The Body in Question
There wasn't much to work with. A fire had ripped through the Pine County house that January night in 1961, burning and melting everything in its path. What was left of the anonymous victim clung to blackened bedsprings. The property's owner, Levi Henter, had twice been convicted for passing bad checks, and remained under indictment for a third fraud charge. With little to go on, the county sheriff's
department called in the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to help solve the case; when their investigators couldn't determine whether the body was Henter's, they turned to Minneapolis General Hospital's chief of pathology, Dr. John Coe.
Coe began his inquiry by separating chunks of charred flesh from the other debris covering the bedsprings--painstaking work that called for a delicate touch. Before long his attention focused on two pieces of evidence: a large lump Coe suspected was the torso, and a patch of skin most likely from the back of the corpse's head.
X-rays confirmed Coe's hunch. The vertebral column of the torso indicated that the victim was a male of average height and at least 60 years of age. A small tuft of white hair corroborated the age, and x-rays of the head revealed that he'd suffered a gunshot wound. Although the damage to the cranium was substantial, Coe wasn't prepared to list the wound as the official cause of death. Truth has a curious habit of shifting, and for all he knew, this John Doe was already dead when the bullet shattered his skull.
He then performed an autopsy on the torso and found that the bladder was not only intact but full. Coe tested the urine, which revealed a high alcohol content but proved negative for other drugs. Further tests of tissue samples showed a very low level of carbon monoxide, leading Coe to reason that not only was the man drunk when he was shot, but was dead before the house burned.
The description of the victim didn't match Henter, however. He was younger and abstemious; still, the BCA theorized that the tests could be inaccurate, and that Henter could have been so despondent over his third indictment that he'd started drinking and decided to kill himself. The shotgun blast could have sparked the fire, investigators reasoned. It was a stretch. Coe hadn't been able to locate any of Henter's dental records, so he made do with some old chest x-rays taken during one of Henter's prison stints. He painstakingly compared both sets until he was convinced that those from the remains didn't correspond to Henter's. Who, then, was the victim?
In the early 1960s, forensic pathology--that is, the investigation and interpretation of deaths that occur in a violent, unexpected, or unexplained manner--was still in its infancy. Blood work was limited to typing, toxicology tests were rudimentary, and virtually no conclusive studies had been done in the realm of postmortem chemistry. When he was called in on the January 1961 John Doe murder case, Coe was just setting out in the field, relying on a limited body of research and the instincts of an inquisitive scientist devoted to unraveling the mysteries that surround human death. He would devote the next 20 years of his life to groundbreaking research and innovation in postmortem chemistry--in the course of his career defining, shaping, and formalizing the application of medical knowledge to contemporary civil and criminal law.
In 1964 he became the nation's first chief of pathology at a major metropolitan hospital to simultaneously serve as county medical examiner, in Minneapolis and Hennepin County respectively. He held both positions for a full two decades. During those years he conducted some of the earliest medical explorations of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, perfected a test to determine a corpse's time of death that still ranks among the most reliable in criminal prosecutions, and gained national recognition for his work in ballistics, resulting in his appointment to the esteemed panels that reinvestigated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Age has done little to diminish Coe's physical and intellectual stature. At 84 he is a still powerful figure--he stands at six-foot-four and weighs 190 pounds--and possesses a memory as organized as the files of research data he assiduously kept during his medical career. This morning, as he sits in the living room of his Bloomington apartment, Coe is dressed in what he considers casual attire: creased navy slacks and a pressed dress shirt he has adorned with a string tie and turquoise clasp. His voice is soft and slightly raspy, his speech devoid of any slang or the aw-shucks jargon favored by, say, the TV scriptwriters who created Quincy, M.D.--America's best-known practitioner in the field. Seeing Coe seated in a straight-backed armchair, with his legs crossed just so, mapping in the stark lexicon of forensic medicalese the expired human body's interior terrain, you might not suspect that he, at this moment, is relaxing.
