Cohabitation with the Dead:
Unusual Cases from the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office in Detroit
Cheryl Loewe, MD
Francisco J. Diaz, MD
Angalena A. Hargreaves, BS
The following series represents several unusual cases from the Detroit area Medical Examiner`s Office that involve individuals who were residing with either a deceased body or human remains. These cases include: natural death, with the bodies in various states of decomposition; homicides, where individuals committed murder and tried concealing the remains without disposing of them; cohabitation with the deceased as a result of the remaining individual’s mental incapacity, relating to mental illness, retardation, or senility; chronic drug use; and squatters pilfering possessions and residing in an abandoned funeral home with bodies that were left behind, unburied. Financial gain was a major factor in several of these cases.
Key Words: Cohabitation, Decomposition, Facial Reconstruction, Post-mortem identification
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Originally published in The Forensic Examiner - October, 2015
Over an eight years period, the Office of the Wayne County Medical Examiner had 14 unusual cases in which individuals were residing with deceased human remains. A review of those cases showed that there were four broad categories:
Financial gain was a common factor in some of the cases.
These 14 cases include forensic death scene investigation with various means of establishing positive identification of human remains, autopsy examination, and anthropologic and odontology consultations at the Wayne County Medical Examiner office.
Unclaimed Remains at an Abandonded Funeral Home:
An abandoned funeral home (Photo 1) had been closed for operation for one and a half years due to the death of the owner and was occupied by a group of squatters, persons who settle on public or unoccupied land. The weeds were so high that the outdoor marquees were obscured, and the backyard was used as a dumping ground for old tires and debris. The squatters were residing in the building and selling off the furniture, fixtures, and piping. Drug users were raiding the supply of embalming fluid, which can be mixed with marijuana to accelerate the high. The police responded to a vandalism call. As they searched the funeral home, they discovered two caskets covered with a black plastic, like shrink wrap material. This material was being used to contain the odor. Once the caskets were opened, police were shocked to find they contained embalmed and decomposing human remains. The medical examiner’s office was promptly notified.
CASE 05/8061 (Photo 2) involved an elderly black male who had been laid to rest in a dark gray pinstriped suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. He was embalmed and decomposed. His mummified hands were crossed and lying on top of his abdomen. The interior of the casket was disintegrating, and his suit was damp. The decedent had a white/gray beard, but the facial features were too decomposed to allow for visual identification, and the subject was edentulous. There was evidence of insect activity inside the casket. No identifying information was present, so a forensic anthropology consultation was needed. They determined the decedent was an elderly black male who had sustained a remote nasal fracture.
The Michigan State Police Department then performed a facial reconstruction (Photo 3) on the skull at its anthropology laboratory. The photograph obtained from the reconstruction, with other known information, was published in a local newspaper, and it led to a positive identification. When the actual photographs from the funeral service pamphlet and driver’s license were compared, they bore an uncanny resemblance to the facial reconstruction. The original death certificate was located, and it was documented by a veterans hospital physician that the cause of death, for this 60-year-old black male, was advanced lung cancer. However, the death certificate was never filed with the state, so it required one to be issued by the Medical Examiner’s Office. It was determined that the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services had already contributed partial payment for the burial to the funeral home. The next of kin had arranged to have the decedent buried in a veteran’s cemetery on the west side of Michigan. However, he had never visited the cemetery to know that his relative was actually not buried. Since only a partial payment was received, the funeral home never completed the burial, nor notified the family.
Case 05/8062 (Photo 4) was laid to rest in a royal blue leisure suit. The face was covered with white cotton batting, and a container of embalming fluid was found within the casket. The body had partially skeletonized with decomposition. Further investigation revealed that the decedent was a state prison inmate at the time of his death and was also indigent. Arrangements were made through the funeral home but were never completed due to lack of payment. The news of the abandoned funeral home and these present bodies prompted a concerned family member to report to the morgue with a photo depicting the decedent lying in a casket wearing a royal blue leisure suit. The next of kin had been reluctant to report his concern because he had only paid a portion of the funeral bill and was concerned that he would be forced to pay the remaining balance. The medical and dental records were obtained from the jail, and the decedent was identified as a 50-year-old black male who died from bronchopneumonia and Hepatitis C.
Interestingly, it was determined that the funeral home owner had operated the funeral home for 30 years. State records documented that he died at age 72 from congestive heart failure. His funeral home license had expired three years prior to his death, according to the Bureau of Commercial Services. The police interviewed surviving family members, but no consumer fraud charges were sustained.
