, guards the entrance. It hasn't been fired in
Most visitors arrive too late to appreciate the ambience. About 3,200
corpses a year are photographed, measured, weighed in, fingerprinted
and stored, much the way inmates are booked into jail. The difference
is that nobody ever escaped from the morgue. Three thousand thirteen
dead men, women and children arrived last year.
Once known for its staggering rate of homicide, Miami-Dade County is
changing. People here are now killing themselves more than each
other. Suicides, 228, outnumbered homicides, 220, for the third
consecutive year. There were also 341 traffic fatalities and 403
Each corpse was weighed in on an old-fashioned railroad scale, which
is accurate and relatively trouble-free. Corpses are normally
bar-coded, an idea borrowed from the supermarket _ for what has been
called the ultimate checkout line.
Bar-coding avoids the possibility of mix-up when bodies are released
to funeral homes. Computerized scanners read the deceased's name,
age, sex, race, case number and the lab results off tags looped
around the big toes of the dead.
Fiberglass body trays in Kodak gray ensure color balance in photos.
And double-wide trays are available to accommodate the deceased
obese. Paramedics had to dismantle a door frame to remove one
800-pound man from his apartment. The heaviest corpse to arrive
weighed in at close to 1,100 pounds.
The trays, designed to minimize the amount of lifting by technicians,
are easy to clean and move on wheeled carts. Disaster plans
anticipate hurricanes, high-rise fires, nuclear calamity, airline
crashes, chemical spills. Any event potentially resulting in more
than 25 deaths triggers disaster readiness.
Connections in brass floor plates enable investigators to communicate
by phone, fax, computer and video with doctors, dentists and police
agencies to identify victims _ who are videotaped on arrival.
That system proved itself when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the
Everglades in 1996, killing all 110 people aboard. Dr. Roger
Mittleman, now chief medical examiner in Fort Pierce, Fla., was in
charge at the time.
With no intact bodies and only 4,000 small fragments of scattered
remains, the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office was able to
identify 119 fragments representing 70 of the dead _ astonishing,
considering that only about 25 percent of the passengers' estimated
body weight was recovered.
The process took two years. Real life does take a little longer.
The county's current disaster plan "adequately addresses a disaster
on the magnitude of a 9/11 or a smallpox outbreak," Hyma said. His
office can store 500 bodies and is in the process of acquiring
digital dental X-ray equipment to speed up identification.
In the event of electricity failure, a generator in a separate
building activates in 12 seconds and can keep everything operating
for as long as 10 days. It's important that stored bodies be
maintained at about 34 degrees.
Nine doctors are on the staff, three of them residents. Not every
case that comes in is autopsied; 2,252 were last year.
If there are no signs of foul play and there is a good medical
history, or if families object on religious grounds, those cases are
signed out after external examinations. The cost to taxpayers per
medical examiner case, divided by general-fund dollars, is $1,747,
according to Director of Operations Larry Cameron, a former
Cameras in the small weapons firing range can snap 40,000 pictures a
second, capturing bullets in flight _ as fast as Mach 10, or 10 times
the speed of sound. Thus, high-speed photography can give the experts
information on wound ballistics, projectiles' flight patterns and
Once tampered with, a death scene is gone for good. On film, it is
forever. Cameras are among the medical examiner's most valued tools.
Doctors here shoot more than 100,000 pictures a year, reproduced in
Students from around the planet train for eight months for careers in
forensic photography. Weeklong training courses at the forensic
imaging bureau bring students from as far away as Bulgaria and
Singapore. The focus is on proper documentation of evidence.
Chief medical examiners all over the United States and throughout the
world have done apprenticeships in Miami. Alumni: Dr. Brian
Blackburn, the San Diego chief medical examiner who investigated the
mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997, and
Long Island medical examiner Dr. Charles Wetli, responsible for
identifying the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800, which crashed off Long
Island, N.Y., in 1996.
Victims here are sometimes still in the vehicles that police deliver
to a loading ramp in a huge hangarlike area. Behind garage doors, the
crime scene is meticulously processed in air-conditioned comfort,
under high-intensity lights, away from unruly crowds, news cameras
and South Florida's unpredictable weather.
It is a far better site than a wrecked van full of corpses, blocking
traffic, or a car with murder victims in the trunk at a shopping
mall. Entire crime scenes are moved intact to the medical examiner's
office. Small planes that crashed, wrecked powerboats _ even a cherry
picker involved in an electrocution _ have arrived on flatbed trucks.
Evidence _ clothes, rape kits, bullets and bits of bone or hair _ is
bagged, receipted, double-checked, then delivered by courier to the
police agencies handling the cases.
A room with controlled humidity and forced air dries wet clothing
quickly, keeping bacterial growth to a minimum.
There are two morgues _ the smaller facility, with its own
refrigerator, is where diseased, decomposed, skeletonized, badly
burned or contaminated bodies are examined. The wiring, pipes and
sanitary plumbing, the pipes all Pyrex glass, are enclosed in a
6-foot walkway beneath the morgue and laboratory floors so that no
work is disrupted during repairs.
Doctors can write on the walls and then wipe it off, as with
blackboards. This was the first medical examiner's facility in the
world with a sterile six-room autopsy suite.
Every morning, Ann Hughes from the University of Miami Bone and
Tissue Bank arrives in search of those who have met quick, violent
deaths, especially from head trauma. She contacts families, and if
they agree, the major bones are harvested for transplant materials,
salvaging some good out of loss.
