Something else caught their attention, too — the black electrical cord knotted around the man’s neck.
A Los Angeles Police detective declared the apartment a crime scene and set about collecting mail, business cards, fingerprints, DNA samples — anything that might offer clues about the dead man’s life, and how and why he'd died. A driver’s license revealed a name: Stanley Thiesfield.
Almost a year later, the fact that Thiesfield died at age 59 remains one of the only conclusions of the investigation.
According to the coroner’s chief forensic doctor, Christopher Rogers, this is not “terribly unusual.” “There are 300-something people each year where we can’t determine the cause of death,” he says. That's roughly four percent of cases investigated by the L.A. County coroner annually.
The coroner’s assistant chief, Ed Winter, says that investigators and doctors often feel frustrated by unsolved cases, especially when families call looking for answers.
“We test for everything, and sometimes, it just can’t be figured out,” he says. “It’s like that puzzle that you just can’t get, but you want to, and it haunts you.
LAPD’s Southwest Division, where Thiesfield lived, saw a couple of dozen homicides in 2013, said Chris Barling from the Criminal Gang Homicide Unit. Police discovered an additional 50 deaths, he estimates, but did not pursue investigations after the coroner found their cause to be “undetermined” – possibly owing to accidents, suicides, alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses. The coroner can only make determinations based on medical facts.
“Will the family be frustrated by it? Most certainly,” says Barling. “Most people, we want to know exactly what happened.”
In Thiesfield’s case, detectives found no signs of a break-in. Neighbors who called the police said it had been four or five days since they last saw Thiesfield. In that time span, the body’s breakdown process had taken too much of a toll to offer evidence that could help the coroner pinpoint the cause of death.
The knotted electrical cord wasn’t sufficient evidence.
“Is it homicidal strangulation? Is it suicidal hanging?” Rogers ponders, reviewing the options. “Or is the rope not related to the death at all?”
Dr. Vadims Poukens, who conducted the autopsy, wrote in his report that he observed “advanced decomposition as evidenced by foul odor, body fluid purge, skin discoloration and finger and hand dehydration.” He also noted “extensive fly and maggot activity” on the face. The coroner was able to confirm Thiesfield’s identity by his fingerprints.
The only way to prove strangulation had occurred, says Susy Cruz, a forensic anthropologist at Cal State L.A., would be evidence that the neck’s blood vessels and air passages had been constricted.
Sometimes bones can help tell the story in cases where the body has decomposed, she says. A fractured hyoid, a horseshoe-shaped bone in the throat area, can indicate hanging or strangulation. But this bone is not necessarily broken in all such cases.
Turn the page for more on the Thiesfield investigation.
When police officers arrived at a two-room apartment just south of USC last fall to investigate complaints of foul odors, they found a body decomposed beyond recognition.