Under the Microscope
For all you crime writers out there, it’s important to have a working understanding of how investigators set about to collecting evidence, and the gravity of every second, every random phenomenon or clue found at the scene of death.
Steve Bradshaw, author and founder-president/CEO of Active Implants Corporation has investigated a lot of deaths—thousands, actually. In all his experience, one fact has remained constant: the moment a person dies, the clock begins ticking for medical investigators and their affiliates to collect and evaluate evidence. In many cases, the amount of time between death and investigation is one of the largest determining factors of whether the truth of an incident can ever be unveiled.
Steve Bradshaw understands that urgency. In this installment of “Under the Microscope”, Bradshaw recounts an investigation and how, if it weren’t for diligence, skill, and a quick response time (and maybe just a little luck), it could have come to a much different conclusion.
Death Scenes are Castles in the Sand
By Steve Bradshaw
When I investigated 3,000 unexplained deaths for the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office, I did not know one day I would be writing mystery/thrillers. Now, four novels later, it is clear my forensic experience profoundly assists my efforts to meet the expectations of today’s CSI-sophisticated audience.
Mark Twain once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn no other way.” I believe these words are true to a point. Today I am learning the art of prose—I am carrying a new cat by the tail. However, I am greatly influenced by established authors sharing knowledge gained from their journeys. They have enhanced the quality of my writing and accelerated my growth as an author. In that vein, I often draw from my experiences as a forensic investigator and share with fellow mystery/thriller writers in pursuit of authenticity.
On November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. For many there are still more questions than answers. The chaotic death investigation, compared to today’s standards, fueled this fire and led to the establishment of the Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas. A renowned forensic pathologist—Dr. Charles S. Petty—assumed the position of Chief Medical Examiner. Among his many contributions, Petty went before the House Select Committee on the Kennedy Assassination and talked about lessons learned from that fateful day. His high profile recommendations only further reinforced the medical examiner process in our country. I had the privilege of working for this forensic icon after graduating from the University of Texas. As one of his field agents, I learned a great deal. One lesson learned would define my forensic career—death scenes are castles in the sand.
I brought him in the night before. Now I stood at the bare feet of the dead man lying on the stainless steel table—another inquest—cause and manner of death would be determined. For those outside the autopsy room, the thirty-year-old, white male was another unfortunate victim of a tragic automobile accident. For the forensic team, our work had just begun.
From the edge of the white light, I shared findings and thoughts and made suggestions I knew would aim the M.E (medical examiner)—an enormous responsibility. I was the one who controlled the death scene and brought #48432 to the county morgue. Leaning over the bloody corpse with his hands clasped chest high, the M.E. listened to my every word and studied #48432. This was our time. Although the autopsy room was full and bustling, the only dialogue was between the M.E. and his forensic investigator. I was one of seven hand-picked, well-trained, field agents. I was his eyes and ears in the field. My next words would change everything . . .
The night before was cold and wet and empty until I turned onto the dead end street in south Dallas. Spinning blues washed over the stick trees and dilapidated houses in the poorest and most dangerous part of town. Huddled shadows under rising steam stood outside the police tape between me and my next body. A quiet ambulance and dark fire truck sat idle. There was nothing more they could do until the medical examiner arrived. I had just left #48432 and was pulling up to my third death scene.
I parked under a fat elm a half block away—easy exit for my next case. Absorbing the macabre scene before me and leaving the last death scene behind me, I yanked the camera strobe light cord out of the charger and grabbed my metal suitcase. As I approached the undulating shadows, the buzz stopped. Police waved open a path and blank stares followed me. Now they knew for a fact someone was dead. Their questions moved to who, how, and why. In their eyes I was Sherlock Holmes. They watched TV, the news. They believed I solved all the murder cases in Dallas single-handedly. The people working the death scene (police, paramedics, fire) thought I was the M.E. No matter how many times I said I was a field agent working for the medical examiner, it never resonated. After a year, I stopped explaining.
The three-story, broken-down, boarding house sat on a dark hill behind ten-foot hedges and a line of trees. When I left the crowd, ducked the tape, and passed through the gnarly branches, I saw the sheet draped over the body next to the head-scratchers and smokers. As I approached, the lead officer met me and the others backed away. It was my death scene now.
