Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist



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Home, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, 2017

Opening the wrapping, I saw two severed arms in the package. Their pale white skin speckled with tiny yellow bumps. Chipped coral polish, inexpertly applied, was visible on the fingernails, bitten to the quick. An aroma of astringent emanated from the limbs along with a sour smell.

“Where were these found?” I asked the young cop, who shifted back and forth, breathing out puffs of winter air.

He pointed to a white pickup truck with the passenger door hanging open, parked in an otherwise empty lot. The vehicle gave the impression that someone had just run in to buy a pack of smokes at a corner store. A large hand-made ‘for sale’ sign at one edge of the property advertised the real estate. The red spray-paint on the wooden notice was stark against the snowy backdrop. The truck at 50-feet away had a coating of white powder covering the hood.

Two teenage boys stood near the front of the vehicle, heads bowed, kicking the slush on the asphalt with their sneakers. A suited, middle-aged man leaned into the conversation, putting his hand on the taller boy’s shoulder. I recognized the Syracuse detective. The teen recoiled at the touch and shook his head vigorously. The youths appeared to be denying everything.

“Was that the condition of the car when you got here?” I returned my attention to the young cop.

  “I didn’t touch anything. Not even this,” he said nervously, looking down at the partially opened parcel laying at our feet.

“I know,” I said.

  He nodded, comforted by my tone.

I used a different approach, “When was this body found?”

  Glancing at his spiral notebook, he replied, “2200, Doctor.” He looked earnestly at me, waiting. It was already over an hour later, past 11 p.m. The patrolman had been standing outside guarding the remains. He looked cold.

  “Anything else turns up yet?” I said, squatting down to take a closer look. The arms were only partially exposed, but clearly detached from the rest of the person. There would be a whole lot more of a body out there somewhere.

  “No, sorry. We’re waiting on the search warrant.” He stomped his feet to warm them up.

The young cop filled me in on the basics. The boys had broken into the pickup and stole a package wedged under the front seat. Having carried it to an adjacent alley, they used a pocketknife to open their treasure. It was tough work getting through butcher paper and multiple layers of heavy plastic wrapping until they exposed what was inside. The shock of it made one of the kids lose his macaroni and cheese dinner. It congealed near my feet emitting the aroma of vomit.

  What did they think they were going to be rewarded with on this cold February night? Booze? Drugs? Something more basic—food, clothes? The result of this juvenile prank traumatized them with an emotional retrograde amnesia. The event, as they repeatedly recalled to investigators, started with them opening the container; they couldn’t reconstruct the timeline backwards from then. 

One boy kept saying, “When I cut it, the hand just fell out.” He repeated this phrase as a mantra to any question posed to him.

The teens’ naiveté and sincerity were the only things preventing the police from considering them suspects in the murder.

  The detective finished with the youths and walked quickly over to me blowing on his ungloved fingers. Despite the chill in the air, he looked flushed.

  “What have we got here, Doc? White girl, right? Teenager?” he said. He spoke quickly, anxious for my reply.

  “I don’t know.” I hesitated. “I can’t really see the details of the skin. It appears pale but…” My voice trailed off. Only a cursory exam was possible here at the scene. Not wanting to supply erroneous information, I used caution considering the age, gender, and ethnicity. I needed advanced microscopic and radiologic analyses to make those conclusions. “I need better lighting. I’ll know more when we get to the morgue,” I said.  

At first glance, the arms did appear to be from a young person, but X-rays would show growth plates in the bones, distinctive markers for age. The diminutive nature of the hand and the nail polish suggested a female. Looking at tissue cells under the microscope, not in this dimly lit street, would reveal gender and ancestry.

  “Okay, I get it, but the chief is ready to move on this. Could be it’s that missing girl from the next county.”

  “Maybe.” A young blonde girl had been missing for nearly two years. There were posters all over the region—at throughway rest stops, convenience stores, and post offices. Her face was well known. Yet, there must be dozens of other girls who were missing from Central New York and beyond. 

The timing was unknown. My initial observation was that the limbs had been preserved for a long time. 

“Can you get me any reports from the past 10 years on missing teens in the area?” I said.

  “10 years? No way that those have been out here that long.”

“Sure, not in the truck. But they look like they were stored somewhere, maybe for quite a while. Someone might be mobilizing them now.” My words sounded bizarre even to me. Who cut up a person, used fixatives, meticulously swathed them, then left them in a box in their truck?

  “Yeah, whatever, we’ll get you what you need.” The detective turned to his sedan, leaving the patrolman and me to wait for the transport vehicle.

  The rest of the examination of these two lonely body parts took place in the bright autopsy suite. My technician and I carefully processed the wrapping. The perpetrator might have left a trace of hair, fiber, or fingerprint behind. There were so many layers of plastic and paper to go through before the arms themselves were inspected. Surgical instruments and a dissecting microscope assisted me in the evidence collection. 

  What had looked like Caucasian skin at the scene, was not. It is only on the surface that skin color is displayed. The underlying layer, the dermis, is white in everybody. When I stretched the arm open, darker cutaneous clumps appeared at the elbow creases. On these arms, a majority of the pigment was denuded. Histologic slides confirmed the extensive melanin deposition of an African American. Radiographs of the humerus and radius revealed the person to be approximately 12 to 17 years old. Additional studies proved the limbs were from a female: someone’s daughter, sister, grandchild, niece.

