Coroner to the Suicides

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.

“If we have 20,000 cases every year, we take jurisdiction in 18,000.” Campbell is sitting at his desk in his captain’s office at the coroner’s main facility on Mission Road in Lincoln Heights. It is late March, his last week with the department before he retires. Campbell’s office, bare of decoration and in need of a paint job, befits his bleak job, yet he seems wistful about leaving it. Behind him is a wooden vulture statue given to him as a wedding-anniversary present by his wife, Carol, a county administrative assistant.

On his desk is an old

Far Side

comic that depicts two detectives examining a laboratory full of dead cats, with the caption: “Notice all the computations, theoretical scribblings and lab equipment, Norm . . . Yes, curiosity killed these cats.” Yes, even those who work in this gloomiest of professions have a sense of humor. According to Campbell, coroners like to joke about dying “decomp” (decomposing before discovery) at the top of a 15-story building without an elevator, leaving no next-of-kin identification behind — just to make life difficult for their colleagues.

Every few minutes the phone rings; twice, Campbell correctly predicts that it is the Korean media, wanting to know whether any Korean-Americans have died. One of the few things that irks Campbell about his job, he says, is how little attention people pay to the universality of death.

“While you and I share a common experience in the loss of a loved one, you don’t care about the death of my Uncle Sam, nor do I care about the death of your Aunt Mary,” he says. “You may have services set, and we’d like to accommodate you, but we handle 50 to 60 cases a day. It becomes such a personal time for the family, it’s hard for them to see that.”

A reporter from the

Los Angeles Times

calls next, interested in doing a story on the drawer of a black filing cabinet in Campbell’s office that contains the most famous high-profile deaths in the department’s 150-year history, everyone from the Black Dahlia to Nicole Brown Simpson. In addition to serving as the captain of forensics and investigative divisions, Campbell also handles the department’s press affairs, one reason he is so familiar with the numbers.

“Nine to ten thousand come into our facility, and maybe a dozen will be undetermined,” says Campbell. “It isn’t that high, unless you’re a family member wanting to know what happened.”

Even when the circumstances are clear, explaining to a decedent’s next of kin what happened to their loved one is one of the hardest duties Campbell and his fellow investigators must perform. Contrary to public perception, it is often the coroner’s responsibility, not the police department’s, to find and inform next of kin and ask the tough questions.

“Can you imagine this: a SIDS death?” says Campbell, referring to a tragedy that visits dozens of families in Campbell’s jurisdiction every year. “Can you imagine interviewing a parent, mother or father, while the child is lying dead in the next room? ‘Well, how long was the pregnancy? Did you have natural childbirth or was it by cesarean section? When did you last feed the baby? How much did the baby eat? Was it breastfed or was it formula? Did you have any injuries or accidents during the pregnancy? Do you smoke or abuse drugs?’ The family is distraught, they’re upset and grieving. But our investigator can’t play Mr. or Mrs. Nice Person, saying, ‘I’ll just come back later when you’re feeling better.’ They may not be there later.”

In the case of suicides, truth often perishes with the decedent. Sometimes, a note is left. Campbell remembers the heartbreaking words of one distraught 18-year-old who ended his life by hanging himself: “A rope, a beam, an end to my dreams.” Another, Campbell recalls, was simply a stick-figure drawing that a man mailed his girlfriend just before shooting himself. Without words, the note indicated the location of his body under the crawlspace of the house.

But suicides usually don’t leave notes, and Campbell says he has spent years trying to make sense of death without the help of the living — even when the living are right there.

“I remember a case that was so disturbing. A woman killed her baby and herself and left a suicide note saying it really didn’t matter because no one cared. The next of kin arrived at the death scene, and the first thing she said was, ‘Is this going to take long? I have a hairdresser’s appointment.’ It struck me: ‘Oh my God, maybe this poor girl was right. Maybe it really didn’t matter.’ ”

It was a tough realization for Campbell, who began to consider the rationality of suicide during his father’s five-year terminal bout with cancer. “One case that struck me significantly was the death of an elderly couple. Both had been cigarette smokers and had severe emphysema, and the wife was on oxygen 24 hours a day. They’d been married about 50 years, and they chose to end their lives. They’d read a book called

Final Exit

by Derek Humphrey, a how-to book on how to kill yourself.”

“The suicide note was a love letter to their children,” Campbell continues. “They were no longer able to care for themselves and faced the prospect of going into a nursing home and possibly being separated, and were concerned about the loss of dignity. They’d lived in the same house for over 30 years, they’d seen their children and grandchildren grow up, and they were proud of them. And the husband said something like, ‘82 years is enough.’ ”

Around that time, Campbell read

Final Exit

himself. “My father had cancer and what was interesting about that was he contemplated suicide. I don’t think I would have thought less of him had he acted it out.”

