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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

November 27, 2002
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At Miami-Dade Morgue, Bright Minds and High Technology Unravel Mysteries

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 expectations.

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 law-enforcement communities."

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 several centuries.

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 accidental deaths.

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 middle-school principal.

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 blood spatter.

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 high-speed developers.

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 until identified.

"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 time.

In the past, technicians in the lab tested blood manually, one sample at a time. Now an automated system is computerized for maximum efficiency.

"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 your system.

"It would be hard to find a better place to do forensic toxicology," Hearn said.

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 infants.

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 salt water."

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 years old.

She is not forgotten.






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