The call came as a forty-year-old, white male—accidental death. He fell down porch steps. I lifted the sheet and felt the carotid—he was dead (sometimes they are not). Taking in the surroundings (my most important moment), I pronounced him dead, made a notation, and asked for ID. No one prepared me; the dead man had a full leg cast and crutch. Now the shattered plaster and twisted appendage hung over his left shoulder. The contorted image and stiff smell of alcohol strengthened the case for accidental death. And it fit the story of the two eyewitnesses, a prostitute and her pimp.
Death scenes are castles in the sand. Every minute that passes another wave climbs the beach and takes something away—transforms the prior world. Death scenes change. The body changes: moving and manipulation, liver/rigor mortis, decomposition, temperature, weather, insects and animal activity to name a few. Physical evidence disappears by mistake, on purpose, and just because. The most information is available at time of death. Every minute that passes, something important to determining cause and manner of death can be lost. I arrived twenty-eight minutes after the call in to the medical examiner’s office. After inspection of the body, it was clear we were several hours after death. What I do or don’t do will aim the M.E. down the right or wrong road. It is my mission to provide him with the most complete picture possible at the inquest where all final determinations are made.
After photographic documentation of the scene, the real work begins. I expect numerous abrasions, contusions, and broken bones from a fall down twenty steps onto hard cement. Where the injuries are located and their shapes (visually and/or tactilely) can give me important pieces to the puzzle. It was my methodical inspection of the head trauma that put me on the hidden trail. I felt the back of the skull—it was wet (blood), and mushy (crushed bone). But there was a straight edge of solid skull ear to ear. Because the victim was found face-down on the cement, the posterior head injury (oddly isolated to the occipital region) was produced before the landing.
Climbing the stairs visualizing the “witness-claimed” event raised more doubts. The victim’s left leg was in a full cast. He had a left armpit crutch rash; I would expect him to move to the right railing before attempting the stairs. But trace blood and signs of the fall were isolated to the left side of the steps. There was evidence of tampering—blood wiped. My growing suspicions took me from the porch into the boarding house. The entry was an enclosed hallway with doors and a staircase to the second floor. It was dark. An out-of-reach lightbulb hung from the ceiling—it was out. With my flashlight and magnifying glass I got on my knees and inspected the floors and walls and door. What I found was pivotal.
It was a single speck of blood—splatter—and it was fresh. The lightbulb was loose. I tightened, restored light, and suggested DPD hold the eyewitnesses—they had lied. It was not long before we found more blood in the difficult-to-clean areas. Although the walls had been wiped and floor mopped, it was not good enough. Behind one door was a mop in a bucket of dirty-red water. Beneath the stairs was a blood-stained, two-by-four. We had enough. The body was transported to the county morgue, and physical evidence was collected and processed. My field report was changed from accident to homicide—blunt trauma force to the head. Before the inquest the prostitute plea-bargained. Her pimp killed for twenty dollars.
Now standing at the feet of my automobile accident victim in the autopsy room, my head was at the boarding house. As the medical examiner worked case #48432, I was thinking about what could have gone wrong if I had not closely inspected the head trauma at the death scene. I would have missed the tell-tale damage to the occipital region. I would not have climbed the stairs looking for more. I would not have searched the dark entry on my knees with a flashlight. I would have missed the blood splatter. Like castles in the sand, I would have left the death scene and more would disappear—the mop, the bucket of dirty-red water, and the blood-stained board. The medical examiner would ask about the head injury. My half-answer could throw him off. We would fail the dead man we represented. Someone would get away with murder.
I think the medical examiner called my name a few times that morning, as I stood in my atypical daze at the feet of case #48432. I remember his bloody gloves and fingers up and his brow ready to dip—we had five cases to go. The medical examiner politely shared that he was working on the accident case #48432 and wanted to know if I would like to join him. It was another complicated death scene I worked the night before. It too was less than straight forward—two in one night. Then the M.E. smiled and winked—he knew I was having a sandcastle moment. I thought that was the best time to tell him #48432 was a suicide . . .
Steve is a mystery/thriller author drawing on life experiences as a forensic investigator and biotechnology entrepreneur. He received a BA from the University of Texas and trained at the Institute of Forensic Sciences where he investigated over 3,000 unexplained deaths for the Medical Examiner’s Office. As the founder-president/CEO of Active Implants Corporation, he raised millions and led the development of a game-changing knee meniscus implant. Steve places his readers on the front row in fascinating worlds of fringe science, chilling forensics, and the pursuit of real monsters. Other page-turner mystery/thrillers by Steve Bradshaw are the BLUFF CITY BUTCHER, THE SKIES ROARED, and BLOOD LIONS. To connect with Steve, visit the following: