Last week's episode of The Coroner: I Speak for the Dead raised awareness around a topic ravaging our nation. I will see more deaths this year from opioids than from all the accidents and homicides combined.
Has addiction touched your life or your family? What do YOU think can be done? Please comment below; it will help me as I research this topic, which has become a personal mission.
Make no mistake, this WAS a homicide, with the recovering addict as the victim.
Thanks as always for your support.
Rather than writing a blog post, after each episode of The Coroner: I Speak For the Dead, I'm going to try and give commentaries on my YouTube Channel, hopefully providing more insight and allowing you a chance to ask me any questions you might have! Hope you enjoy.
Also, you'll have to please bear with me as I learn about this moving forward.
Let me know what you'd like me to talk about, or what you have questions on.
November, which kicks off the holiday season, is the beginning of a new cycle. To me it is a symbolic cycle period in which the land goes to rest after aging another year. The Creator shows us so much about ourselves through nature.
We learn that nothing is constant. Everything appears in cycles. We are an entity, a consciousness beyond our own body. Our real self, the thing that animates us, some call it spirit, is simply clothed by the body. We go through cycles just like nature. We first are babies in infant bodies, we become children, from childhood we become young adults and then mature as we head into old age. In each phase, we are the same "self", just passing through many forms. Although I have passed through many phases, I write to you now in the November of my life. I have been blessed over the years and I am still strong and vibrant but my hair is grey and my leaves are turning color. It is the cycle of my body but not my spirit.
I have always thought about the second law of thermal dynamics. Now that sounds like a fancy term but in reality it is just a set of laws about what we know of matter or the things that make up this material world. The second law states: matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
As most of you know, my whole life has been graced by death: First as the son of a funeral director, then as a criminal investigator, a funeral director and for the past twenty-five years, as coroner. I am a thanatologist, one who studies death from all angles. I often have to help people face the finality of death and notify families that their loved one has died.
During this intimate moment in discussing death I often refer to this second law of matter. I tell them that I see death as the changing of clothes. The body is the coat that allows us to experience our stay in this material world but there comes this time when the threads of that coat wear thin and it is of little use to us, we have to change coats. I also refer to the Christian tradition in which St. Paul calls our bodies “tents.” I really like Paul’s concept of a tent. It is a temporary shelter that we use when traveling on a journey through different places.
Some very early Christians like Origen Adamantius (185 AD – 254 AD) contemplated a more Eastern concept of the soul and death. He thought the soul never lost its individual nature. He saw the soul on a journey of perfection through the enlightenment of God. Once a soul is perfected, that soul can stay with God beyond the cycles and restraints of the material world. He was open to the possibility of reincarnation, which was later dismissed by the Christian church. Many Eastern religions use a metaphor of the sea being the creative force of the universe. We as individuals are but waves in the sea. We form, reach our height, lose our power and then return to our Source.
I guess I have taken you deep into the autumn woods. I hope you can take a moment this holiday, among your family and friends, and look at how the cycles in your life have evolved.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving...and remember the words of the German theologian Meister Eckhart, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."
Hardly a week goes by without the Coroner’s office getting another request for statistics on the opioid crisis. My office is tasked to the maximum right now and we don’t currently have additional personnel on staff dedicated to answering the growing number of inquiries.
As I write this, sitting on my desk are two stacks of case files. The higher one is of cases that need to be closed out after my review of newly returned toxicology reports. The much shorter stack is of homicide cases I must review. Looking at the difference between the two piles, I marvel at how much knowing the numbers, statistics and data matters. Yet simply knowing this information doesn’t save any lives.
Ten years ago, I could see this coming. OxyContin became the solution to everyone’s pain, chronic or short-term. Suddenly, clinical treatment and all procedures were expected to be completely pain-free. When I had my wisdom teeth pulled as a kid, my dentist said to me as I left the office, “Now when the Novocain wears off, it’s going to hurt like hell for a day or two, but just keep washing out your mouth with salt water.” He was right. It hurt like hell, but in a few days, it was better. You just dealt with the pain.
Of course, I realize that in certain cases medications are indispensable to patients with specific conditions. I’m not disputing that. But today’s insurance companies and the government now tie reimbursements to a hospital or doctor through a survey of the patient’s reported pain. This led to the expansion of opioids in clinical medicine which became the gateway to the abuse of pharmaceutical opioids. Even today, prescribed opioids are more abused than street drugs.
In my view, the worst approach to this problem is for the federal government to throw money at it and build bureaucracies around it, as was recently suggested, to the tune of fifty-nine billion dollars. (Without, of course, any explanation of how the money would be spent, or for that matter, a clear definition about what the crisis really is. In reality the crisis is just another opportunity for the government to make more money.)
Every time a politician or the press asks me about this issue it is clear they don’t understand what is really happening across America. We don’t have an “opioid epidemic” we have an “addiction epidemic.”
Opioids exist to kill pain but we must define the pain. Why are the richest, most free people in all of history in such physical, emotional and (dare I say) spiritual pain?
My friend Tommy Rosen has a marvelous definition of addiction, which is found in his comprehensive book entitled “Recovery 2.0: Move Beyond Addiction and Upgrade Your Life”.
The definition is important because it takes us beyond the symptom (in this case, opioids) to the real dis-ease. Simply put by Tommy: “Addiction is any behavior you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.” Suddenly, it becomes clear we have an addiction epidemic and opioids are only one of the tools.
This is subtle but very significant.
I have seen this over the years because my job is to listen to the dead. I have seen that the patterns of addiction ultimately impact how, when and why we die.
This list could go on but I think you get the point. As a society we are more anxious, less healthy and more prone to all of the above. Yes, we are addicted to drugs... but as Tommy points out, we are also addicted to alcohol, food, people (relationships, sex and intimacy), money and the insidious newcomer... technology.
Tommy goes a step further to identify what he calls the four aggravations, or potential addiction triggers:
These root causes need to be deeply examined.
The money we put into this epidemic should be block granted to the states, meaning that each state would determine the best use of the funds. This would provide us with fifty different laboratories to develop the best approaches for true rehabilitation. There should be some use of methadone and buprenorphine to help with the chemical transition to detoxification, but the real issue is the addictive personality and how we got here.
I recently heard a public official say that the government was considering the development of a vaccine for addiction. Folks, there is no vaccine for the soul. One has to delve into the subconscious and realize their uncontrollable need to do negative things is the result of past pains. We must identify and face these pains. Pain can be a great teacher. The nationwide state of addiction we are in is an opportunity for each and every one of us to grow and evolve.
Tommy Rosen has the right idea. He is holistic in his approach and he shares it with thousands by creating a virtual community. His website r20.com offers sanctuary to anyone seeking to dig deeper into patterns, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve them. I encourage everyone to check it out.
Bottom line, there is no easy solution. There is no solution “from the government.” There is no pill and there is no vaccine. The only route is within. Recovery starts with each one of us, individually, and then as a community.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. To say this is a crisis is an understatement.
One of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by fans is, "How do I get into forensics? What courses should I take? What should I get a degree in?"
The first thing that’s helpful to understand is the term “forensics” itself. Forensics is the process of applying a specific science to law. There are more sciences involved in forensics than you’d think... and they are usually under two large categories: Biological and Integrated. You could also add another category: Information Technology (IT). Most of the fields require a certain amount of training in science so if you want to get into forensics, start thinking scientifically, first!
Forensics has been well publicized over the last fifteen years or so and the portrayals on TV often give the impression that science holds the answer to all investigations. The scientific method is primarily used in forensic investigation, of course, along with meticulous detection, documentation and collection which is the major role of police and crime scene investigators. We are often required to testify as an expert witness, and must be qualified in a specific field of science in order to do so.
I’m a medical legal death investigator. That means I must have a knowledge of both the scientific method and the biological sciences. The data I need to tell the story of how and why a person died comes from an understanding the human body- both its anatomy and physiology. I must also understand odontology, entomology, radiography, taphonomy, toxicology, blood pattern analysis and DNA. In any of the integrated sciences there are a broad number of scientific studies in which the investigator needs to understand the data received from various experts. The data forms a web, with each aspect connected to another. The interpretive skill comes from making the connections.
A good scientist also understands the process of falsifiability. This means you form a hypothesis and then challenge it by testing and realigning your thinking to the data from your experiments. All of this requires learning the language of each particular science. If you want to go into police work, then a major in college like “Criminal Justice” is good, but may limit your options. (You may not get the job with a police agency. Security jobs pay almost minimum wage which is not very appealing considering student debt payments.) What is most needed in today’s society is the ability to think using deductive and inductive critical reasoning.
I can’t place enough emphasis on the importance of having a STEM background. STEM stands for a curriculum with emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. With this broad base, you can pursue a forensic minor, and learn how to apply scientific knowledge to law.
Even if you can’t immediately enter a forensic position you can work in a scientific field in any number of positions in industry, research, medicine and government.
Dr. Robert Furey and I designed a forensics program at Harrisburg University School of Science and Technology. Our primary aim was to provide a major in the field of science and technology that was interesting for students and really engages them.