Insects, small animals, heat and humidity can reduce bodies to bones
as quickly as 10 or 11 days in this climate. Unidentified skeletal
remains sometimes still have flesh clinging to the bones, which are
boiled in meat tenderizer and water so that a forensic anthropologist
has clean, uncontaminated bones to examine. They are boxed and stored
"You never know when some new information will lead to an identity,"
Davis said. Susan Billig's daughter, Amy, 17, vanished in 1974 and
became Miami's most baffling missing-person case. Dr. Reinhard Motte
of the medical examiner's staff visited the mother this year to take
her DNA sample.
DNA from the maternal side is often found in skeletal remains, Hyma
explains. The ailing mother was surprised, touched and gratified to
know that she is not the only one still searching for her child.
The toxicological lab, with 10,000 square feet of laboratory space,
10 toxicologists, several support personnel and a secretary, is
operated by Hearn.
Research there resulted in the discovery of cocaethylene, which can
form in the liver when a person uses cocaine and alcohol at the same
In the past, technicians in the lab tested blood manually, one sample
at a time. Now an automated system is computerized for maximum
"You set it and forget it," Hearn said. "It works all night. We don't
have to be there." A robotic, computer-controlled process extracts
drugs from blood, urine or tissue samples, measuring minute amounts.
It is so sophisticated that it can precisely measure the caffeine in
"It would be hard to find a better place to do forensic toxicology,"
Samples of blood, tissue and body fluids are kept for five years in a
38-degree Fahrenheit walk-in refrigerator. Pure drug standards, used
to calibrate instruments, are kept in a vault. "We look for the
common things first," Hearn said. "Then we keep looking."
When a 42-year-old University of Miami researcher walked out of his
laboratory and collapsed, his death appeared to be from a heart
attack. But the man was about to be censured for falsifying research
data, a possible motive for suicide.
Investigators examined the lab where the man worked, and spotted the
smoking gun _ a nearly empty flask in a refrigerator. A line of
crystals indicated the previous level. The contents: sodium azide, a
chemical used to kill fungus and bacteria in medical labs, an
anti-metabolic similar to cyanide. The man who drank it intended that
his suicide would look like a heart-attack case.
A month later, another rare sodium azide case occurred.
An eastbound car drifted from side to side on the Julia Tuttle
Causeway, bouncing from wall to wall. The young driver's death
appeared to be from a traffic accident, but no serious injuries were
found. Next to him was a jug of cranberry juice spiked with sodium
azide. He had been drinking from it as he drove. One-tenth or
two-tenths of a gram is lethal. The driver had flunked out of a
medical training program in Texas and was returning from a meeting
with a partner in a failed business.
Spotting trends in the lab saves lives. A high level of Benadryl was
found in the body of an HIV-positive baby who died in foster care.
Toxicologists found that some caretakers were attempting to sedate
chronically crying babies with the over-the-counter medication.
Benadryl, however, has a peculiar effect on infants _ it stimulates
rather than sedates. A caretaker's natural tendency is to respond by
dosing them with more of the medication _ which can be toxic to
When a 9-month-old boy died, police suspected SIDS, sudden infant
death syndrome, even though he was older than the norm. But lab
results showed a massive cocaine overdose. Shortly before his mother
found him unresponsive, the child had been in the living room with
his father and a friend.
"Children that age are grazing animals," Hearn explains. The toddler
had 10 milligrams per liter of cocaine in his blood. Basketball star
Len Bias' fatal overdose: six milligrams per liter.
Hearn once found fatal flaws in a houseboat design. A man put on a
mask and snorkel, then swam beneath the pontoons of his houseboat to
fix an engine problem. As he did so, his wife turned on the generator
to cook dinner.
The exhaust turned the underwater space into a death chamber. The
man's body was found floating a short time later.
A medical examiner's findings can save lives by changing designs,
laws and building codes. Such is the case of a family that
accidentally left its van running in the garage. The air-conditioner
handler, also in the garage, wasn't sealed. It pumped carbon monoxide
throughout the house, killing three adults and two children.
Some death scenes haunt forever.
On Feb. 3, 1990, Kristen Gray, a freckle-faced 8-year-old, was found
floating face down, like a broken doll, the red print of her sun
dress bright in the dark green water.
She was barefoot. Her new white roller skates with blue wheels were
missing. So was her underwear. It was a brilliant, sunny winter day,
"a Sunday morning," Hyma recalls quietly. She was found in a canal
"off the turnpike not far from Southwest 112th Avenue, near one of
the water management salinity barriers, the gates used to keep out
Her mom bought Kristen the skates at a Saturday garage sale the day
before. The third-grader was happily practicing her uncertain, wobbly
wheeled skating in the halls of the apartment complex where her
stepfather lived, near Dadeland Mall. They had been to the beach, and
now he was busy washing clothes. Each time he crossed the hall, he
said, he checked on Kristen. The last time, at 4 p.m., she was gone.
A fisherman found her more than 16 hours later, at 8:20 the next
morning. The canal was 11-( miles south of the apartment complex
where she was last seen, about three-quarters of a mile from
Homestead Air Force Base. She had been manually asphyxiated.
Who killed the gifted schoolgirl who had gone to church, excelled in
math and loved Barbie dolls? There was a stain on her dress.
"The police had a lot of leads," Hyma said. "DNA was in its infancy
then." Blood samples were taken from a number of suspects, more than
1,000 people were interviewed and more than a dozen sex offenders who
lived in the area were checked.
"The detectives did an exhaustive search," Hyma said. "The case
bothered them as much as it did me."
The little girl's skates _ and her murderer _ have never been found.
Had she not lost her future to a killer, Kristen would now be 21
She is not forgotten.