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Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner's Office

Copyright Date: 2005
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    Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner's Officechronicles the exploits of a diverse team of investigators at a coroner's office in Pittsburgh. Ed Strimlan is a doctor who never got to practice medicine. Instead he discovers how people died. Mike Chichwak is a stolid ex-paramedic, respected around the office for his compassion and doggedness. Tiffani Hunt is twenty-one, a single mother who questions whether she wants to spend her nights around dead bodies.

    All three deputy coroners share one trait: a compulsive curiosity. A good thing too, because any observation at a death scene can prove meaningful. A bag of groceries standing on a kitchen counter, the milk turning sour. A broken lamp lying on the carpet of an otherwise tidy living room. When they approach a corpse, the investigators consider everything. Is the victim face-up or down? How stiff are the limbs? Are the hands dirty or clean? By the time they bag the body and load it into the coroner's wagon, Tiffani, Ed, and Mike have often unearthed intimate details that are unknown even to the victim's family and friends.

    The intrigues of investigating death help make up for the bad parts of the job. There are plenty of burdens-grief-stricken families, decomposed bodies, tangled local politics, and gore. And maybe worst of all is the ever-present reminder of mortality and human frailness.

    Deadhousealso chronicles the evolution of forensic medicine, from early rituals performed over corpses found dead to the controver-sial advent of modern forensic pathology. It explains how pathologists "read" bullet wounds and lacerations, how someone dies from a drug overdose or a motorcycle crash or a drowning, and how investigators uncover the clues that lead to the truth.

    John Temple, Morgantown, West Virginia, is assistant professor of journalism for the P. I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. He is the co-editor ofCancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Hope. He was a staff writer at both thePittsburgh Tribune-Reviewand theTampa Tribune, and his work has been published inAmerican Journalism Review.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-301-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-40)

    Fifteen minutes ago, Tracy McAninch saw her first dead body. Now here she is, a summer intern, riding with a death investigator to confront a second one. In the backseat of the aging red Chevy Blazer, Tracy tries to prepare for what’s coming: an old lady, dark patches on her neck … possibly murdered. That’s all Tracy knows. She wonders if there will be blood. She wonders how she will handle it.

    Up in the driver’s seat, Mike Chichwak is whistling along with the jazz on the stereo, squinting at the scrap of yellow paper he wrote the directions on....

    (pp. 41-67)

    This job has no doubt been around as long as civilization. Someone had to dispose of bodies, and someone had to scrutinize those bodies found dead in suspicious circumstances. Methods, however, have varied. In one Australian tribe, two men held a dead body on each end while a third tapped it with a green bough and called out tribe members’ names. If the killer’s name was spoken, the tribe believed, the corpse would convulse. Then came revenge.

    In the thirteenth century, the Chinese wrote what was probably the first book of forensic pathology,The Washing Away of Wrongs. The guidebook...

    (pp. 68-77)

    The investigative office is packed with people; Tracy has to squeeze in. Mary Ann, the photographer, and all three day-shift deputy coroners are hanging around, no calls right now. Tracy met everybody when she started the shift at 7:00 a.m.

    No sooner had Tracy sat down than the coroner’s office receptionist pokes her head into the investigative office and says that the family of a deceased person just came in, the mother and four other people. They’re in the hallway. The receptionist says the family’s name and the name of the dead man.

    Jimmy, the senior deputy on day-shift duty...

    (pp. 78-94)

    A couple weeks earlier, halfway through a slow evening shift, Ed Strimlan had leaned against the metal filing cabinets in the investigative office and remarked how few people in Pittsburgh were dying lately. Most mornings the corpse cooler had held just one or two fresh bodies, never more than four. The last seven days were particularly slow, just a dozen bodies. “But the average will come back,” Ed said to the other deputy coroners on the evening shift, Mike Chichwak and Tiffani Hunt. “It always does.”

    Ed was right. As June began and temperatures rose into the eighties, people began...

