Friday, May 30, 2014

How I Met the Coroner

Please enjoy this guest post from a fellow writer and Sisters in Crime member:

Guest Post by Donnell Ann Bell

You've heard of How I Met Your Mother? Well, today I'd like to talk about How I Met the Coroner. If you're a mystery writer, chances are you need knowledge of bodies now and then, and perhaps you need to know how to bump somebody off. When I began my fiction career in 2001, I wasn't particularly versed in either. I thought experts such as coroners, police lieutenants and FBI profilers were akin to God.
     What I learned later is that they're just people and some actually like to talk to writers. But stuck in that I-could-never-contact-an-expert mentality, I started off by annoying my pharmacist--actually he was quite nice. It's the customers around us who were rather shocked. They seemed to take exception to my questions like how do I get my hands on a controlled substance? or I need something that would trigger a heart attack but don't want it to show up in an autopsy.
     I wasn't having any luck. One day I picked up the phone and dialed the El Paso County (Colorado) Coroner's office, and a booming--and I mean booming, female voice answered. I, on the other hand, did a fine imitation of a mouse. "I'm a writer," I squeaked. "I wonder if you could answer a few questions."
     I'll never forget her response. "You're who? You want to do what?" But when she finally answered my question, I thought, oh, my gosh, this woman knows EVERYTHING. Still, she had a job to do and I didn't want to make a pest of myself. I went back to writing, and because the pharmacist now had a restraining order against me, I decided to not overdo it with my new contact. I would only ask questions that I absolutely couldn't find out on my own.
     Every once in a while, though, I was stuck and I called her. After all, I was completely anonymous, and once you realize that these coroners (and experts) possess the knowledge of the world, you can't go back. You realize things on CSI or Criminal Minds aren't accurate. You take on a zombie-like persona with arms outstretched, mumbling...must get it right.
Tom Adair, Kris Herndon, and her husband Karl
     The addiction wasn't going away. In fact it became stronger. So, I enrolled in my first Citizens Academy. (I've completed three, including The Writers Police Academy.) But I loved my first two so much, and appreciated what these people do for a living, that I volunteered.Then one day, our coordinator announced, "Today, our speaker is Chris Herndon, Deputy Coroner for the El Paso County Coroner's Office."
     I slumped in my chair. This was the woman. It was fine as long as she didn't know who I was. But what if she recognized me? What if she put two and two together that I was that crazy writer?
     My curious nature isn't always my friend, and as she talked, I naturally had questions. The moment I asked, however, she zeroed in on me like a torpedo from a destroyer. Her eyes narrowed and she knew. And later when she asked, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" I had to tell the truth.
     Turns out, she didn't think I was that strange. In fact, we've become good friends. But I couldn't keep a goldmine like Chris to myself. Soon, I invited her to talk to my writers' groups. She and I wrote a mock coroner's inquest, presented by my local Sisters in Crime.
Recently, Chris and her husband Karl (a former depuy sheriff), and CSI expert Tom Adair presented a workshop for Pikes Peak Writers Conference on how to process a crime scene.
     If you're looking for accurate research, don't be afraid to contact a professional. What's the worst that can happen? They're too busy? They'll hang up? Since 2001 very few people have hung up on me. Most enjoy helping writers. As for me, I'm still hooked on getting it right. That's why I co-own Crimescenewriters with Veteran police officer Wally Lind (retired), a Yahoo group dedicated to writers who love to ask as many questions as I do.
     Have questions for an expert? Pick up the phone, volunteer, and get involved. When it comes to getting it right, you'll never go wrong by going to the source or better yet getting hands-on training.

Donnell Ann Bell is the author of three best-selling novels brought to you from Bell Bridge Books. THE PAST CAME HUNTING, DEADLY RECALL and BETRAYED. Her next book will be released September 2014. Check out her website on or follow her on TWITTER @donnellannbell or find her on Facebook.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Expert Interviews: Suzy Owens, Detective in the Ames, Iowa, Police Department

Mom, college counselor, teacher, zookeeper, police detecive
In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching high school English, I formed a friendship with a remarkable woman who had four daughters. I used to think of her girls as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, except none of them died young like Beth March, thank goodness. I taught all four of them, and they were all intelligent, interesting, strong women. My friendship with their mother survived my teaching time with her daughters, despite reading their essays about how all four teenagers shared a bathroom, and the family's junk closet, whose door kept in a multitude of items just dying to fall out. Because their mom is so strong, all four of her daughters are amazing, grown-up moms and professionals in various jobs. All graduated from college and all went in four different directions (an eventuality I could have predicted since they were all so different.) They became a college counselor, teacher, zookeeper, and police detective.

Notice that last profession? Ah ha! I
haven't needed the other three professionals as experts yet, but if I ever have a mystery set in a college, a private school, or a zoo, I'll be set. The fourth daughter, Suzy, became a policewoman and, later, detective in Ames, Iowa. I guess this didn't surprise me since her father was a detective in Illinois during his professional career. But, strangely, Ms. Owens didn't attribute her interest in the criminal justice system to her father. What also surprised me was that Suzy was the youngest, tiniest, and most freckles-on-her-nose daughter. I have a hard time seeing her in a Kevlar vest, toting a gun. But she is.

Recently, I wrote a crime scene for my second mystery, and I passed it by Detective Owens so she could tell me how a detective would look at it versus how an author might write it. This resulted in two weeks and four re-writes. I would like to think she got no satisfaction whatsoever in asking her former English teacher to
"re-write until it's perfect," a phrase I seem to vaguely remember from my teaching conversations with her years ago.