"The Henter case was one of the most fascinating cases of my early career," Coe says, adding that it, like so many of the cases that established his reputation, reminded him that "death is a very complex process." Once the BCA realized that the corpse was most certainly not Henter's, agents began combing local missing-persons file in hopes of coming up with an ID. They did: He was an elderly St. Paul man by the name of Frank Nelson, with a weakness for the bottle; whiskey, recalls Coe, was his ultimate undoing.
According to his neighbors and friends, Nelson had a tendency to go off with anyone who'd buy him a drink. On that fateful evening, he had gone home with Henter. The two men argued, and Henter settled the dispute with a blast of his shotgun. He then torched the house in hopes of misleading the authorities and fled the state. He was later apprehended in Georgia, and in September 1961 was convicted of Nelson's murder--thanks, in large part, to Coe's signature unwillingness to rule on the case before his own investigation offered up the answer.
Forensic pathologists are part detective, part scientist, and part philosopher. They are the only doctors whose patients are dead, and thus silent. Through the autopsy, forensic pathologists make lifeless bodies speak--of their identities, and their causes of death, whether suicide, homicide, or accident. They regularly spend hundreds of hours on a single case, peering into microscopes, dissecting and weighing organs, examining wounds, talking to friends and relatives of the deceased, and testifying about their findings in court, all in hopes of solving one of the ultimate mysteries--how and why we die.
In some instances, Coe reasons, people die according to how they lived. An outlaw's life is more than likely to end in an illegal manner, often violently, while a monk is likely to expire in old age, of natural causes, in cloistered serenity. Then there are the deaths that defy logic and rattle even the steadiest of nerves: the cautious man who perished while trimming his lawn; the healthy infant who suddenly quit breathing; the woman whose gravest error in life was to cross the intersection at the same moment as a sun-blinded driver. This is the stuff of late-night obsessions among forensic pathologists--alone, still up after midnight, with the day's latest body fresh in the mind. As Coe well knows, these are the deaths that offer up chances to wrestle with the provocative notions of biology and spirituality, crime and punishment, timing and fate. The promise of such occasions, perhaps more than any opportunity to reconcile death with reason, is what first lured Coe into the field of forensics.
In 1941 Coe, then a biochemistry major at the University of Minnesota, entered medical school at the urging of the federal government, which was anticipating a shortage of doctors as U.S. involvement in the war intensified. He enlisted in the army, which paid for his medical education, and graduated with honors from the University in 1944. Initially he'd hoped to spend his residency in internal medicine, but that appointment had been filled. Instead, almost by chance, he took up the study of pathology.
Nine months into his residency, Coe was inducted into the Army Medical Corps as a lieutenant and shipped off to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. To his dismay, he was assigned to run the camp's laboratory. "I wasn't really well trained as a pathologist," Coe remembers. "My nine months had been spent entirely in anatomic pathology, doing autopsies." That training, and his strong stomach, would serve him well. Late one evening at camp, Coe was given a body to autopsy. He called in a rookie soldier to assist him in what Coe expected to be a routine procedure. Upon their arrival he asked the young man to help move the corpse from the gurney to the autopsy table. As they lifted it, Coe says, a low, moaning sound escaped from the body. "Occasionally, when you lift a corpse, the partial jackknifing of the body will result in some air being forced from the lungs," he explains. The phenomenon was news to his aide, who dropped his share of the weight and took off running. "I never saw him again," Coe recalls with a chuckle. "But I did see his request for a transfer on my desk the next morning."
After serving a stint as an on-call pathologist in Heidelberg, Germany, Coe was honorably discharged in 1948 and returned to Minneapolis, where he hired on at the Veterans Administration Hospital. He acted as the hospital's chief of pathology from 1949 to 1950, then went to work for Minneapolis General Hospital (now Hennepin County Medical Center) at the behest of his mentor, Dr. E.T. Bell. Four years later Bell retired and Coe moved into his slot as chief of pathology.
Hospital pathologists study a broad spectrum of medical conditions--viruses, metabolic diseases, internal injuries, tumors, nearly every physical ailment of the human body. And they conduct autopsies, though unlike forensic pathologists, they usually know the cause of death before opening a body for examination. At the time, Coe's entire department consisted of five employees and a contingent of volunteer physicians. As Coe tells it, "We had terrible problems at that hospital because of finances. The city wouldn't give us any money, so we worked with shoestring and baling wire." Exactly the kind of challenge Coe relished.
On the morning of April 23, 1955, John J. Cowles Jr., scion of the Cowles publishing empire, was backing his Pontiac out of his Lake of the Isles garage, in Minneapolis, when he noticed what appeared to be a bundle of clothes in the alley. When he got out of his car to inspect, Cowles discovered the lifeless body of a young woman.
When the police arrived, they turned the body over and discovered that the woman's face had been scratched and bruised, and that her throat bore a bluish mark. They dug through her coat pockets and found a wallet. Inside was a five-dollar bill, a doctor's prescription slip, and a driver's license identifying her as Elizabeth Mary Moonen, age 21, of 9 East 17th St. in Minneapolis. After securing the crime scene, the body was transported to Minneapolis General.
Coe chose a young intern, Dr. Fred Brauti, as his assistant for the Moonen autopsy. That afternoon Brauti began the procedure by making a Y-shaped incision in Moonen's chest, opened the rib cage, and removed organs for Coe to examine. The heart looked normal, but the lungs were congested--a possible indicator of suffocation. There was injury to the brain, too, caused, it seemed, by a lack of oxygen rather than a blow. Her facial injuries were consistent with a struggle. Then Coe examined her throat. "Very commonly in manual strangulation, the small bone in the larynx is crushed or fractured," he explains. "On the outside, you look for bruises. On the inside, you'll find bleeding at the site." Coe found both, and declared Moonen's death a homicide.
During the course of the autopsy, Coe also discovered that Moonen was three months pregnant. Traces of semen in her vagina led him to conclude that she'd had intercourse just prior to her death. Since her husband had been stationed in Korea for the past year, Coe's findings were critical in drawing up a list of suspects. Police investigators first turned to the physician who'd signed the prescription, Dr. Glen Peterson.
Peterson confirmed that Moonen was indeed his patient, and told investigators that Moonen identified the baby's father as a local dentist by the name of Arnold Axilrod. Axilrod was 49 years old and had a reputation as a ladies' man. His office was above the Hoop De Do nightclub at 16th Street and Nicollet Avenue, and his patients were mainly nightclub performers and hat check girls. Since he began practicing in 1928, the only blemish to his reputation appeared to be an anonymous phone call made to the police six months before Moonen was killed. The caller told police that Axilrod had sedated her during an office visit and raped her while she was unconscious. Since Axilrod's accuser refused to reveal her name or to file a complaint, her allegations were never investigated.
When the police questioned Axilrod, he admitted that he'd given Moonen a ride on the evening of her death, and the two had quarreled. According to police records, Axilrod told the investigators that "[Moonen] accused me of being the father, and said she'd expose me to the world." The next thing he knew, Axilrod continued, he'd blacked out; when he came to, Moonen was no longer in the car. When the police told him that Moonen had been choked to death, Axilrod replied, "If she was strangled, I must have done it. I was the only one there." He would later recant that statement.
In the fall of 1955, Axilrod went on trial for murder in Hennepin County District Court. By then the case had garnered national attention, and a seat in the courtroom was one of the hottest tickets going. Defending Axilrod was local criminal defense attorney Sydney Goff, whom local newspapers took to calling "The new Clarence Darrow of the Midwest." Before the trial began, however, Coe contracted hepatitis, and his doctor refused to allow him to testify. The strongest piece of evidence, the autopsy report, would be delivered by Dr. Brauti.
"I felt so bad for him," Coe recalls. "I considered myself to be inexperienced, and he had even less training and had to go up against Syd Goff in open court." As Brauti struggled through his testimony, Coe worked on convincing his internist to allow him into the courtroom. "At first he said I could go to court in my hospital bed, but there was no way I was going to do that. I was finally able to convince him to let me testify in a wheelchair."
Ultimately, Coe's command of forensic pathology established his reputation as an astute expert witness, and sealed Axilrod's fate. "I explained to the jury how the bruises on her neck were consistent with strangulation, and that my internal examination confirmed that conclusion, given that this is the only way to break or fracture the hyoid bone. I'd conducted a very thorough autopsy and was confident of my findings," Coe says. At the end of the weeks-long trial, the jury found Axilrod guilty of manslaughter--a verdict, accompanied by a five- to twenty-year sentence, based on police work and on Coe's irrefutable testimony.
"The Axilrod case made me realize how little I knew about forensic medicine," Coe says. "I realized that if I was going to be called on in the future to testify in court, I was going to have to be better educated." At the time, however, the only formal training available was an eight-week course administered by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). His coursework there was helpful, but fell far short of supplying him with the knowledge needed to conduct the kinds of investigations a rising violent-crime rate in the county called for.
In the early 1960s, Hennepin County took over both Minneapolis General Hospital and the coroner's office, updating the latter by creating the position of medical examiner. When it came time to appoint someone to the job, it was only logical for county officials to consider Coe. His reputation and courtroom résumé put him in the elite company of only a handful of M.D.s engaged in pushing the frontiers of forensic pathology. In 1959 the American Medical Association had recognized pathology as a subspecialty of medicine, and two years later Coe had become the first board-certified pathologist in the Midwest.
When Hennepin County officials first approached Coe to run the medical examiner's office, he declined their invitation. "I turned them down because I already had so much to do," he recalls. "So they offered me an assistant. I told them that wouldn't work--that I would need several assistants before I'd even considered taking the job." Coe pauses, then adds with a dry chuckle, "They hired four pathologists." Add to that the medical examiner's license to run evidence through the county hospital labs at no expense, and Coe found himself in a more advantageous position when it came to solving crimes than most any of his counterparts across the nation. That setup contributed to solving hundreds of mysterious local deaths during Coe's tenure.
The specifics of those cases remain clear in his mind. In one, Coe recounts, "I was called in to investigate the death of an elderly man. He was somewhere between 70 and 80 years old, and was a bit of a hermit, so he'd been dead a week by the time I was called. The dead man was in bed with his hands bound to the headboard and his feet tied together. It was obvious that the house had robbed, but there was no apparent cause of death. He hadn't been beaten or strangled, and although his wrists were chafed from the ropes, that was the only sign of struggle. It wasn't winter, so I knew he didn't died of exposure. After I conducted my investigation, I was positive that he'd died of dehydration, but I had to find some way to prove this."
By the mid-1960s, blood work in criminal cases had advanced beyond simple typing to the search for telltale levels of proteins, gases, and sugars. But little research had been conducted on the body's vitreous--mucus, tears, and other clear fluids. Coe suspected the answer to his corpse's death lay in this uncharted territory, so he extracted liquid from around the eyeballs and ran it through a series of chemical tests. But when he got the results, Coe says, he realized he had no standard for comparison. "There wasn't anything in the literature," he recalls, "and I didn't have any samples from another body."
He began to collect vitreous samples from other corpses his staff autopsied, and ran the same tests on them. During the course of his research, Coe remembered an article he'd read earlier in a medical journal that indicated there might be a correlation between the presence of vitreous potassium and the time of death. Soon Coe's research confirmed his suspicion that the man had died as a result of severe dehydration. (The case was classified a homicide but, lacking a suspect, remains unsolved.) Further, he was able to theorize that the traces of potassium surrounding the eyeballs will, upon a person's death, steadily increase as the hours pass--and that measuring the level would enable pathologists to zero in on just the moment that death occurred.
Because such a determination can make or break a suspect's alibi, pathologists have long relied on three physical indicators to pinpoint the end of life: rigor mortis, or the corpse's rigidity; algor mortis, the corpse's temperature; and livor mortis, the corpse's skin color. But to this day the science around these indicators remains far from exact, and conditions such as air temperature, body weight, and skin pigmentation has kept pinpointing death times an elusive exercise. When Coe published his potassium research results, says Dr. Garry Peterson, a former student of Coe's and Hennepin County's current medical examiner, "a lot of people believed that he'd discovered Mecca."
