A kid gets killed in the cross fire of a shooting. Someone digs up a human skull while planting begonias. An elderly woman dies in her sleep in an apartment no one has visited in years.
In all these cases, somebody or somebodies has to examine the scene and, well, the bodies to find out what happened. And as any fan of hard-boiled detective stories, CSI, or Quincy, M.E. knows, those somebodies are the forensic team, perhaps most prominently the coroner.
It's a mysterious job with macabre connotations, imbued with a mix of excitement and dread. A new show on Spike purports to show armchair detectives what it's really like, with Grand Guignol bravado, but I always wonder, is that really how it is? So I decided to find out.
I start with our own fair city of night, only to discover that the subject of coroners is more complicated than I thought. What TV often portrays as one or two jobs is often many different jobs. And San Francisco County doesn't have a coroner a position defined as an elected or appointed government official who deals with deaths that raise questions. Instead, it has a medical examiner, whose office is headed by an MD or doctor of osteopathy. The difference may seem like semantics, but it's an important distinction for people in the field.
I also learn that it will be next to impossible to meet San Francisco's medical examiner, Dr. Amy Hart. Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Boyd Stephens whose media accessibility and subsequent scrutiny led to controversies about the reuse of needles, improper ventilation against dangerous pathogens in autopsy rooms, misappropriation of funds, and sexual harassment Hart is fairly shy when it comes to the media. Public controversy can be a downside to the job, whether it's over the contested findings of Los Angeles' fabled "coroner to the stars" or the unpopular study by Marin County's coroner of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge.
So I get the basics about the job from Hart's deputy administrative director, Stephen Gelman, at the '50s-era Medical Examiner's Office on the grounds of the Hall of Justice. Gelman, a middle-aged, white-haired former special agent with the Department of the Treasury, explains the makeup of the office: 32 people, including forensic pathologists and anthropologists, toxicologists, chemists, investigators, and administrative personnel.
And becoming part of Hart's team isn't easy, especially since forensic-themed TV shows and the office's involvement with UC San Francisco managed to attract 160 applicants during a recent call for three positions. Preference is given to those with a background in medicine and, at the very least, the funeral industry.
"IT'S CHINATOWN ..."
But those are just the facts. My experience at the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau, an art deco, cream-colored building on the outskirts of Chinatown, is much more visceral.
Inside I meet the genial Lt. Jason Arone, who explains that the bureau has been under the jurisdiction of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office since 1989. That gives Sheriff Gregory Ahern the title of chief coroner, but on a day-to-day basis, Arone is the guy in charge. I also meet Mike Yost, a former detective who is now a public administrator, which means he handles the belongings of decedents, from pets to hidden stashes of money.
Downstairs, the morgue is pretty much what movies would have you expect: cold metal and antiseptic green tile. Arone pauses at the sound of a saw we can't go inside if there's an autopsy under way. But it's just carpenters fixing a door.