Attempt to Conceal a Homicide:
Case 04/5024 involved an infant, whose age was estimated to be between 1-2 years, and whose skeletonized remains were found within the rafters of a dwelling. The parents were collecting state-assisted aid for multiple children and wanted to continue collection of funds for the decedent. The infant remains were burnt, indicating the infant was placed on a barbeque grill after being smothered. Upon anthropologic evaluation, portions of burnt soft tissue were present on the right side of the head. There was charring of the bones on the right temporal, zygomatic, left parietal, jaw, neck, and both hands. An unhealed fracture of the left nasal bone was identified. Healed fractures, consistent with “bucket handle” or corner fractures of both distal tibiae, were identified. The presence of healed and unhealed fractures of said bones points to traumatic insults occurring over a period of time. Dental examination concluded that the remains were those of a 12-20 month-old infant of indeterminate race. Additional x-rays showed multiple lines of increased density at the growing ends of the bony shafts of several long bones. These lines of increased density are suggestive of episodes of growth arrest due to malnutrition and/or disease and/or abuse. Due to the condition of the remains, the race and sex could not be determined, and the exact cause of death and manner of death was ruled indeterminate.
The investigation revealed that the mother and her boyfriend conspired in a welfare fraud scheme to continue collecting welfare on the deceased infant for two years. The parents were collecting welfare and food stamps for the deceased infant, along with four other children, amounting to $822.00 monthly. Police determined that the couple had alleged the baby died two years before, and they placed the body on a home barbeque grill in an attempt to cremate it. This was supposedly done to avoid funeral costs. When this was unsuccessful, they hid the remains in the ceiling of the home and continued to collect $200.00. The death of this infant came to light when an investigation ensued regarding scalding burns sustained to a 1-year-old sibling. The caregivers provided different stories regarding how the infant died. The Attorney General petitioned the court to terminate the parental rights of the remaining four children. The parents were successfully prosecuted.
Cases: 03/8837 and 03/8838
A citizen went to the rear of a gas station in Detroit to urinate and discovered dismembered body parts, including a pair of human (male) legs and a female head. The police and medical examiner were notified and the news of said body parts prompted a citizen to notify the police that she suspected her boyfriend had something to do with a double homicide and led to a search warrant.
At the scene of a dwelling, the suspect was found in the living room taking a nap on a bloody mattress. He was physically exhausted from beating, dismembering, and partly disposing of the remains at the gas station. The remaining dismembered body parts of the decedents were located in the basement within a cardboard box and tightly wrapped in a shower curtain. The human remains were in an early stage of decomposition and all of the body parts were accounted for upon re-approximation of the tissue margins.
A 23-year-old black male (03/8837) sustained multiple blunt force head injuries with crushing comminuted skull fractures compatible with at least nine inflicted blows from a large object, such as a baseball bat. The head and torso were dismembered at the hands and the legs. Several unique tattoos were noted on the body, and fingerprints led to the identification.
An 18-year-old black female (Case 03/8838) companion sustained multiple blunt force head injuries; five parallel lacerations were distributed across the forehead. A single gunshot wound was present on the back of the head, and a large caliber jacketed projectile was recovered in the diffusely traumatized brain. She was decapitated at the lower cervical vertebrae and trachea, and the hands and legs were dismembered. A postmortem penetrating wound was noted on the right lower chest/upper abdomen, which passed through the right 6th-7th rib space; this was suggestive of the intent to use the torso as a knife holder. Multiple parallel postmortem cuts were located across the lower back – which bore a tattoo – indicative of an attempt to mutilate a tattoo (Photo 5). This decedent was identified by fingerprints and unique jewelry she was wearing at the time.
On both victims, “drag marks” and small circular 1/4" diameter thermal burns were noted. These burns were compatible with lit cigarettes and appeared to have been done postmortem. These may indicate the perpetrator was extinguishing cigarettes while dismembering the bodies (Photo 6).
This case (03/3942) represents a double homicide/suicide; the body of the suicide victim did not die in our jurisdiction, but a lengthy and detailed suicide note disclosing the circumstances surrounding these deaths was available for review.
The suicide note of the decedent claimed that his teenage daughter was killed “accidentally” by his girlfriend. Two years ago, he had been working on his computer when he heard a gunshot. He went to investigate the noise and discovered that his girlfriend had just shot his daughter in the center of the forehead while she was sleeping in her bed. When confronted, the girlfriend claimed that “the gun went off accidentally” when she went to say goodnight to the daughter. Continuing with the extensive suicide note: the man stood distraught and in disbelief; they argued, and in turn, blamed each other. They mutually decided to bury his daughter in the house and keep quiet about the incident so that they could continue their relationship. The couple constructed a coffin made out of lumber and poured concrete over it. He buried his daughter’s remains in an old root cellar. The man continued to function, although he became extremely depressed and mentally consumed over the loss of his daughter. The biological mother moved to Florida and did not keep in contact with them.