In short order, Peterson says, the phone began ringing off the hook. "People from all over the country were calling to talk about his findings, and would ask him to testify as an expert witness." Coe cautioned his colleagues about treating the findings as absolute. "There's no doubt that it's helpful in narrowing down time of death," he says now, "but the margin of error was 12 hours on either end." Despite his modest claims, vitreous potassium remains the most reliable indicator of the time of death once rigor mortis has ended.
"My love of guns began when I was a freshman in high school. My neighbor, Stub Hobart, and I used go out into the surrounding farm fields and kill gophers. When we got tired of that, we started to target shooting, and got to be pretty accomplished marksmen. Well, at least in our minds."
As Coe tells it, he had little time to spare at the university and during his military duty, so he abandoned his hobby until he was hired by Minneapolis General. There his interest was revitalized by an invitation to attend a seminar hosted by Dr. Charles Petty, then the nation's most respected forensic expert on gunshot wounds. In three daylong sessions, Coe and his colleagues test-fired a variety of gun models and makes--pistols, semiautomatics, assault rifles--under all sorts of conditions. The results provided him with adaptable knowledge on internal and external ballistics, on the splay patterns of blood from a shooting victim, and on the indicators of lethal firearms injuries. He began to examine and collect evidence from gunshot wounds suffered by those who, as a result of their injuries, wound up on his examination table.
By the time he took the job as county medical examiner in 1964, he'd illustrated, in extensive detail, his data--with graphs, pictures, and charts, as well as evidence from unusual cases he'd obtained from colleagues around the country. By the early 1970s, word of his collection had gotten out, and Coe became a frequent speaker at national forensics conferences. "My exposure because of these lectures brought me a number of consultations," he says, and included an invitation to teach ballistics courses at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
"Coe shaped the field in so many different ways," says Peterson, who was also the first forensic pathologist to train under Coe. "When I'd just begun my residency, Coe took me along to a national medical conference. After the meetings a bunch of the pathologists would get together and trade stories. Someone would throw out a case, usually one they couldn't solve, and they'd go around the room and each pathologist would have to offer their opinion. When it got to Coe, it was like that old E.F. Hutton ad: The room would fall quiet and everybody would lean forward to hear what he had to say. John may have been in this little outpost in the Midwest, but nationally, people recognized his expertise and wanted to know what he thought."
Including the U.S. government. In 1977, after decades of persistent rumors, conjecture, and conspiracy theories concerning the murders of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress convened the Select Committee on Assassinations in hopes of settling the controversies once and for all. Nine pathologists were appointed to the Kennedy panel, and three to the King. Only Coe and one other pathologist, New York chief medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden, were asked to take part in both.
For the Kennedy investigation, pathologists reviewed the medical and autopsy reports, photographs, clothing, and the original x-rays. They retraced the trajectory of the bullets, the entrance and exit wounds, and the relevant physical evidence. In the end, says Coe, he and the others--with the exception of Dr. Cyril Wecht, who publicly voiced his displeasure in the national media--agreed that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the shooting. When the panel examined evidence in the King murder, they were also satisfied that James Earl Ray was the sole shooter, given the type of gun, the distance between Ray and King, and the bullet's impact.
Still, Coe recalls, he had no illusions at the time that such a ruling would succeed in quieting the tenacious belief that both killers had backup, be it an immediate accessory or a network of shadow-government operatives reaching as far up as the Central Intelligence Agency. When it comes to the conspiracy theories around Kennedy's slaying, Coe simply says, "They will continue to live on. There are some people that don't want to believe that a single man, acting alone, had destroyed Camelot."
The skin is a road map of clues. By reading it, a forensic pathologist can tell if a bruise was inflicted before or after death, if a person died of carbon monoxide poisoning (in which the corpse's skin shows a rosy hue, as though in the "pink of health"), if a dead body has been moved (in which case, the blood will have failed to pool in predictable patterns), if a bump on the head proved fatal. Impressions on the skin are especially useful in investigating accidental electrocutions. "Sometimes you'll find a little burn mark on the hand or foot or someplace else, and you'll immediately want to know where and how the body was situated," Coe says. He recalls a case that initially had the police, and his own investigators, stumped.