It was an idea that challenged his theological training, of course, says Campbell, but it wasn’t the only one. Despite his belief in seminary that Christ’s fate had little to do with His remains, Campbell says he came to realize over time how much witness is offered by a corpse.

“It’s important to listen to what the body tells you. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas.”

He learned this lesson, he says, from his first boss at the Coroner’s department, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, who earned the moniker “Coroner to the Stars” and inspired the protagonist of the ’80s TV show


by investigating the deaths of such high-profile victims as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Kennedy and Sharon Tate. Eventually, charges of mismanagement and complaints over Noguchi’s public discussion of celebrity deaths forced him from his post as chief medical examiner. One of Noguchi’s final legacies to the department was Campbell, the last investigator the famed coroner ever hired.

In the preceding decades, says Campbell, most investigators were hired without much investigative experience. “They were former embalmers and morticians,” he says. But by the end of the Noguchi era the department began to push for investigators with investigative experience.

Having conducted investigations for the county probation department, Campbell fit the bill, and his skills were quickly put to the test. One of his challenges was investigating the apparent suicide of Alon Saxon, the president of one of the country’s largest bullion dealers, found dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning in his Venice condominium.

“Saxon bought a moped and hooked a washing-machine drain hose, taped it to a garden hose and put under the door to his sauna,” recalls Campbell. With 60 million dollars of investors’ bullion missing from Saxon’s safe, the media speculated as to whether Saxon had been robbed or possibly faked his own death. Campbell’s investigation helped the district attorney and the Security and Exchange Commission determine that the body was indeed Saxon’s and his mode of death suicide. “I got letters of commendation, and I was still a rookie. I thought the only way my career could go from there was downhill.”

It didn’t, however. Campbell followed Noguchi’s advice — “listen to what the body tells you” — from Saxon’s case all the way to the last apparent suicide he investigated, a woman who appeared to have hung herself from a clothesline bar in her Alhambra backyard. At the time, the woman was undergoing a divorce from her husband, who still lived in the house with their children.

“The story was, sometime during the night she must have killed herself,” says Campbell. “The husband claims he never saw her and went to work not knowing what happened. She hadn’t slept in her bed the night before, but some interesting things came up. During my physical exam of the body I noticed a bruise on her cheek. The husband acknowledged they’d had a fight the night before and he’d struck her.”

“There were other inconsistencies,” Campbell continues. “Typically the family used the back door for all entrance and exit from the house. On this particular morning, Dad sent the kids to school through the front door. But what really struck me the ligature had hair through the knot. The person who kills him- or herself wants to die — they don’t want to hurt.”

Gratifying as it is to understand what the body has to say, and to achieve justice for the dead, Campbell says that kind of sympathy is taxing. “When I deal with the family, I think of the decedent as a person. When I’m doing the examination of the body, the body itself is evidence. But sometimes you can’t help thinking of the person when you don’t want to.

“When I walk down a hallway to examine the body, and I notice it’s a young child or an attractive person or if I realize it’s senseless — and we get a lot of senseless deaths — sometimes you’re moved by that. You can’t completely divorce yourself.”

After 24 years with the department, Campbell is looking forward to spending time with his brothers in Sacramento; the job has made him realize how short life is. “I’m tired of the bodies.” Now, he says, it is a new generation’s turn to open its ears to the dead.

In his last days at the coroner’s office, Campbell’s phone rings constantly — and it’s not just the Korean media. It’s still unclear who will now answer the dozens of calls the department receives each day from spectators seeking morgue tours, crime writers asking for help with their novels, and high school and college students seeking career advice after watching television shows such as

CSI, Crossing Jordan, Navy NCIS


Forensic Files.

The sudden interest bewilders Campbell: Only a few years ago, he says, his line of work received little recognition. “The attitude was that it’s hard to get anybody really good because who wants to work with dead bodies,” Campbell notes. “If a person said they had a lifelong interest in being a coroner, they were viewed with great suspicion.”

Times have changed. In response to the heightened public awareness surrounding forensic science after the September 11 terror attacks, a dozen or more universities have added forensic-science majors. Last year, it was ranked the most popular major at West Virginia University for the second year in a row.

