Thursday, July 7, 2011

Death Investigation: It's Not Exactly What You See on TV, Part 2

By Michelle Clark

[Originally published in First Draft, the Guppies newsletter.]

I teach a forensic science class at the University of Hartford and I instruct my students not to take what they see on television as reality. There are many aspects of analyzing death scenes that CSI doesn’t really cover, although it does try.

The first is what I like to call "smellivision." The smell of decomposed bodies is difficult to describe, but distinct. Once you smell it, you’ll never forget it. The best way I can explain it to my students is to ask if they have ever smelled a dead animal and suggest that they amplify that odor by about 130-fold, since most adult humans weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

My kids have smelled it, but don’t realize what the smell is. There are days where I have been to a bad decomp scene and when I get home they both squeeze their noses with their fingers and say “Ew, Mom, you smell like work.”

I can’t tell you how many weird looks I’ve gotten at sandwich shops after I leave a decomp scene and try to get something for lunch (yes, I can eat afterwards). The smell gets into everything - hair, clothes, etc. I keep several bottles of Febreeze in the trunk of my car.

Another misconception I try to clear up for my students is that I don’t show up at death scenes in fishnet stockings and high heels, packing heat. My wardrobe consists of jeans, work boots and either a long- or short-sleeved shirt. And, no, I don’t carry a weapon. That’s what the cops are for.

I have had to wade into small lakes and streams, dragging bodies to the shore with firemen - and trudged through water- and ash-drenched burned homes with fire inspectors to look at unidentifiable victims after fatal fires. I walked along railroad tracks picking up pieces, literally, of a man versus train accident. I’m sure you can guess who won. I scraped brain matter off of the highway from a motorcycle accident while my stomach growled because I'd missed breakfast. I climbed trees to help cut down hanging suicide victims and trampled into heavily wooded areas to look at a suicide victim with a gun shot wound to the head. In other words, my job can get very dirty and, at times, is physically demanding.

One thing that they never taught us in grad school was about the emotions of the people at the scenes. Death is obviously very traumatic for survivors, especially when it wasn’t anticipated. I go into people's homes after a loved one has hung or shot themselves. I try to be inconspicuous as I slip into a house filled with bereaved people, locate the officers and do my job as quietly and neatly as possible - but not always with success. Bodies tend to ooze when rolled over.

No one can prepare you for the bereaved father of a young victim or the grieving teenagers whose father hung himself, asking you why. They’ve never met me, but they look to me for answers. I do my best to console them and tell them it’s not their fault, but I’m sure they are so grief-stricken that they wouldn’t remember me the next day.

I’ve talked to family members whose eyes are glazed over in despair and indicated to the friend standing next to them to please repeat the information that I had provided at a later time.

Do I shut it all off? Sure. Am I a robot? No. Do I take my work home with me? No, and my family is my key to forgetting my bad day at work. Will I ever reach my limit? Maybe, but for now I take each day as a new experience and learn from it.

So how did I get to the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime? One of the ways I cope with my day is to write. I started more than a year ago, writing my experiences down, and ended up writing a 487-page manuscript. I have one mystery/paranormal/romance that is almost done and am working on a mystery/crime and a third project, a mystery/thriller.

How do I come up with these story lines? Let’s just say I have pretty vivid and scary dreams - all stemming from reality.

I wanted to learn more about the literary field - and what better place than here in SinC and swimming with the Guppies. I’m learning a lot, from the listserv and from the critique group that I am honored to be a part of through the Guppies (shout out to the M&M Writers critique group).

I hope I have given you a little introduction into my workday and what death investigators do, at least here in Connecticut. One of my students this semester asked me if I thought I could pull off the perfect crime. Smiling, I told him that there’s no such thing as the perfect crime. He'll just have to read about that when my books gets published.


Michelle Clark graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut with a B.S. in Medical Technology and earned a master’s degree in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven. She currently works as a Death Investigator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut. She is board-certified as a Medical Technologist and board-certified as a Molecular Biologist.

While her kids are a great distraction from her job, she finds that writing helps her escape. She tried her hand in the paranormal/romance/mystery genre and finished a 487-page manuscript called Haunted, which still needs to be cleaned up. She is at work on two more WIPs: Jurisdiction of Bodies, about a death investigator who finds herself in the midst of catching a killer in Connecticut, and Note to Self, a mystery/thriller about a CSI who’s getting calls on her answering machine in her own voice, telling her to kill herself.

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