Coroner to the Suicides 

After 20 years, David Campbell has seen enough

Thursday, May 5 2005
Photos by Max S. Gerber
“Do not enter. Call 911. I love you. It just hurts too much.”

One sunny April morning David Campbell stands on the second-story landing of an upper-middle-class Woodland Hills home, reading this heartbreakingly terse note.

Campbell has never met the woman who wrote it out in longhand in her final hours. Nor has he ever been inside this house before. Yet he has seen this scene hundreds of times in all its tragic permutations. For 23 years, Campbell’s unofficial specialty as a captain in the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office was suicide investigation.

“Notice the prayer on the wall, and the cross,” he says. “This is a religious family. I try to recognize anything like that which would help me deal with the family.”

The body that hangs rigid against the inside of the room’s closet door is simply that: a body, incapable of confessing its motives and sorrows. Yet, Campbell points out in a hushed and respectful voice, it is also a story. And, he says, it is the duty of his profession to hear it again and again.

The room is piled high with the paperwork and the sentimental keepsakes of someone who no longer has a place to put them. The recently divorced woman, 56, had moved back in with her parents in November. Though she had no history of prior suicide attempts, she had been seeing a therapist.

According to the brief summary Campbell was given back at the coroner’s office, the woman was also in the middle of a custody battle for the youngest of her three children. A photo of the smiling, redheaded 17-year-old sits atop her mother’s dresser, beside a scratched-out lottery ticket. On the wall hangs the framed prayer Campbell noted:

So far today, God, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed and from there I’m probably going to need a lot more help. Thank you, in Jesus’ name.

According to her elderly parents downstairs, their daughter had shut herself up in her bedroom every night since she’d moved in, refusing to come out. The last time they had seen her alive was 4:30 the previous afternoon. This morning, her mother had found the note on the door, and discovered her daughter’s lifeless body. She summoned the police, and a priest.

“I’m trying to see the point of the priest,” says Officer Breyer, the rookie officer who lingers on the edge of the scene. “If they’re Catholic, she’s going straight to hell anyway.”

“Not necessarily,” Campbell replies softly, his hands clasped against his yellow plaid dress shirt, as if in prayer. “For a sin to be a sin, the Church requires three things. You have to know it’s a sin, give into it freely, and know the consequence.”

He regards the body thoughtfully for a moment, still dangling from a nylon rope among piles of pastel sweaters. His fellow investigator, 34-year-old Kelli Blanchard, has donned latex gloves, and is busy combing the decedent’s hair for evidence of head trauma, examining the eyes for petechiae (pinpoint contusions consistent with asphyxiation) and matching the abrasion marks on the neck with the ligature.

“When the family is concerned about the spiritual consequences of the suicide,” Campbell continues, “I ask if they think their loved one was of sound mind — whether he or she really knew they were committing a sin. I try to comfort them with that thought.”

Blanchard glances up and smiles, nodding in the direction of Campbell. “He used to be in seminary,” she explains.

Strangely enough, Campbell told me earlier, that’s where his interest in those who “choose to cross the line between self-preservation and self-destruction” began. After visiting his family in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving of 1974, Campbell returned to his Washington, D.C., theological college. One snowy afternoon, just before he was to take the vows of the novitiate, he discovered that something had changed within him.

“I guess I had an obedience problem,” the 53-year-old Campbell recalled, just before his retirement from the coroner’s office in late March. In particular, he questioned the Church’s teaching that all legitimate earthly authority, from the government to the police, issued from God. Yet his faith was strong. “One of the questions we were asked in seminary: If they found the body of Christ, would your faith change? The answer I came up with was always no.”

Despite his old obedience problem, the spry, upbeat Campbell has spent the last few decades in a position of authority at the coroner’s office, where he says his fellow Angelenos’ tragic ends have affected his view of suicide and death as much as the Church did. As captain of investigations, Campbell has investigated thousands of deaths, including high-profile cases such as the Nicole Brown Simpson and Nightstalker murders. But it is the suicides, he says, that have stayed with him.

By law, Campbell’s office is required to investigate the one to three self-killings that occur on average in L.A. County every day, a duty that dates back to the coroners of medieval England, who served as a kind of tax collector. Having disobeyed the will of God, suicides forfeited their property to the Crown and lost the right to a Christian burial. Centuries later, coroner investigators are less concerned with determining whether self-inflicted deaths stem from demonic possession than simply defining the cause and mode of death: the how, when and where — and the why.

Just as police detectives pursue the motives of homicide suspects, Campbell and his staff serve as suicide detectives, reconstructing not only the cause of death but uncovering the decedent’s motives by performing psychological autopsies along with physical ones. These preliminary judgments often help determine whether law enforcement will investigate a suspicious death, and provide some closure to the surviving loved ones. In some cases, however, as with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s 2003 death, the results are inconclusive.

Campbell, who is today just an observer, watches Blanchard cut the body down. She is assisted by Alex Perez, an employee of a coroner transport unit who hopes to one day become an investigator himself. As they lay the faintly pungent body on a sheet of plastic, it emits a rasping sound — a final breath. This common if macabre phenomenon results from the movement of air trapped by the congested lungs, Campbell explains.

“When the son cut his mother down on this call I did yesterday, she made a sound and he thought she was still alive,” says Blanchard, holding the decedent’s head as a chiropractor might, testing for rigor mortis. The stiffening, she reports, is well underway.

“This is why we don’t let family up here,” she adds. “They don’t want to see this.”

After 20 years of it, says Campbell, neither does he.

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