  It was a long night and another day before I faxed my summary over to the police department describing the severed upper extremities. The limbs originated from an African American girl, and it appeared as if she had been dead quite a while. Hack marks were noted at the amputation site of the long bones of the arms near the shoulders. These saw wounds were postmortem; she had died before this barbarous act. Bits of soil had been trapped in the coverings indicating she was in the ground at some point. The remainder of her body was still unaccounted for.

  It was my responsibility to name this girl. To do this, I needed to know who she might be.  No supercomputer existed to quickly assign an individual’s identification. 

After I telephoned the police station, the desk sergeant transferred me to the records clerk who passed it onto the lead detective. I asked about missing African American teenagers from anywhere in the area.

“There are none,” the detective said. 

Then the police chief assured me personally: no black female teenagers were missing in the city or county.

  Where had my victim come from? Where was she going? How did she end up as a discarded sack in a truck?

  Police located the owner of the vehicle. A search of his residence uncovered more, but not all, body parts; each parcel wrapped in precisely the same method and well hidden on the property. The girl’s head and thorax were never found.

  This case made the news with the gruesome allure of tragedy. Luckily, this reporting led to an interview with a distraught man claiming that the victim was his granddaughter. He described that she was last seen in the company of the suspect, who had been a neighbor. This young girl had been missing for five years. The police captain was quoted in the paper as saying “there is no way” these remains could be this teenager. This bold statement shocked me.

  I called the lead detective.

  “Doc,” he said as he picked up the phone.

  “My case, could it be Qiana?” I asked. Before this newspaper article, there were no possibilities, no missing girls.

  “Well, Doc, the body doesn’t look like it could have been there all those years.” 

  Inhale, exhale, then speak, my inner self cautioned.

  “Forensically, I’ve determined that she could have been there that long. It’s in my report. That I sent over. A preservative was used. She was buried in the ground at some point.” 

A pause ensued as he considered the information. “But Qiana was never really missing.” He sounded like he hoped to end the discussion.

“What do you mean she wasn’t really missing? The grandfather said she’s been gone since she was 12—that’s five years. You never gave me any records for missing black girls. He said he filed a report.”

  The detective didn’t answer right away; maybe he hadn’t heard me. I was about to speak when he responded in a quiet tone. “They were considered runaways. Not missing kids.”

  They. More than just one overlooked report.

  Stunned by this news, I hung up without further word. My stomach roiled at this blatant racism. Ultimately, a multi-agency meeting would establish that three missing Syracuse girls fit the profile of the victim at my morgue.

  Frank McCavey had been listed on the byline. I talked with him about his conversation with the grandfather. Tracking down this relation of the missing girl took me one step closer to her identity. When I telephoned, the granddad gratefully told me Qiana’s story—her troubled youth, friendship with this older man, the family’s pain and years of loss.

  The scientific identification took a long time, not the immediate results seen in television crime shows. In government work, the medical examiner’s office competes with other agencies for precious tax dollars—fire safety, police surveillance, social services—an unending list of protectors and caregivers for the living. The dead, particularly the long dead, held a lower priority. 

The tissue had severely degraded and required specialized DNA testing. The analysis used the girl’s mother’s genes from a cellular organelle (the mitochondria) and compared them with the victim’s. A federal agency agreed to do the specialized testing for free, but we had to wait in a long line.

  Speaking with the family every few weeks, I kept them updated on the progress. Qiana had broken her forearm as a kid and the victim had healed bones in the same spot. Everything seemed to indicate that it was Qiana who lay in pieces in my morgue. Still, science needed to officially confirm her identity.

  Finally, all the remains—the arms, thigh, pelvis and leg—were linked by DNA to this missing teenager. As devastating as this was to the family, they expressed gratitude to me for letting them know what happened to Qiana, for caring about who she was. More than a year after the gruesome discovery in a deserted parking lot, they held a memorial service for their little girl.

  On the day of the funeral, I met Qiana’s grandfather at the front of the white clapboard church. We went into the sanctuary where a simple, large wooden cross adorned the altar. No figure of Christ rested on it, only slats of wood. The grandfather handed me an elementary school photo of Qiana secured by yellowing tape onto a piece of cardboard with crayoned decorations around it. The child in the picture grinned widely with a missing front tooth. Her yellow top had a plaid Peter Pan collar. Small red barrettes decorated her short, black hair. Tears welled up in my eyes. Her grandfather leaned in to hug me as I clung to the photo like an amulet.

  With a dignified nod he headed to the front of the church, as I slipped into a seat in the back pew. A mournful tune sounded on the upright piano while the family and congregants filed in. Everyone was dressed in matching hats, gloves, ties, and breast-pocket-liners. The reverend began with the 23rd Psalm, as quiet weeping could be heard in the background. A semi-circle of votive candles flickered on each side of the altar.

  Then, as if signaling an end to the mourning, the music crescendoed and the choir, dressed in white surplices, began singing. People rose to their feet with energy and enthusiasm. My heart pounded with the rhythm of the clapping. The row of supplicants in front of me moved side to side. Neighbors in my pew rocked against my shoulders, too.

  “And upon the streets of glory, when we reach the other shore, and have safely crossed the Jordan’s rolling tide.” The entire church sang and pulsed with life.

  Hands rose in the air with the next lines, “You will find me shouting ‘Glory’ just outside my mansion door, where I’m living on the hallelujah side.”

  My eyes drifted up watching the swaying arms as the heat from the crowd made wavy lines in my vision. I imagined the body parts coming back together to form a whole, no longer a lost little girl, but one with a name and a family, and finally going home.

One response to “Home”

  1. Powerful, emotionally wracking stories. How many consider the feelings of the pathologist?

    What sad and compelling tragedies…

    What an amazing writer! Thanks for sharing.

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