On The Job: Crime Scene Doc

Louis Cataldie was about to go to press with his new book Coroner's Journal when Hurricane Katrina struck. With the local government in chaos, Cataldie was appointed Louisiana Medical Examiner, in charge of identifying the hundreds of bodies left in the wake of the disaster. In an ordinary year, he processes 2,000 deaths.

PT: Is your job dangerous?

LC: Crime scenes are inherently dangerous. When I arrive, I don't know who the perpetrator is or where he is. The police officers in that situation are often wild-eyed and fired up, so as I approach, I'm on hyperalert too. And, of course, I'm armed.

You talk to the bodies. Why do you do that?

It's just a form of processing. It helps me keep in perspective the need for this human to be respected, just as you would in a surgical suite. It's almost like enlisting their help in making sure that justice is done.

How do you cope with job-related stress?

My wife DeAnn is a pyschiatric nurse. I have a psychologist friend whom I turn to also. During Katrina, I was walking around so many bodies, and seeing bodies floating in the water, that I often needed to talk.

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One of your mentors was an entymologist. What do insects tell you about a crime scene?

Maggots from a corpse can be put into a blender and made into a slurry—pathologists call it "the maggot milkshake"—that can tell us if the deceased was a drug user and what drug was used. Also, some flies prefer the dark, while others prefer the sunny outdoors. So if a corpse recovered indoors has the larvae of insects that live outdoors, it indicates that someone has moved the body.

How do you determine time of death?

If the death was recent, one of the things I can do is to take a core body temperature by inserting an instrument like a meat thermometer into the liver. I compare the liver temperature to the ambient temperature and estimate the time of death. As a rule of thumb, a body generally cools at about 1 degree Fahrenheit per hour.

How do you deal with the noxious fumes you encounter?

I just take a deep breath of it and then go about my business. If you blot out the smell, you might miss a clue.

You've examined the victims of three serial killers—murders that were all solved. Does the crime scene feel different?

Definitely. The victims usually have not put themselves in harm's way. You can't help feeling, 'Oh, we've been set up.' You feel as if the perpetrator is out there watching.

Which cases do you find most difficult?

I often think about this house fire where two little kids died. We found a four-year-old boy huddled over his little sister, trying to protect her. All that separated them from the fresh air was a glass door. I just imagine the horror that those children went through. It chokes me up when I think about it.

How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed by your experiences?

I can tell you, they don't go away; you can't un-experience them. You've got to have folks to talk to. Writing the book was a way to cope too. It helped to get it all out on paper.

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