Approximately two years passed, and the decedent took his girlfriend on expensive trip around the country in an effort to exhaust all of his financial savings. He arranged to meet his girlfriend at a hotel one afternoon and shot her multiple (six) times in the head, shoulder, and back with a small caliber handgun. The decedent then fled to another county and shot himself. He left behind a very lengthy 16-page suicide note, which included specific instructions to his brother on how his estate should be handled, the circumstances surrounding the death of the two young women, and the burial of his daughter.
He left directions that would allow the authorities to locate his 19-year-old daughter and stated that “the best way to recover the corpse is to go in through the cement roof of the cellar with a concrete cutter.” A search warrant was issued, and the police found the human remains in a 16x10 foot cellar, approximately 10 feet below the ground, in a makeshift coffin. The body displayed advanced decomposition with mummified skin and adipocere. The majority of the visceral organs were decomposed, the spleen and pancreas were completely autolyzed, and a white plastic bag was placed over her head to contain the blood (Photo 7). Examination of the skull revealed a bullet hole with inward beveling and soot in the midline of the frontal skull bone consistent with a contact gunshot wound (Photo 8). A projectile was recovered from the cranial cavity. The teen was identified by dental comparison. The biological mother was appointed personal representative of the estate of her daughter and was required to prepare an inventory of the assets of her daughter’s estate.
Decomposed remains of a 57-year-old white female were found wrapped in plastic, bound, and stuffed into a large trash container near the shed of a dwelling. The plastic container was found by neighbors who detected an odor and notified the police. The police responded to the call. The man living at the dwelling refused to cooperate and would not speak to the officers. Upon the realization that the wrappings contained a human body (Photo 9), a search warrant was issued. Still, the homeowner refused to cooperate. A SWAT team was activated, and upon forced entry into the dwelling, police discovered that the man sustained a self-inflicted contact gunshot wound to the chest. A handgun was located near the body with a note that instructed the police to listen to a tape recorded message. The messages were rambling and psychotic. They told a story depicting him and a younger woman having an affair.
He wanted to “do away with his wife,” so he shot her approximately one week prior, and he was going to end his own life. Autopsy examination of the wife revealed a gunshot wound to the right cheek. The body was green and bloated with skin and scalp hair slippage. The projectile passed through the facial bones and lodged in the inner table of the left temporal bone. The precise anatomical structures through which the projectile passed could not be determined, due to liquefaction of the brain. The body was clad in only an undergarment and a gold chain with a cross pendant. The motive for the murder/suicide appeared to be a combination of an extra marital affair coupled with mental illness.
The body of a 52-year-old white female was found decomposed, beaten, and stuffed into a trunk inside the garage of a dwelling. The trunk was approximately four-feet long and three-feet deep, and the hair of the decedent was sticking out of the closed lid. The weapon used in the beating, a baseball bat with duct tape around it, was found inside the trunk. The decedent had not been seen by her family for approximately a month. Since Christmastime, they had been checking on her at the dwelling. The suspect, a live-in boyfriend, lied to her family about her whereabouts to her family and claim that the missing woman was at the store, or other places. After repeated visits, however, the decedent’s son-in-law noticed hair sticking out of the trunk and discovered the body. He alerted the police. The boyfriend was spending his former companion’s money and cashing her checks. The examination of the body revealed minimal decomposition due to the cold ambient winter temperatures, and the body was fully clad. A large gaping laceration was present to the frontal scalp with exposed depressed fractures of the frontal skull bones. Two additional lacerations were present on the back of the head, bilateral periorbital contusions were noted, and bruises were present on the jaw and chest. Bruises consistent with defensive injuries were also present on the back of the right hand and wrist. The frontal and parietal skull bones were crushed, and the brain displayed diffuse traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage and multiple contusions.
Officers attempted to interview the live-in boyfriend. He came to the front door and closed it once he realized it was the police. There was no further contact or sighting of the male in the residence, and officers set up a perimeter and waited for the SWAT team to arrive. Officers interviewed a friend of the couple who stated that previously, the boyfriend had said that he was suicidal. He had visited him the evening before and could smell a foul odor from the shed as he walked to the front door. Officers obtained a search warrant and found the boyfriend with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head with a weapon near the body. When they entered the dining room, he observed the female companion’s money, medication, and cell phone on the table. There was a tape recorder on the kitchen table with a note stating: “Play this.” It was a recorded suicide note. The tape revealed a confession to the murder, what he did with the body, some vague medical problems, and medications that they both had to take. No clear motive as to why he killed her was ever established.