It’s a work in progress and a labor of love.
Today I remember the largest, most profound crime scene I have ever experienced. I was called to New York about a month after the horrors that happened on this day. A whole team of us, trained in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, provided support to New York’s Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA).
The POPPA Organization Office was right near the World Trade Center and 9/11 presented it with an overwhelming demand for response and action. POPPA had to deploy volunteer Critical Incident Stress teams as well as mental health professionals, all within a short period of time and under great strain. Teams of volunteers, of which I was a part, were sent to help people cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including officers who had worked at Ground Zero, the World Trade Center morgues, or in the retrieval operation at the Staten Island landfill. It is incredible to recall the professionalism, compassion and fortitude of those working there.
Studies have shown that when one is debriefed or can talk to a peer about their situation, it improves the chances of them being able to handle the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were the first line of this process and we also worked the scene both at Ground Zero and at the landfill where there was an endless search for tissue, ID, and other artifacts. It was the largest crime scene in American history and the longest burning structure fire in America. I have seen humans perish in every possible way, but I never saw a death scene like that one. To this day September 11th brings back so much emotion it is hard to describe.
I will never forget walking up to St. Paul’s Chapel on Wall Street, and passing the old church yard cemetery. The tombstones were almost completely covered to their crescent tops with about two feet of grey, heavy, toxic dust. It looked like the cemetery was captured in a black and white photo of a snowstorm. A cosmopolitan power center had been reduced to dust. There was evidence of great melted and curved steel girders, rebar and some chucks of cement...but mostly there was dust; grey horrific dust... and the thought of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The city changed on September 11 and so did America. There was a clear reminder of that which is temporal and that which is immortal. People for a period of a year or so thought about the lasting values of truth and soul. People in movie theaters and meeting places would say, “God bless America.” Life kind of returned to a more basic premise, as communities helped their neighbors bury the dead. Sadly, in our busy world we have short memories from one week to the next and we forget the lessons learned that day. Life once again becomes about “me.” We now fight and fester over our differences rather than our common bond as human, mortal beings--Americans with a common dedication to freedom.
I remember sitting in St. Paul’s sanctuary. It was quiet even though it was full. Some people just stared and pondered their experience and others slept sitting up, exhausted. I thought about April 6th 1789 when George Washington came to this very church and expressed his thought that “Providence” was the reason American succeeded in conquering the British army. He believed, without defining it, that a great power was involved in this human experiment.
It is important that we learn our lessons from “Providence” both in victory and in distress. May we never forget the brave men and women who served our country, and all those who lost their lives, in the largest crime scene in American history.
It’s never easy, and certainly not common, to exhume a body. In the case of Robert Curley, however, it was imperative to finding out the truth surrounding his death. The trace evidence provided in a single strand of hair told the whole story.
Trace evidence is evidence so small that it is hard to see without magnification or enhancements such as alternative light spectrums or chemical treatment. A pioneer in this was Dr. Edmond Locard, who applied scientific methods to the interpretation of trace evidence. Locard’s exchange principle states that “every contact leaves a trace.” Meaning that a criminal will always (unknowingly) bring something on to the crime scene, and leave the crime scene with something.
A common item used in trace evidence is hair. Not only is it a valuable factor in the exchange principle, but a single strand of hair contains an incredible amount of information. We pull head hair on every homicide, especially in cases where long-term drug exposure is in question, or when needed for identification purposes. Some basic questions we must ask: Does the hair belong to the perpetrator or the victim? Was the hair cut or pulled? Is the sample good enough for DNA studies?
Information contained in hair was so important in this case, that it led to the decision to exhume the corpse. Despite atrophy of the body after years of being buried, we were able to retrieve a hair sample to perform hair segmentation analysis. Hair grows at a standard rate in humans, about 1.25cm a month. Certain drugs and heavy metal will cause lines in a hair follicle at the point of ingestion. It was clear in the case of Mr. Curley that he had ingested thallium salts, which a strand of his hair recorded, line by line. Given the constant rate of hair growth, we could go back from the closest marking on the hair to the scalp and do a retrogression analysis to observe the number and times of the exposure to the poison.
A strand of hair provided a virtual road map to the victim’s suffering and ultimately his murder. In this way, the body spoke to me from the grave.
More than once I have explained that my senses are heightened when I approach a crime scene. This is also true when I open a folder and review a case for the final declaration of death. I concentrate on data and the relationship between one fact and another. In short, I am looking for patterns, which give me the “why” of how things happened.
