In America, if you’re going to die, especially before your time, it better be by natural causes and not require a whole lot of investigation to support that finding. Because, if your death is the result of foul play but there’s no glaring evidence of blunt force trauma, it’ll probably be through either good luck or powerful connections that it’s ever ruled a homicide.
Why is that? Well, for starters, there are tons of dead bodies piling up out there and a dearth of medical examiners to perform thorough autopsies on them.
It’s also about money.
Expediency in making death determinations is one of the major reasons that the relationship between a local police department and the coroner’s office is so “tight.” Cops are often the first to be called to the scene whenever a corpse is found, and their opinions greatly influence how closely forensic pathologists in turn look at that body once it’s been transported to the morgue and placed on a slab.
If, for instance, a deceased young male is fished out of the river after he vanished from a nearby pub or party, then, unless the lad’s also missing his head or bullet-ridden, his death is almost instantly ruled an “accidental drowning.” This will be true, regardless of how suspicious his initial disappearance might have been, or whether the non-recreational water fatality occurred during a cold-weather month.
Open, shut and certified: “The guy was drunk, went to the water for some fresh air, slipped on a rock, fell in, and died.”
At its best, law enforcement working side by side like this with a medical examiner so to expedite a cause of death is arguably an economical and efficient arrangement which can quickly dispose of those cases where there clearly is “no sign of foul play” involved.
But, at its worst, this coziness presents a situation that’s just rife for corruption and cover ups...
Corruption and cover ups
Without a doubt, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s history of scandal is legendary, and, like many major cities in the USA, cops being demoted, resigning in disgrace, or even doing the perp walk, has become an annual event. Every year, every decade, every century, has seen some degree of wrongdoing by Indy’s finest publicly exposed and criticized.
This year it went straight to the top, as the chief of police himself was forced out of the job for tampering with the blood sample of one of his officers who’d been drinking on duty and killed someone as a result of driving while intoxicated.
The drunken IMPD officer, who also severely injured two other pedestrians in the incident, had a blood alcohol reading of 0.19, twice the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle in Indiana.
In addition to IMPD’s top cop, three more high ranking Marion County police brass who took part in the attempted criminal cover-up were demoted, and, last heard, the FBI was still investigating the matter.
Crooked cops and killer cops and cops concocting conspiracies behind closed doors doesn’t do much to bolster public confidence. Yet this may all pale in comparison to the notorious Marion County Coroner’s Office, located cross-town from the police station, where evidence tampering is said to be only the tip of the malfeasance iceberg.
The coroner of Marion County claims to “speak for the dead” and that’s a noble ambition because otherwise it’s true that dead men tell no tales, particularly those found in water. Unfortunately though, the coroner’s office has a long established record of achieving just the opposite.
In fact, some citizens of Indianapolis and the surrounding regions that rely on Marion County’s forensic services declare it to be quite possibly the worst run facility in the country. They blame decades of mismanagement and cronyism as the main cause for this, and cite some astonishing violations of decency and code.
Filth, stench, neglect…whether there was a singular moment in time when things at the morgue took a precipitous decline, or whether everything just slowly spiraled out of control, no one really knows anymore. But conditions definitely didn’t improve in the early 1990’s when the now-infamous Dr. Thomas Gill had been employed.
“I had no formal training in forensic pathology and therefore made mistakes,” he admitted, years after the fact while under investigation for medical incompetence in Oregon, Missouri and California.
Fired time and time again in nearly every state he worked for inaccurate findings, alcohol abuse, and poor performance, Gill also confessed that he was especially deficient in analyzing the type of autopsies “where findings tend to be more subtle and complex.”
He is long gone from Marion County Indiana now, and good riddance, but Gill’s habitual bungling and subpar methodology seems to have been upheld there like a cherished tradition, nevertheless.
Fast forward to the year 2006 when, over public objections, Dr. Joye Carter joined the team as Marion County's chief pathologist and brought along her ghoulish brand of morgue management.
Under her watch the coroner’s digs got so rancid it could gag a maggot, employees complained. Indeed, a few of them became so disgusted with their workplace environs they secretly video-taped areas of the building, anonymously providing local news networks with film footage that looked like it came straight from a horror flick.
Blood spatter and spills, fluid seepage, bodies being crowded and stacked—it’s lucky for Carter her disgruntled workers didn’t include scratch-and-sniff cards with their exposé.
“I am a stickler for cleanliness,” she shamelessly responded to the onslaught of media inquiries. “And we do have personal protection gear.”
A stickler for cleanliness is a rather bold claim for Carter to make in any era because her résumé reveals she is anything but, and the unsanitary conditions at Marion County’s house of horrors was no different than those she’d supervised in Washington D.C. back in 1996.
That was the year the Washington Post caught wind of her activities and described the situation at that city’s morgue as a “grisly backlog.” Carter had shut the crematorium down and Post reporters noted in their article that bodies were being piled up like “cordwood” and the “filth” on the floors and walls was unimaginable.
As could only be expected, the atmosphere there was growing positively putrid, and not just from rot.
Adding to this macabre mayhem, the ventilation system and other vital equipment including coolers and drainpipes had not been properly maintained, and so, with hundreds of autopsies and toxicology tests languishing as a result of all this chaos, the problems were hindering police investigations.
Carter’s solution when the U.S. Public Health Department swooped in to check it out? She resigned and fled to Texas where the unsuspecting citizens of Harris County welcomed her as their chief medical examiner.