    (pp. 95-106)

    All week, ever since the homicide on Monday night, Tiffani has run into people on the street who said they saw her at the crime scene. They were among the restless crowd in the Addison Terrace projects, and they saw her working, wearing the badge. Tiffani knew this would happen. She knows too many people on the Hill to have escaped unrecognized.

    On Tuesday night, homicide detectives in the case came to the coroner’s office to get an arrest warrant. They had a suspect’s name—Ernest Harris, a.k.a. “Pickles,” age thirty-one—but they hadn’t caught him.

    Pickles! Tiffani knew Pickles....

    (pp. 107-123)

    Carey Welch holds open the heavy metal door as Tracy McAninch walks into the corpse cooler, shoving an empty gurney ahead of her. They’ve just returned from the garage, where they helped a deputy coroner sign over a body to a funeral home director. Tracy clanks the empty gurney up against the others, some bearing bodies, some not.

    “Watch and make sure nobody reaches out and grabs me,” Tracy calls over her shoulder to Carey, only half joking.

    It’s another Monday evening, and Tracy is beginning to feel more comfortable at the coroner’s office. She’s had five days off since...

    (pp. 124-140)

    The phone rings, and Michael DeRosa takes the call. Forty-year-old female, dead in Ben Avon. Alone in the investigative office, DeRosa goes searching for a partner. In the entrance hall, he runs into Ed Strimlan. “Want to take a ride?” DeRosa asks.

    “Whatcha got?” Ed asks.

    “A big girl,” DeRosa says.

    They head downstairs to the wagons. Just before they pull out, Ed remembers something. He jumps out of his wagon and calls upstairs on the garage phone. Mike Chichwak picks up, and Ed says he and DeRosa are going on a call and could he track down the camera...

    (pp. 141-152)

    He was a short, pudgy man, forty-six years old and 190 pounds soaking wet. He lived on a houseboat on the Allegheny River near the Pittsburgh Zoo. He’d lived there since about the time he broke up with his girlfriend, several weeks ago. He went into the water sometime within the last few days, less than a week ago, more than a day. He may have been pushed, but his body bore no marks of violence. He drank a lot, so perhaps he fell in or went for a drunken swim. Maybe he jumped, distraught over his girlfriend. At any...

    (pp. 153-161)

    The coroner’s office is bustling today, preparing for the inquest into the shooting death of the man in the Hill District. Deputy sheriffs are bringing in Pickles any minute now, and Smitty is getting slammed.

    The inquest is scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes, and Deputy Coroner John Smith is the only one in the investigative office. That means Smitty is simultaneously waiting for Pickles’s arrival, ordering Dr. Wecht’s lunch, teaching Tracy McAninch how to run the elevator for the inquest, finding keys to move Dr. Rozin’s car out of the garage so they could bring in the suspect, and...

    (pp. 162-167)

    This afternoon, Ed comes in twenty minutes early, beating even Mike to work. A day-shift deputy immediately corners him. “Mister Ed,” the deputy says. “County homicide is headed out to Oakdale.”

    “Nice place,” Ed says.

    “A kid with a seizure disorder,” the deputy continues. “His mother said he hit his head on the TV.”

    Ed jots down the address and stares at the big wall map, rubbing his lips thoughtfully. He figures he’ll wait and he and Mike can go out together, but then an administrator tells him to partner with someone else tonight. Mike and Ed are working with...

    (pp. 168-172)

    Three years after Ed Strimlan and Mike Chichwak parted ways, they have found themselves working side by side once again. After working the day shift for a few months, Ed was promoted to a senior deputy coroner position and moved into the administrative offices on the second floor. Mike was promoted to an equivalent position in 2003. They miss regularly poking around at death scenes, so whenever the office is shorthanded they go out on calls. Their other old evening-shift partner, Tiffani Hunt, now works in the autopsy room as a technician, a more predictable job that better suits her...

    (pp. 173-177)