"When they arrived at the scene, they discovered a dead man standing upright and leaning over the kitchen sink," he recalls. "The space between the counter and the sink wasn't very big and he's standing in such a way that he can't fall over." Other than the body's position, nothing seemed amiss, so the investigators concluded that the man had died after a heart attack. But since it was Coe's policy to investigate any death that occurred without a witness, he instructed his assistants to bring the body into the morgue for a closer look.
"As the pathologist began his examination, he noticed a tiny electrical burn on the palm of his hand," Coe continues. "Well, the investigators had done just what they were supposed to--they'd take a photograph of the body before they took him down--and we could see how he was standing. He had one hand on the metal faucet, so we sent them back to the scene to look for possible sources of electricity." Sure enough, he continues, there was a radio on the shelf by the sink. Neighbors said his radio would frequently go out, so he would reach up and slam the plug back into the socket. But this time the wires to the plug were exposed, and here he is grounding himself to the faucet. When he made contact, the electricity shot through him."
Another unusual case of electrocution that Coe handled involved a 23-year-old bridegroom: "He was waiting in the back of the church with his best man for his wedding to begin, and he decided to polish his shoes. As he was doing so, he pitched forward and fell over dead. He was in perfect health, and there was absolutely nothing to suggest that this was a crime, but the investigators were smart enough to realize that this was most unusual. So they asked his best man to show them how the groom had been polishing his shoes. It turns out that he had an electric polisher that was enclosed in a metal housing, and had been sitting on the radiator at the time of his death. He didn't have any burns on his body, but nevertheless, when we took the electric shoe polisher in and checked it, we found that it was putting out a full 110 volt current when it was grounded. A wire had become frayed on the inside. Chances are pretty good that he would have gotten just a nasty shock if he hadn't been sitting on the radiator."
Both deaths, Coe says, were purely accidental--wrong place, wrong time, lethal flukes of nature and modern technology. Demises caused by criminal doings were a different matter. In late 1959 the Hennepin County coroner's office reported an unusually high number of sudden and unexpected infant deaths for the preceding year and a half. According to the statistics, 84 infants had died in the period between January 1, 1958, and June 30, 1959. Perhaps the deaths were accidental, perhaps not. The office asked Coe to examine the records for any evidence of foul play.
Coe collected information on the circumstances of the deaths, detailed medical histories of both the babies and family members, studied the autopsy reports, and ran tests for bacteria and other known pathogens. According to his findings, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in June 1960, influenzalike symptoms--runny noses, coughs, fevers--were reported in 72 percent of the cases; Coe concluded that flu was likely responsible for a majority of the deaths. He did note, however, that suffocation appeared to be factor in at least three of the remaining cases--two infants were found face down and trapped between the railing and the crib; the third, a boy, was found with a plastic bag around his face.
"At the time, we didn't have a name for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But after I wrote this article, I did some more research and found some shared characteristics, namely that most of the victims were between one and three months of age, there was a slight predominance in males over females, and the babies were placed facedown in their cribs." Coe adds that he and other physicians were aware, once SIDS was recognized, that they couldn't easily differentiate between it and smothering.
"If you smother a baby with a pillow, the baby is too young, and the pillow is too soft, to leave any bruises," Coe says. In these cases, as opposed to adult stranglings or electrocutions, the skin tells no stories: "There is nothing to indicate that there's been any kind of a struggle." Upon thorough reinvestigation, however, the causes of death in several of the previously closed infant-death cases were ruled homicides, after the mother or another family member, when confronted with Coe's evidence, confessed to killing the child.
Although he was unable to unravel the mysteries that still linger around SIDS, Coe managed to draw national attention to the hazards of placing an infant facedown to sleep, and was instrumental in forcing crib manufacturers to change their designs. "When it was clear that a couple of those deaths were because there was too large of a gap between the mattress and the guard rails, I alerted the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]," he says. The agency functions as communications central for the nation's coroners' and medical examiners' offices, and disseminates national bulletins when a doctor stumbles upon a new trend in death or disease, or other medical anomalies. (Forensic pathologists have been instrumental in the detection of such contagions as Legionnaires' Disease and AIDS.)