In this episode, blood patterns played an integral role in understanding what happened in Sam’s apartment. I had to examine the nature of each blood spatter pattern on two levels: macroscopically and microscopically. This is a fancy way of saying that I studied the overall scene and then studied the nature of each blood pattern to determine what they revealed about the movement of the players in the room.
This process told me that the assault started at the door. Sam had opened the door and was immediately attacked frontally. Finally, the attack move deeper into the room, with the last stab wound most likely in his final moments of struggle.
Wound patterns on the body that were examined in the autopsy are also very important. As my forensic pathologist and I studied the body we were able to determine the approximate length of the knife and also that it was a single-edged blade. We were also able to compare the lack of defensive wounds on Sam’s body and concurred that this was consistent with the blood pattern analysis. So you can see that once all data is collected, investigators move from the “how” to the “why,” looking at the macroscopic picture of the whole scene, not just its individual parts.
I noticed on social media during the show that there was a good deal of conversation about the subsequent sentencing of all those involved in the death of Samuel Gore. His ex-wife was a suspect, but it was determined that there was not enough evidence to convict her as a participant in the murder. We must understand the high threshold that is required in criminal court: beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases where only monetary damages are involved there is a lesser requirement for conviction, which is the preponderance of the evidence, meaning the weight of the evidence. In other words, it’s like a scale.
One of the most famous cases in criminal history was the O.J. Simpson trial, in which he was acquitted in criminal court because of faulty forensic processing, which left a reasonable doubt. He was later convicted in civil court due to the preponderance of the evidence.
I believe in this strict standard in criminal court because of the disastrous consequences of being convicted for a crime you never did, even to death.
Thanks so much for watching. You've made this show a success and I couldn’t be more grateful.
A little boy is walking along a beach where many starfish have been stranded by the tide, certain to perish in the hot sun. The boy observes an old man bending down to carefully pick up the starfish, throwing each one back into the ocean. The boy ponders the futility of the action, given the large amount of starfish, and the reality that the next incoming tide would likely bring them back in again. He approaches the old man. “Why are you trying to save the starfish? You can’t possibly save them all and the tide will only bring more back in. What does it matter?”
The old man slowly turned towards the boy, clasping another starfish. “You’re right. I can’t save them all... but I can save that one.” He gazed into the horizon as he threw the starfish back into the ocean. “It matters to that one.”
The effort did mean something to those he tossed back into the sea of life. We do what we can to make the world better. Our efforts and their outcomes are never perfect or guaranteed, but they are meaningful. We must take action with no attachment to the outcome, but a faith in the inherent goodness of the deed.
Most of my life I have been involved in service to our country or the community. I say this not to toot my own horn, but because much of my life and duties have been public or community service-oriented. I owe this largely to my father. He embodied pastor and author Rick Warren’s adage that “the purpose of influence is to help those who have none.”
One of my projects has been a non-profit that my wife and others founded about fifteen years ago called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania. The purpose of the organization is to help others help themselves through education. Projects like these plus my work at the Coroner’s office fill most of my waking hours. Even so, sometimes it feels like I am not really making much of a difference. But recently, I was reminded of the power in the meaning of the starfish story. A special starfish resurfaced in the past weeks. His name is Nelson.
Years ago, I was helping to give out scholastic scholarships to Estamos Unidos candidates. One went to a long-term heroin addict who successfully beat his addiction, had gone back to school and was now being awarded our scholarship. He told me the story of how he had been an addict for about fourteen years. He explained that first he blamed the police...then he blamed the dealer.... until finally he blamed himself—Nelson, and was able to take full responsibility for his life and actions. Through introspection of the subconscious triggers that had facilitated his addictive patterns, he broke through what tragically, many, many people cannot. He had tears in his eyes as he told me that he had just bought a home and was on his way to getting his MSW in Social Work so that he could work at a drug-free clinic.
Fast-forward many years later to last month, when I was a keynote speaker at a Central Pennsylvania Addictions Conference. During my presentation, I told the story of Nelson to an audience of about three hundred people. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man gesturing to me, grinning and pointing at his nametag. It was Nelson. I was dumbfounded; I had not seen him in years. Nelson was at the conference representing the Spanish American Civic Association, where he works as a counselor, changing the lives of many who need a guide on the path to recovery and sobriety.
Now, whenever I feel discouraged, I think of Nelson, who is not only my “starfish” but a true star, in the community and beyond. Maybe I couldn’t reach them all, but Nelson made it and now he, in turn, walks along the beach and does what he can to make a difference. Carefully picking up each and every one of those lives, examining them with love.
Never tire of doing good because you never know how many lives you can impact, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Surrender the outcome of your actions...have faith in the good intention behind the action itself.