Pig carcasses, lipstick and lots of dirt: L.A. coroner’s office teaches investigators more about finding murdered bodies

 In blog, Crime News: Los Angeles Daily News

Pig carcasses, lipstick and lots of dirt: L.A. coroner’s office teaches investigators more about finding murdered bodies

by Josh Cain

Out of three waist-deep holes in the ground came a slew of macabre discoveries.

Lipstick. Then sunglasses and a dog collar, followed by dirty ribs.

  • Paul Richards, a Fremont Police officer, William Caldwell, Imperial County Sr. Dep. Coroner, and Kim Barner, a Tulare County autopsy asst., look for artifacts as they sift dirt from a pig gravesite during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

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  • The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • A pig gravesite is uncovered during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jonathan Chastain, a forensic anthropology student at UCSB, takes notes of findings as Gabriel Zambrano, a crime scene technician with Imperial County Sheriff Dept., sifts dirt from a pig gravesite during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jen Romero, who works for the Orange County DA and wants to be a coroner investigator, helps her team uncover a pig gravesite during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Brian Elias, chief of coroner investigations operations bureau for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office leads a team of investigators who run the weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Pig bones are collected from a gravesite during a weeklong Skeleton Recovery Workshop in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office teaches detectives, crime scene investigators and criminologists how to find and identify hidden grave sites. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

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After a little more excavating, the teams of crime-scene investigators, homicide detectives and others found nylon stockings filled with additional bones.

Then came the skulls.

Nearly a half-day of digging, measuring, and sweeping away fine layers of dirt, they had unearthed, among other things, piles of bones they could use to put the crime victim they had found back together again.

The three bodies, found by about 40 students last week in a forested patch of Griffith Park, were real.

The crimes, say murder and hiding bodies, were just pretend. The students in this hands-on class taught by instructors from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office were searching for pig carcasses, buried months ago for the coroner’s annual Skeleton Recovery Workshop.

“We were calling this one Ms. Piggy,” said Michelle Lee, an investigator in the coroner’s office.

She pointed into a hole, where the remains of a pig were buried with earrings and nylons.

“Porky’s over there,” she said, gesturing to nearby grave.

The week-long program, in classroom settings and outside spread over 40 hours, covers bone identification and grave-site processing.

Other topics on the syllabus: “human decomposition, mass fatalities, coroner-related law, prosecution of cases involving recovered remains, bones used in rituals, and human-remains-detection canines.”

The demand for these skills is huge, said Brian Elias, L.A. County’s chief of coroner investigations.

Needed are savvy investigators with experience scouring patches of dirt to find decomposed remains – without destroying anything of value – and who can differentiate leftover animal bones from human ones.

“There’s a lot of skeletal remains that are found or buried bodies that occur in this county,” Elias said. “I think more so than people realize.”

Instructors with the the L.A. coroner’s office have been teaching the Skeleton Recovery Workshop for the last 15 or so years, drawing students from local and state agencies – and beyond. The list of agencies that ask to send a worker or two each year grows.

Sheriff’s departments, other coroner’s offices, crime-scene units and county and state attorney’s offices in addition to arson investigators are repeat customers. The cost for the students, covered by their agencies, is $550 each.

This time, the 14 law-enforcement agencies included the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and the Torrance and the Los Angeles forces.

The workshop is one of just a handful of such programs in the U.S. Few coroner’s departments are big enough to devote multiple investigators to a week of instruction. Some of the other programs that specialize in teaching how human bodies decompose don’t offer the same hands-on experience.

L.A. County’s workshop “directly relates to real-world” scenarios a detective or coroner’s investigator would find at an actual grave site, Elias said, with injury patterns and locations mirroring actual cases.

“How do you search? How do you dig? How do you collect evidence?” he said. “How do you document these things, and how do you potentially present a case? We go all the way from the beginning to the end.”

Getting dirty

The beginning means getting the students’ hands dirty.

In three teams of a dozen each, the students trek into a leafy, secluded glen in Griffith Park in search of hidden graves.

The instructors might guide them a bit, but in many respects they’re on their own, putting to the test lessons they learned the first three days.

They search for a recently disturbed patch of dirt, or an area where vegetation has been cut away. Or they can deploy a metal bar with a pointed end to poke into the ground to find objects.

Once they find the right spot, the digging begins.

It’s difficult work – mounds of dirt are hauled out and carted away to sifting stations. On a sweltering day, the work is exhausting.

“What most people don’t understand is how hard it really is to bury a body,” Elias said.

The first sight, or smell, of the body picks everyone’s energy back up.

“I got a whiff a moment ago,” one instructor said.

“Whoa! What’s that?” asked a student, prone, with her shoulders and head over the hole as she brushed away dirt – from something.