I interviewed Detective Owens for my blog, and these were her answers:

Q: How did you happen to get into this line of work?
A: I didn't plan on being a police officer when I graduated from college. I thought I wanted to work with at-risk children. But I did an internship at the police department, loved it, and loved the people. They happened to be going through a hiring process and I was encouraged to apply. But I would really like to make this clear: I went into this work to make a positive difference in peoples' lives, not to drive fast cars and shoot guns.

Q: What are your credentials?
A: I have a BS in psychology with minors in criminal justice and Spanish from Iowa State University [1999.] I also graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy with peace officer certification [2000], and I have a Master's in criminal justice from Simpson College [2012.]

Q: What is your typical day like, or is there a typical day?
A: On patrol, I had a lot more variety in my day. But now, as a detective, I make and receive a lot of phone calls, do computer work and report writing, make

more phone calls, and have occasional
interviews. Sometimes my job entails search warrants, testifying in court, or processing a crime scene such as a recovered stolen vehicle or a burglary scene.

Q: What is the most frustrating part of your job?
A: I guess the most frustrating thing
might be the fact that many times there is not a doubt that the suspect has committed the crime, but I don't have the evidence to charge. This is especially true in cases of sexual violence, for both women and children, where the public opinion can lead to stereotyping and doubt toward the victim. If I do have probable cause to charge, it will be another frustrating road trying to get the victim's story told, with no real protections from the law. The defendants get all sorts of protections, while the victims have very few.

Q: How do you do this work--homicide and sexually-based crime work--without getting emotionally upset?
A: I make sure I have healthy outlets for stress: exercise, talking to others, stepping away from it all as needed. Sometimes I get emotional, but realize I'm just a small part in the whole process, and I have to tell myself to do the best in my role.

Q: What kinds of crimes bother you the most?
A: Sex offenses, with domestic violence a close second. These cases have such a stigma, and it is so hard to move forward with judges and juries.

Obviously, I couldn't go into great detail with Suzy about the various cases she's worked, but from her answers I find it clear that she is neck-deep in the kind of work with which I have no experience
from my own career. This makes her a sensational expert for my mysteries. I can reseach, read cases, and check out books from my local coroner, but having first-hand experience nearby is a wonderful consequence of teaching for so many years. Thank you, Detective Suzy Owens, for being there when I have questions, and especially for not laughing when they are stupid questions.
They obviously take their work seriously.
Detective Owens is second from the right.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Expert Interviews: Bill Underwood, Warren County Coroner

The third expert I interviewed for my book, Three May Keep a Secret, is Bill Underwood, Warren County Coroner, who works out of our town, Monmouth, Illinois. Monmouth is a college town in west central Illinois with a population of 10,000. Bill and I met in a local restaurant over coffee. 

[I should mention that this post is a reworking of an earlier post when I was still writing that book.]

     My interview with Bill involved learning answers to my quesions about shootings, stabbings, and fire deaths. He is highly qualified to answer these
questions. While he is not a doctor, he did study mortuary science so he knows his way around death and bodies. It became apparent, as I questioned him, that he has seen some amazing events during his time on the job.

     Underwood is the gateway for laying people to rest in Warren County. Usually he has 140 cases a year and 250 deaths. He signs both death and cremation certificates, and both are filled out and filed electronically these days. No one can
be buried or cremated without a signed certificate, so if there is a question, the certificate is held up until the death is investigated. The coroner can also order an autopsy even if the family does not agree. Whenever there is any suspicion about a death, the coroner has the legal ability to keep a body from being disposed of until the suspicion is satisfied.

Underwood can order tests, or the medical examiner can order them when he does an autopsy. Usually they do toxicology tests and tissue blocks, and they always keep sample tissues. The best test, especially for a DUI, is from the vitreous fluid in the eye (I don't even want to think about that one.) The medical authorities also save samples of tissue from the brain, liver, lungs, and other organs.   

     Bill is called out to home deaths, ER deaths, hospital deaths less than 24 hours old, suicides, homicides, and sometimes hospice deaths.

     When he is called out to a death scene, Bill takes photos or has the Illinois State Police take photos, say, in a gunshot death. He talks to the authorities at the scene and, in the case of a fire, waits for the Fire Marshal. The coroner has two jobs at the scene: (1) get the
body removed once photos and an exam are done; and (2) notify the family. The latter is very important and, because scanners can be bought by private citizens, that notification sometimes becomes a nightmare.

     Several examinations determine cause and manner of death. At the scene the coroner checks for the time of death, which might be determined by rigor mortis and lividity. Sometimes a temperature is taken, particularly in the death of a child. In adults the core temperature goes down one degree per hour, and in children two degrees per hour after death.

If the death is suspicious, Underwood accompanies the body to an autopsy or one of his deputies does. He has four deputies scattered through local funeral homes. A forensic pathologist does the autopsy, and the coroner and state police attend the postmortem. In our area that is done at the Peoria County Morgue. It is
really important that the "chain of evidence" be protected, so this is why the coroner signs a card saying he has checked the body at the scene and accompanied it, or caused it to be accompanied, by qualified personnel.

     I asked Underwood about inquests because I remember reading about them in the past. In fact, I read a newspaper account of an inquest concerning a fire that happened years ago, resulting in a fatality. Inquests used to always be held because the law said they must be held in all deaths. But recently the law was changed to say an inquest "may" be held. Rarely are they held now except in the case of a suspicious death. The coroner can call the inquest and he has a jury pool of six people. He calls in witnesses and uses depositions to indicate the cause of death and how it will be labeled. There are five causes of death: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined, and accidental. an author, I only concentrated on the first one. And talking to Bill determined an important decision about my research: I have decided to draw the line on ever seeing an autopsy as part of my book research. Ever.