A credible tip from a citizen stated that a body had been shot and buried. Skeletonized human remains were exhumed from a shallow grave at the rear of a dwelling. The remains were wrapped in a multi-colored drape, and an electrical cord was looped loosely around the neck and chest, passing under the arm, and was probably used as an aid in moving the body. The human remains were clad and completely skeletonized with brownish discoloration consistent with significant time interval since burial. Drug paraphernalia wrapped in plastic was found in the pocket of the blue jeans. Anthropologic consultation revealed that the decedent was a white male in his early to mid-twenties. Examination of the remains revealed a bullet hole with inward beveling and radiating fracture of the sternum (Photo 10) and fractures of the left clavicle (Photo 11). These patterns are suggestive of at least two projectiles going from front to back with multiple fractures of ribs, scapula, and vertebrae consistent with exit wounds. There was greenish staining of the fractured clavicle suggestive of direct contact with some form of metal. Metallic fragments were found on fluoroscopy and were retained. An old healed fracture of the right fibula was also noted (photo 12). It was reported that the suspected male had been missing for seven years. The decedent was identified by dental comparison and had a history of a remote healed fracture of one of his legs, compatible with said findings. A search warrant allowed the authorities to search the inside of the dwelling and holes, and old blood was present on the kitchen wall. The occupant of the dwelling confessed to shooting his lifelong “best friend” seven years earlier during a dispute over marijuana in which they cooperatively grew, sold, and distributed.
Two young women, ages 19 and 28, met in a jail cell. They were incarcerated for possession of heroin. After being released from prison, the 28-year-old woman had nowhere to go. The 19-year-old girl told her that she could stay at her house, and they became roommates and used heroin together. The 19-year-old woman overdosed while using heroin one day. The roommate did not take her friend to the hospital or notify the police of her death. She covered her deceased friend’s body on the floor with a pile of clothing and continued living at her house for two weeks. Her deceased friend was receiving a lot of money from her wealthy father. When the decedent’s father (who was elderly and hearing impaired) would call by phone, the 28-year-old woman would pretend to be his 19-year-old daughter. She would ask the man to wire her money through Western Union claiming that she was in a lot of trouble with the law and needed to pay off some fines. She actually wanted to spend the money on drugs. After the body started to decompose and smell, the woman contacted a friend and told him what had transpired. She then offered to pay her male friend $5,000.00 cash to assist her in getting rid of the remains. The man called the police, and the decomposed body was found. The body displayed decomposition with extensive skin slippage, marbling, and bulla. No anatomical disease processes or injuries were present. Toxicology was performed on spleen and liver tissue and revealed the presence of morphine. Death was certified as opiate use and ruled accidental. The 28-year-old woman was prosecuted for identity theft and served eight months in prison.
Cohabitation Due to Mental Illness/Dementia:
The body of an 80-year-old white male (03/6270) was found supine on a carpeted hallway of a dwelling in an early stage of decomposition. Maggots and fleas infested the body. Postmortem bites that were compatible with mice were also noted. A pillow had been placed under the head of the decedent. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the decedent’s mentally ill son, who resided with him, admitted to placing the pillow under his father’s head. He claimed that he thought his father was “sleeping” and therefore did not report the death to the authorities. His mother, the decedent’s spouse, had been hospitalized during the incident. The case came to the attention of the medical examiner by local neighbors. They reported a foul smell and concern for not seeing the elderly couple in several days. Heart medications, prescribed to the deceased, were found at the scene. The autopsy revealed moderate decomposition, and the death was ruled natural due to severe three-vessel calcific and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. In consideration of the reasonable explanation for not reporting the death due to mental illness, no legal matters were pursued.
Police responded to the death scene of a decomposed 63-year-old white female who resided with her live-in brother. The neighbors complained of a foul odor and alerted the police because they had not seen any activity outside the dwelling. The body was found in between a recliner chair and a lamp, which had fallen from the coffee table. She was decomposed and partially nude from the waist down. It appeared that the lamp had fallen from the table after she collapsed on the floor. The brother alleged that he walked by his sister and heard her “snoring.”
However, her body was in an advanced stage of decomposition with skin slippage and vesicles. An attached colostomy bag from a previously resected adenocarcinoma of the colon was also present. The police determined that the brother may have been engaging in sexual activity with the corpse because of abundant seminal fluid found on the body, and her being partially nude. Autopsy examination revealed severe arteriosclerotic disease, no trauma, and no residual cancer post-colostomy. Death was ruled natural. The brother had a medical history of unspecified mental illness.
The body of an 81-year-old white female was discovered supine on the kitchen floor near the dining room table in a skeletonized state of advanced decomposition. The lower extremities had been gnawed on and partially eaten by dogs (anthropophagia). The decedent had a live-in elderly demented sister who was taken to the hospital. The sister was questioned and stated that the decedent had been dead for a year or more. Death was certified as arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease and no pre-mortem trauma was noted.
These cases are unusual due to their back stories, how the deaths came about, and how poor judgment played a role in the circumstances of how the decedents were found. These cases also illustrate the importance of complete autopsies, but on the same token, the importance of detailed scene investigations complemented by law enforcement investigation.
About the Authors
Angalena A Hargreaves, BS: is a Path
Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.