Saturday, March 13, 2010

I Smell Dead People: The Feel-Good Edition

The thirteenth has rolled around again, and it’s time to open this month’s collection of musty press clippings that take us to the not-for-the-squeamish realms of putrefaction. [Spoiled alert!] First up is an item that reminds us how discovery by smell is not something that happens only to the elderly and isolated.

Employees of an apartment complex near the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg “had been trying to locate the cause of a foul odor and thought it may have been a sewage problem.” When they entered one apartment they found the body of a 29-year-old USM student.

In California back in late February,
Colusa County Police were called to an area between the Sacramento River and Butte Slough Road just after 1 p.m. after receiving a call from a woman who was walking the levee and smelled a foul odor from an irrigation pipe.
The police recovered the body of a 50-year-old man who had been missing since December.

The president of a homeowner’s association in south Fort Myers, Florida noticed a foul odor coming from a lake in the development. Divers from the sheriff’s deputies later recovered an unidentified body from the water.

Up on W. 165th Street in Manhattan, a foul odor and a missing overnight guest led the staff at an SRO-style supportive housing project into the apartment of 59-year-old Miguel Ramirez where they discovered the body of his 35-year-old girlfriend. She had been stabbed to death with a butcher knife. Ramirez, an ex-con, has been arrested.

We save the worst for last: Forty-seven-year-old Phoenix, Arizona resident Leonard Orta, Jr. was the legal guardian of a five-year-old girl with Rett Syndrome. Her biological parents live in Hawaii and she was in Phoenix for medical treatment. The girl’s grandfather (Orta, Jr.’s father) who hadn’t seen her in about a month, noticed a foul odor in Orta’s apartment on February 17. He contacted police who discovered the youngster’s body. It is believed she had been dead for several days. Orta, Jr. “told authorities he withheld the child’s medication and proper nutrition for an unknown amount of time.” He has been charged with first-degree murder.

Puzzlingly, the grandfather lives in the same apartment as his son. A police spokesman “said he did not know why it took so long for the grandfather to act.”

Reporter Rosemarie Bernardo of the Honolulu Star Bulletin gets to the bottom of the story:
A stroke had left Orta Sr. with limited movement on the left side of his body. He also works the graveyard shift.
And Jr. lied to him about having admitted the girl to a local hospital; he also never let his father into her room.

Finally, this month we have some rare ISDP feel-good stories. From Florida, Naples News reporter Ryan Mills does a nice profile of Collier County Medical Examiner Dr. Marta Coburn, complete with olfactory details:
Though it’s not a job for the squeamish, the sights and smells of the operating room become just part of the average day for medical examiners. Most decomposed bodies smell pretty much alike, Coburn said.

“It’s never pleasant. It just isn’t,” she said. “It’s malodorous, but you get used to it.”

And the smell stays with them.

“Even when you don’t even realize it, it’s with you,” Coburn said. “It gets in your hair. It gets in your clothes.”

Coburn said she’s even had cases that made her stop eating particular foods. For instance, while still in Miami, Coburn had to perform an autopsy on a man who died after choking on peanut butter and then having a seizure, she said. She had to take photographs that showed the peanut butter extended all the way from the back of his throat into the lungs.

“I didn’t eat peanut butter for a long time, not for a couple of years,” Coburn said.
Under the excellent headline “Sniffing out the dead: Trainer teaches dogs to find human remains,” reporter Katya Cengel at The Courier-Journal tells the heart-warming story of Jefferson County, Indiana coroner Barbara Weakley-Jones and her cadaver-sniffing dogs. (Cutesy alert: one dog is named Abracadaver. Better is the cat named Tardieu. After Tardieu’s spots, get it? C’mon, do we have to explain everything?)

And finally, let’s give a round of morbidly subdued golf applause to staff writer Lisa Singleton-Rickman at Alabama’s TimesDaily for her great human interest piece headlined “Carcass control can be a tricky, smelly business.” Singleton-Rickman gives us the subtle texture of jurisdictional differences in carcass control practices in the northern section of her state. Along the way she provides some odoriferous details:
Koonce said his crews have disposed of myriad dead animals from groundhogs to foxes and coyotes to stranger finds such as an emu. Breeding seasons bring on even more animals. January and February, for example, are very much “skunk months.”

One memorable find he recounted was in a north Florence alley. Neighbors had been complaining about a foul odor. Finally, sanitation workers found a cooler in the alley. Inside the cooler were fish.

“That one took about four guys before we got that thing to the landfill,” he said. “The first two went in and couldn’t do it so we sent two more.”
Then there’s this from Robert Bevis, director of the Lauderdale County Solid Waste Authority:
“The public doesn’t understand the difference in stinking junk and household garbage,” he said. “A dead skunk is hard on these guys. Adult diapers are terrible, too, and they need to go elsewhere.”
Amen, brother.


Nukapai said...

What a grim job!

Katie Puckrik said...

Thanks for another "don't read while eating" post. I think my favorite part of it is the "morbidly subdued" descriptor for "golf applause".

Avery Gilbert said...


Which? Picking up road kill for the county or being the medical examiner?

Judging by the number of autopsies done on TV shows, I'd say the latter job is considered quite glamorous . . .

Avery Gilbert said...

Katie Puckrik:

OMG. Two people read this and one of them had a favorite part!

And to think--when I said there was an audience for stories about rotting human flesh, they called me crazy.