The result, says Campbell, is that his office is overwhelmed by calls from people who may not truly realize the stresses of the job. He says that most coroner employees quit right away or stay for decades; few choose his line of work for a short-term job. Psychologists have even developed a personality test, the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory, to help determine which prospective coroner employees can handle death, and which can’t. But what the test doesn’t measure is the cumulative effects. At one point, admits Campbell, he suffered panic attacks.

“If I go to funerals, I don’t view the body,” he says. And he has attended funerals for only two of his cases. One, a gang shooting, outraged him so much he wanted to make a statement; the other was the re-interment of some Native American skeletal remains found on an MTA construction site. “People might think you become hardened after so many years dealing with bodies and upset people, but the truth of the matter is the longer I do this the more sensitive I become to it. I find it easier to cry at movies and tragic events and understand the pain others go through. I think of the families of dying soldiers and the innocent child who runs across the street to go to the ice-cream man and gets hit by the car. How can you not be affected? I’ve reached my limit.”

He continues. “I’m 53, I could have worked nine more years and gotten full salary. At the end of last year, there was a brutal homicide in Hollywood, the most horrific murder I was aware of. I didn’t even work it, I just saw the photos and handled the media calls, but the savagery was more than anything I’d ever seen. I can envision the scenes now without visiting them.”

Campbell smiles. “I joke with people that I have the only job in the world where you can go out on psychological leave and be considered normal.”

On one of Campbell’s last days on the job, his co-workers throw him a roast. In a building adjacent to the main coroner’s office, the staff gathers in suits and medical smocks to eat a Chinese-food buffet and see Campbell off. The Korean media have come to pay their respects, as has Dr. Noguchi himself, a small man who sits on the edge of the room, surrounded by admirers. One by one, Campbell’s brothers and co-workers come to the podium to tease Campbell about the time he shot himself while cleaning his gun, or his mania for working part-time jobs (park ranger, armored-car guard) to distract himself from his coroner’s duties.

Afterwards, one of his lieutenants, Ed Winters, presents mock-telegrams of congratulations from Dan Rather, Robert Blake and the late Pope, who advises Campbell: “Now that you’re done fooling around with your life, come back to the Church.”

At that, Campbell blushes and grins, looking as if that might be just the kind of easy retirement he’s had in mind after all these years.

The procession with the body, now wrapped in plastic, begins. The gurney is too large, so the decedent must be carried downstairs.

“I’ve had so many stairs this week,” complains Blanchard.

“My wife and I are looking at homes,” says Campbell, shaking his head. “We don’t want to get one with stairs, and this is one of the reasons. It’s hard to get the coroner out of your system, I guess.”

The atmosphere in the house is strangely subdued. The elderly mother shuffles around, answering calls on her portable phone from friends and relatives who want to know what happened. She calmly explains to a caller that her ex-son-in-law is driving over to her school to let her youngest granddaughter know. Her husband sits placidly in his wheelchair. A neighbor wanders in to see what is happening. Outside, a dog yaps and birds sing.

“Sir, it may disturb you to see this,” Blanchard tells the decedent’s father, as she comes around the corner. A priest with a thin white stole stands behind him, rubbing his head. “Do you want to go in the other room?”

“I don’t think it will bother me,” the father says.

“You’re doing fine,” Campbell consoles him. “I know it’s tough.”

“It’s a rough time,” agrees the father.

Strangely, though, neither of the parents seems overwhelmed, as if some part of them had anticipated this tragedy for a long time now. They watch as the body is placed onto the gurney, where it lies in their home’s sunlit entryway, covered by a coroner’s blanket. The priest, a former INS employee named Frank Hicks, quietly pronounces the sacrament. The silence is interrupted only by the squawking of a police radio.

“Amen,” says Campbell at the end.

“When did she do this?” asks the mother, showing everyone to the door. She doesn’t ask why.

“It was 12 hours ago,” Campbell says.

“I’m sorry she had such a rotten past five years,” the mother replies. “She was a good girl.”

Walking outside to the coroner car, Campbell remembers that he delivered last rites back in seminary. “I was too young and immature to appreciate their value,” he says. “But now I do.”

As he takes the passenger seat, preparing to return to the coroner’s office after this final call, something else occurs to him. “Sometimes you can’t drive through neighborhoods without remembering all the deaths in that area,” he says.

“I do remember them,” Blanchard agrees, starting the car. “Look,” she says, as we pull from the curb.

Blanchard points at the license-plate holder of the car parked outside the house, a red sedan belonging to the decedent. Just as the dead leave their notes behind for the living, so do the living for the dead, it seems.

“Love ‘The Girls,’ ” the license-plate holder reads. “We Love You Mommy.”


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