“Looks like part of a belt,” another student said.

“It’s fun when you find something,” Nani Cholakians, another L.A. County coroner’s investigator and workshop instructor, said about this game students play to learn. “When you’re going down two feet and there’s nothing but dirt, it can be pretty disappointing.”

Some of the techniques the students learn come straight from archaeology. Before working for the coroner’s office, Cholakians participated in archaeological digs in the Caucasus mountain range that borders Europe and Asia while studying at UCLA.

“The site I was working at was over 4,000 years old,” she recalled. “The preservation of the bones was incredible. All of these are methods taken from the world of archaeology, but we have financial constraints and time constraints. (Coroner’s investigators) have to do this in a day or two.”

A student lowers a plumb bob to measure the grave’s depth. More dirt hauling and sifting, until finally the students uncover a skull and a rib cage.

Once the remains are out of the ground, there’s more work to be done. Like an organic jigsaw puzzle, the students lay out all of the bones on a white sheet, reassembling them to create the figure of the pig.

The next day, the teams will present their techniques and conclusions to classmates and instructors, and what they found in their grave sites.

“Going methodically – that is definitely the way to do it,” said Shelly Luna, a San Diego Police Department homicide detective, surveying her team’s grave.

Luna has been a San Diego cop for 22 years, following her father who had served in the department. Some of the lessons from the week would never have occurred to her.

“We learned about bugs that we may come across to actually tell how long somebody has been deceased,” she said. “Just putting all that stuff together, it helps us think outside the box. Some of this stuff is not always that obvious.”

The draw to the work

The nature of the work, combining science with criminal investigations, is what attracted Lee, one of the coroner’s investigators and instructors, to the field.

“I wanted to be a detective, but … I wanted something more science-y, where I’d be in a lab,” she said.

Growing up, Lee was fascinated with crime novels. Even after she interned in the coroner’s office, it wasn’t apparent to her loved ones that working in a coroner’s office was her calling.

“I talked about it with my family,” she said. “When I finally got hired (at the L.A. County coroner’s office), they were like, ‘Oh, you were serious about that?’ “

The Skeleton Recovery Workshop is designed for those comfortable with working around death. Most students pass without much trouble, but there have been a few cases of them not making it through the course once the skeleton recovery begins in earnest, Elias said.

For a career with intestinal fortitude as a prerequisite, constant death still can be mentally draining. Setting limits is important, said Robert Fierro, another L.A. County coroner’s investigator.

“There’s no nice way to tell somebody that someone’s dead, but you have to do it,” he said.

Co-workers support and comfort one another.

Fierro has worked in the coroner’s office for 30 years, all in the Antelope Valley. He said he had no interest in the work when a job came open up all those years ago.

“My wife said I’d be perfect for it,” he said, laughing.

Fierro either knew how to compartmentalize going in, or learned to accomplish it.

“I know all day long I’m going to be dealing with death,” he said. “But when I’m off, I’m off. …You can’t associate yourself with it for too long.”

Preparing the graves

Getting the makeshift graves ready for the students requires nearly as much, if not more, work than it takes for the professionals to dig them back up.

First, the coroner’s instructors get the carcasses from a local pig farm, which sets aside a few animals that have died from sickness or old age.

Showing what a stab wound looks like after months of decomposition means giving the pig carcass a stab wound. To provide a body with a gunshot wound, the pig carcass is shot.

Finally, the instructors pick their spots and dig big holes to put each of the pigs in. That all has to be done months in advance to give the carcasses time to decompose.

But before the pigs are buried, the instructors round up the evidence to go with the bodies, dressing them in much the same way a human body would be if one were hastily dumped in a hole.

Socks, nylons and other clothes go on the dead pigs, with items such as glasses, a wallet, a driver license, a flashlight.

Sometimes, Elias will go to a 99¢ Only Store for the clothing.

Other times …

“Some of them are probably wearing my (old) clothes down there,” Elias said.

Agencies that sent employees to this year’s Skeleton Recovery Workshop:

  • Fremont Police Department
  • Imperial County Sheriff’s Office
  • Los Angeles Police Department, Forensic Service Division
  • Los Angeles Police Department, South Bureau Homicide
  • Los Angeles Police Department, West Bureau Homicide
  • Riverside County Sheriff’s Department
  • San Diego County Sheriff’s Department
  • San Diego Police Department
  • Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department
  • Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office
  • Santa Monica Police Department
  • Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department
  • Torrance Police Department
  • Tulare County Sheriff’s Department
  • Office of the State Fire Marshal (California)
  • Orange County District Attorney’s Office

(Source: LA County coroner’s office)

All credit goes to Josh Cain Originally published on https://www.dailynews.com

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