Semi-irreverent signs in some police homicide units read, “Our Day Starts When Yours Ends.” A comedian once said a certain funeral home’s slogan was, “We’re the last to let you down.”
The only sign I ever saw at Chula Vista PD was a quote from NYPD Lt. Cmdr. Vernon J. Geberth. It said, “We Work for God.” No matter what your spiritual/religious beliefs are, the cops work for the good of mankind and Geberth believes his motivation comes from God. Mine did too.
No such entertaining slogans adorn the walls of the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office. There may be a mission statement posted, but the ME’s staff is dedicated to the humane, respectful treatment of the deceased and their loved ones.
This mindset extends from the first person you see upon entering the building to the person you talk to on the phone, or to the medical examiner himself, Dr. Glenn Wagner. Wagner is quite a guy; a former homicide detective from the mean streets of Philadelphia who put himself through medical school. Even now, Wagner has the build and the bearing that suggests he could accompany you through a kicked-in door to a room full of bad guys.
I recently toured the new Medical Examiner’s Office to see how things had changed in the 29 years that had passed since I went there in my fedora, clutching a notebook to observe and record the post mortem exam of a Chula Vista homicide victim, questionable death or suicide.
The cramped, peeling and smelly building that I went to back then was an old one-story edifice constructed in 1963.
The Coroner’s Office took a lot of heat in the ’80s and ’90s. After several embarrassing events involving court testimony and confusing results, the Board of Supervisors finally loosened the purse strings and upgraded the office from a coroner to a medical examiner. The medical examiner must be a doctor and he or she is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.
Today’s two-story Forensic Center, opened in 2009, is clean and modern. San Diego County has anywhere from 19,000 to 21,000 deaths per year. The medical examiner will consider about 10,000 of those annually, or about 840 a month. Of those, approximately 7,400 deaths are waived, meaning the medical examiner will not take jurisdiction. Dr. Wagner’s staff of pathologists and assistants will perform about 2,000 autopsies annually.
Back in my day, the pathologists who performed the autopsies were contract employees who were paid by the autopsy. Today, Dr. Wagner has a staff of competent, experienced pathologists. The staff assembles every morning to meet and discuss the day’s activities. There is the usual give and take associated with staff meetings. Autopsies are assigned and work begins.
When I attended as a police officer we walked into the autopsy room and did our work. Today, observers are given disposable booties along with protective smocks. Surgical masks with eye protection are the order of the day. The rooms are spotless and mostly odor free.
I was fortunate enough to observe an autopsy by Dr. Jonathon Lucas, the doctor who performed the work at the infamous Shacknai/Zahau Coronado death and suicide scenes. He has taken considerable heat in online publications from “expert posters” (whose credentials consist of being faithful TV viewers of “CSI”) over the conclusions reached in Coronado.
After watching and listening to Dr. Lucas do an autopsy, I know he is careful, conservative and meticulous in his work.
If he says something, he isn’t saying it off the top of his head. I will believe Dr. Lucas was wrong in the Coronado cases only when someone proves it conclusively.
Basinski is a former Chula Vista homicide detective.