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.
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.
The position in which Thiesfield’s body was found – lying on his back in the doorway of his bedroom – did not offer helpful clues, either, says Elizabeth Miller, head of Cal State L.A.’s forensic pathology programs.
In a suicide hanging, “usually the cord would be tied around something, like a doorknob, or hung from something, like a light fixture,” she says. But sometimes the cord slips off.
Police only investigate deaths that the coroner rules to be a homicide, so the investigation essentially evaporated after the “undetermined” ruling.
The case will likely stay cold, says Gus Villanueva, an LAPD spokesman.
“We can't go forward unless someone comes forward and says, ‘Hey, I was there and this is what happened — he was murdered,’” he says.
Thiesfield’s neighbors in the eight-unit complex of apartments encircling a narrow concrete courtyard on 38th Street near Exposition Boulevard regarded Thiesfield as a ghost even in life.
“Don’t know nothing about him,” says one man, sitting shirtless in a recliner watching television with the front door propped open.
“No idea,” says another in a gravely voice, barely visible from behind a metal security door.
“I never saw him,” says a middle-aged woman in Spanish, as she peers out from behind a window screen.
Several of Thiesfield’s family members, some living in Connecticut, didn’t respond to or declined interview requests. An obituary published in the Hartford Courant offered a few small clues into his personal history: Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1954, he was one of 10 children. By the time he attended high school, he was living in Connecticut, and later attended the University of Connecticut. He had moved to Los Angeles by the early '80s, public records show, and had lived in Van Nuys, Burbank and Granada Hills before renting the unit in South L.A.
According to the obituary, Thiesfield enjoyed Santa Monica’s beaches and was a “fitness enthusiast” with a talent for martial arts. He worked as a computer programmer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and was a veteran himself.
The obituary does not indicate when or where Thiesfield served, and veteran records from after 1952 are sealed to the general public. Thiesfield turned 18 in 1972, just at the Vietnam War’s tail end.
When Thiesfield died, detectives found among his papers the business card for a social worker from a VA program that helps veterans transition from homelessness to permanent housing, according to the LAPD search warrant report. A coroner’s investigator learned that he'd been recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, says Rogers, the county forensic doctor.
If Thiesfield's death was a suicide, it would fit a statistic: Veterans over 50 comprised 69 percent of veteran suicides from 1999 through 2011, according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. And, as a group, veterans accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s suicides in the same time frame.
Thiesfield’s neighborhood, known as Exposition Park, is among L.A. County’s poorest. Within Thiesfield’s zip-code, households earn an annual median income of roughly $27,000, according to the Census Bureau.
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Thiesfield’s residence appeared clean and empty on a Sunday afternoon several months after his death. Windows barricaded with white iron bars let in slivers of sunlight, revealing two front rooms with hardwood floors. A menu for a local pizza joint hung from the front door knob. Outside the back door, a yellow cleaning pail and mop had been left on a narrow walkway of weeds and grass. On neighboring lots, pit bulls and mutts barked from behind chain-link fences, while women pushed strollers over cracked sidewalks sprouting with dandelions.
The fate of the apartment's former tenant remains a mystery.
“If it is a homicide, this is going to be about as much as I can tell you, because it would be an ongoing investigation,” says Robert Lait, the detective who discovered Thiesfield’s body. “If it’s a suicide, then you would know about as much as I do.”
This article was produced by Intersections South LA, a student-run news website at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Intersections features in-depth reporting about South L.A. covering an area from University Park to Watts. Contact the site at firstname.lastname@example.org.