The FDA, on Coe's prompting, alerted the crib manufacturers about the fatal flaws in their design, which they in turn corrected. Being able to spare families the inconsolable grief of their newborns' deaths, Coe says, stands among the reigning achievements of his life.
Although Coe's office was on good terms with local law enforcement during his entire tenure, he didn't rely on their investigations to fill out his case files. "The police would do an excellent investigation if they thought a crime was connected with the scene of death," Coe says. "If there wasn't, then they lost interest. The prime example of this was the case where the police went out to the scene, and they called up the office and said, 'It's a natural death, Doc. You don't need to come out.'"
Unconvinced, his investigators visited the scene, where they found the victim lying face down on the floor with his right arm tucked against his chest. Only the back of his head was visible; upon closer inspection they noticed a pool of blood. "And over on the table, right adjacent to his body, is a long suicide note," Coe says. "When we rolled him over, he's holding a pistol in his right hand, and he's got a hole in his head, which happens to be on the side he went down on. So here was this man who'd shot himself in the head--you could see the blood--and he leaves a note. And the police says it's a natural death!" Coe shakes his head in amazement. "This is why we need to have trained investigators at the scene."
In 1967 the Hennepin County medical examiner's office, acting on Coe's recommendation, became one of the first departments in the nation to hire and train civilians as death-scene investigators. Between 1964 and Coe's retirement in 1984, the office grew from just Coe to include an assistant medical examiner and two full-time pathologists, and the number of autopsies performed each year nearly doubled from 314 in 1964 to 575 in 1984. (The hospital and the medical examiner's office share a common morgue, he explains, so hospital pathologists also perform autopsies for the medical examiner's office.) Coe himself has participated in over 10,000 autopsies in the course of his career, and conducted more than 6,000 chemical analyses--an unprecedented achievement in forensic medicine. During those years, he also served as a full professor at the University of Minnesota medical school, teaching the next generation of forensic pathologists in the art and science of death investigation, and published more than four dozen book chapters and medical journal articles, nearly half of them on postmortem chemistry.
When Coe officially retired at age 65, the dual positions of medical examiner and chief of pathology were permanently separated. "The minute he retired, those jobs were subdivided," current county medical examiner Peterson says. "And it wasn't as though I'd inherited a half-time job and filled it up with idleness. Those were really two full-time jobs that he held, and he did them exceptionally well." Even now Coe continues to lecture on ballistics and postmortem chemistry and is regularly called to consult on cases across the country. In 1994 the National Association of Medical Examiners bestowed on him the Milton Helpern Laureate Award for his "outstanding contributions to the development and improvement of medicological investigations in the United States--what Peterson and others call "the Oscar of the forensic world."
Just two weeks ago a passerby discovered a body floating five feet from the shore of the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The victim didn't have any identification--another John Doe. Who was he? How did he die? What secrets can a dead body be made to tell?
"First, you'd want to establish identification," Coe instructs. "You'd take fingerprints, and then do blood typing and DNA typing. Depending upon how long the body has been in the water, you might not be able to do any visual identification, but you would look for things like tattoos and obvious scars.
"By now you'd have a good idea of the victim's sex, race, height, and approximate age. You would then to go missing persons and see if anyone fits the description. If someone does, and you are able to locate that person's dentist and obtain his records, you'd then compare those to x-rays of the corpse's teeth. If you can't find the dentist, you'd want to check with the hospitals and see if the person was ever admitted. If x-rays had been taken, you'd compare them to x-rays of the corpse's bones, preferably at some distinctive spot, like the frontal sinus.
"When you have the identification, you'd send out investigators to collect the last known record--that is, the last time they were seen alive. And then you would move on to the autopsy, which can be simple if there's a bullet hole or some other visible trauma. If it's been under the water for a long time, there will be water in the lungs whether or not the victim drowned.
"More than anything, we need to know who the victim is. And not just to close the investigation--it's important for the family to know. We should do everything in our power to give them some kind of an answer." Even if the death turns out to be natural--not a suicide, not a murder, a simple death--"you must keep going," says Coe. "You don't quit--you keep asking questions until the mystery is solved."
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