The body was discovered in the backseat footwell of a full-size sedan. It looked like a Lincoln sedan but it was hard to say for sure. The charred remains were of a man of slight build, about 5’8” in height. We only knew the height from information received by the police. The most prominent artifacts were a series of broken ribs sticking out of the debris in the floor. The car interior and exterior were incinerated right down to the metal.
Most bodies we recover from fire are in what is called a “pugilistic position” which is sort of a boxer’s stance. The hands of the body are drawn up towards the chest like a boxer protecting himself. The legs are always bent at the knees.
His face stood out; it almost resembled the mask of the Phantom of the Opera. The right side had much less thermal destruction, while the left showed skull and scar tissue. The skull itself was fractured but we could easily determine that the fractures were the result of the fire and not trauma.
As we began the autopsy I thought about how hard it is to burn a human body. Many people try to burn away the evidence of their misdoings but in truth it is difficult to completely cremate a human — I know because I have cremated a lot of people.
The average house fire ranges from 1100 to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit and many times those temperatures are not maintained for hours. A crematory burns consistently at between 1400 to 1800 degrees for several hours. Even after hours at these high temperatures the human bone structure remains to some extent and has to go through a processor to make the cremated dust you see in a cremation urn.
What might surprise you is just how much the body could tell us about his last hours on earth. The scalp showed bruising patterns, the brain and spinal cord indicated actual trauma, muscles were bruised and the ribs had fractures that had nothing to do with the fire. This was confirmed not just in gross observation but also on a cellular level where one could see that the bruising was done while David was alive. Even in his dismal condition David was able to tell me about his death.
The patterns started to form a picture of what happened that night. David had been somewhat intoxicated. He got into an altercation with someone physically larger than him. That person had inflicted deadly trauma on David. David never felt the heat of the fire because he was placed in the back seat floor of the car after he died. He was then driven to an isolated area, an accelerant was poured over his body and the car and everything was set on fire. My guess is that the perpetrator never planned David’s death — he simply became violent past the point of no return. The perpetrator tried to destroy the evidence of his brutality.
The FBI profiler division for training purposes outlines two different types of crime scenes: organized and disorganized. In reality, a scene can be a mixture of both but there is some truth to this dichotomy. This looked like a disorganized scene: tempers flared and David was killed, everything else was improvisation. There is no evidence of a long chain of planning behaviors, no absolute intent to murder, it just happened and the perpetrator reacted.
As a coroner, it is my job to describe what the evidence on or about the body is saying. I don’t make charges. When I certify “homicide” on a death certificate I am simply saying that one human killed another. It is up to the District Attorney to determine the degree of the homicide. In this case the perpetrator was charged with second-degree murder based on our findings from the body.
Even with the killer’s great effort to silence the truth, I could still hear the victim. This case is closed. . .but there is always another story.