But strife and stench followed Dr. Doom all the way to Houston.
There, Carter’s sloppy disregard and disrespect for the dead nearly cost her a medical license when she justifiably came under fire for allowing unlicensed personnel to perform autopsies. She then dug herself and Harris County into deeper conflict by firing the whistleblower who’d reported the illegal goings on at the coroner’s office.
For that succession of scandals, the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners handed Dr. Carter a stiff fine, and a federal jury went on to grant her former assistant a $250,000 judgment for wrongful discharge.
But reprimands and financial penalties would not suffice to bring about any real redemption, unfortunately. Carter’s office was also accused of tampering with evidence at the behest of the Texas police in connection with the murder of a 12-year-old girl, and, once more, was found guilty of stacking corpses on top of each other, in violation of health standards and morgue policy.
And that’s not all
If, for some odd reason, Dr. Joye Carter’s name rings a distant bell, then it’s probably because she was the one who did the autopsy on the high profile “suicide” of Clifford Baxter, of Enron Inc. notoriety, who was “discovered” dead in his automobile by the Sugar Land Texas Police in 2002.
At that time the congressional investigation into the Enron debacle was going full steam, and Clifford was rumored to be a critical witness in the upcoming hearings, one able to furnish damning evidence regarding then-president George W. Bush’s involvement with the faux and failed billion-dollar corporation.
So his sudden death was more than a little convenient, to say the least.
Texan police investigators, evidently eager to close the case as quickly as possible, were already insisting on day one that Baxter had offed himself because of his heavy financial losses and highly publicized fall from grace. That’s why they permitted his corpse to be sent straight to a funeral home without an examination and had a Sugarland justice of the peace certify that his death was self inflicted.
No dusting for fingerprints, no evidence collected, a body quietly whisked away within only hours of finding it without an autopsy ordered or the hands bagged, a crime scene stomped on and contaminated…all this raised eyebrows and outrage.
Even crime experts like famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht and former homicide detective Bill Wagner went on the record to express serious doubts as to the plausibility of Baxter’s suicide. They pointed the media’s attention to prominent clues that could have at a glance indicated murder. Chief among these were:
1. The use of “bird shot” which is a virtually untraceable choice of ammunition not normally used for shooting anything but small animals;
2. Injuries on one of the victim’s hands and shards of glass inside his shirt;
3. Blood smears on the outside of the automobile;
4. An unsigned suicide note placed in his wife’s car at the family residence.
“Murder can be made to look like a suicide,” Wecht and Wagner had both warned. “Someone who is knowledgeable about forensics can very well have the ability to stage a murder, commit a murder and make it look as if it was a suicide, understanding what the police are going to be looking for."
Yes, they sure can, but still, amid the growing public outcry which was to force Texas officials to finally relent and allow an autopsy to be performed in Houston, Dr. Joye Carter nevertheless hastened to affirm the police ruling of suicide, even before the complete results of her medical examination had come in.
Time is of the essence when processing certain dead bodies, obviously—nearly 10 years later, in Marion County Indiana, Dr. Carter’s office would be heaped with praise and a plaque from the mayor of Indianapolis for reducing the cycling time of autopsies to 50 percent.
Of course, that’s an award for beating the clock, not necessarily for excellence.
Murder by accident
Today, no one really knows yet how Walton Matthew Ward, 23, and Joshua Swalls, 22, each happened to “accidentally” enter a nearby body of water and drown this autumn in the heart of Indianapolis. Their deaths, separated by only a matter of weeks and a few city blocks, are still awaiting a final determination from Marion County’s esteemed medical examiners.
Matt Ward was visiting Indianapolis and was last observed on October 13, 2012 in the parking lot of a downtown bar called Landsharks where he was being physically removed by the bouncer. During the event he dialed 911 from his cell phone but the call was intercepted after just one second. He then vanished into thin air and was never seen alive again—Ward’s body was found 10 days later bobbing in the swift currents of the White River.
As everyone knows, it’s common practice for off-duty officers to moonlight as security for nightclubs or other businesses requiring their expert talents at protection. However, it’s not known if this was the case for Landsharks’ bar-and-grill because management hasn’t volunteered any information about the bouncer, and he reportedly was never questioned by detectives.
Josh Swalls too had been visiting an Indianapolis neighborhood in 2012, and, in the early morning hours of November 4th, had briefly stepped outside his friend’s apartment complex, leaving behind a coat, car keys, wallet and cell phone. He was never seen alive again either—his body showed up three weeks later in the nearby retention pond which had already been thoroughly searched by IMPD’s tactical divers at the time he first went missing.
In what can only be described then as classic fumbling form, the Marion County Coroner’s Office assured the Swalls that the drown victim delivered to the morgue was not their son, having yet to complete a full autopsy on it. They had to do an about-face the next day and request a dental match up as an afterthought.
It’s unfortunate enough that these two young men met such an untimely and watery demise, and both disappearing under such sinister circumstances serves to further deepen their tragedies. But, that the truth about what really happened to them may teeter now between questionable police procedures and a halfhearted medical inquiry, isn’t very consoling to those left behind hoping for closure or justice.
Sadly, the chances of that truth coming to light, in a place where Truth itself is too often viewed as the enemy and subject to the whim and skill of whoever’s in charge of finding it, seems unlikely.
Or at least not without a great deal of persistence.