Thursday, October 9, 2014

Close to the Bone

 Today we welcome back Lisa Black who did a guest blog for MurderIsEverywhere some time back.  She's the author of the best selling forensic examiner series featuring Theresa MacLean, and Lisa knows this stuff backwards; she says she spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida.

Her new book, with the great title Close to the Bone, fits neatly into the context of my post a fortnight ago. Close to the Bone hits Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio. Theresa returns in the wee hours from a crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. The body count begins to rise and these victims aren’t strangers—they're Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list.

In her last post, Lisa took us to the battlefields of World War II.  Today she tells us of past battles at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office.

I try to keep my books realistic—that’s my whole claim to extremely modest fame, really, that my forensic scientist Theresa MacLean is more true to life than anyone you’ll see on an episode of CSI. But I seriously fudge reality in most books by having her spend more time out of the lab than in it, so in Close to the Bone I try to remedy that. Most of the book takes place inside the somewhat decrepit Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office where I worked for five of the happiest years of my life. It’s where a murder occurs and where Theresa stalks the killer and is stalked in return. The hulking, moody, odorous place makes, I think, the perfect setting for a bloody tale of suspense—which is probably why I loved it so.

1950's Coroner's office

It had heavy wooden doors and rooms in the basement with latches big and strong enough to hold in a team of zombies because they used to be cooled to serve as walk-in refrigerators for body parts. It had a separate autopsy room only for decomposed bodies, designed to keep the odors from wafting into the rest of the building. It didn’t work (so when we moved to a new building they put the autopsy suite on the top floor instead of the bottom) because the smell had permeated the walls so thoroughly that, when we finally did abandon the property, a hired mover walked into the (empty) room and promptly threw up. It had a removable screen door that we could hang in the summer to get some ventilation. It had a -70° walk-in deep freeze for long-term storage of bodies and other specimens, a cavernous room lit only by two dim bulbs, one or the other of which were always burnt out. My boss used to clean out our lab freezer by emptying all the items, mostly frozen blood standards and other specimens, into a biohazard bag and tossing it (literally) into “our” corner of the deep freeze. It made finding any one sample rather time-consuming.  
Gerber and torso victim
The lab countertops were a heavy black compound, some sort of cross between Bakelite and stone. It had a dumb waiter for the autopsy samples, more reliable than the passenger elevator or the one-stop freight elevator with just a folding grate for the inner door. I didn’t mind the dead bodies at all, but that freight elevator gave me the major creeps. The décor remained in the 50s, for that’s when the three-story brick building had been constructed under the supervision of one of the most famous coroners in American history—Samuel S. Gerber. Dr. Gerber was one of the founding members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and one of the first to link alcohol with traffic deaths. Like Seward’s purchase of Alaska, the new office building was considered by critics to be an expensive indulgence of the man’s authority. But Gerber rode a crest of popularity after delivering meticulously detected information during the Torso murders—the terrifyingly brutal and ultimately unsolved dismemberment murders of at least 12 men and women, almost certainly more, during the Great Depression.

The building featured state of the art equipment and facilities—state of the art in the 1950s, that is, by the time I worked there the place was a malfunctioning OSHA nightmare—which were shiny and new when another Sam would make it famous.

Sam Sheppard and newsmen
Dr. Samuel Sheppard allegedly killed his wife on the 4th of July 1953, catapulting himself into American history in the worst way possible. His was The Trial of the Century long before O.J. Sheppard. Sheppard became the inspiration for the series The Fugitive, so that most Americans not residing in Cleveland believe him to have been innocent.

Dr. Gerber believed otherwise, and vocally. Perhaps he looked down on Sheppard, an osteopathic physician instead of an M.D. Perhaps he felt affronted by Sheppard’s wealth and social connections. Perhaps he felt, taking all the evidence into consideration, that Sheppard was as guilty as all bloody hell. Whatever the reason, Gerber and the equally opinionated editor of the Cleveland Press are the reason we now have laws regarding pretrial publicity. A 1966 Supreme Court decision ruled that Sheppard’s judge had allowed newspaper accounts to bias the jury. Sheppard was retried and acquitted.

Long after his death, I bustled around Dr. Gerber’s building the day they exhumed Sheppard’s body, and later his wife Marilyn’s, for a wrongful imprisonment trial brought against the state by his son. I met his son, a nice man. He did not win—the jury unanimously agreed that Sheppard’s innocence had in no way been proven.

New autopsy room
And we left the building Dr. Gerber had built. Under Dr. Elizabeth Balraj we moved to a vast, shiny, efficient place that smelled a lot better. But I miss those heavy wood doors and the frosted glass window with “Autopsy” spelled out in painted gold letters, the sense of history in the worn floors and the brick-colored ceramic tiles. I still do. 

You can find out more about Lisa Black and her books at


  1. Sam Sheppard. I've followed various reports about that case over the years, being a fellow osteopath. Our most (in)famous osteopath is Stephen Ward, he of the Profumo Affair and Mandy Rice Davies, Christine Keeler etc. He committed suicide as the judge summed up at his trial - he was only found guilty of living off immoral earnings but there is still a huge mystery as to the bigger picture.
    Great blog.

  2. Ah, the ever-tug-of-war between the loving nostalgia of history versus the tingly excitement of shiny newness, the comfortable old, broken-in pair of shoes versus the shiny new shoes, the smell of an outhouse in the hot summer sun versus the chemical scent of a newly constructed home... no, wait, this analogy went seriously off the rails somewhere...

    Thanks, Lisa, really enjoyed the blog!

  3. Somehow that building looks forbidding to me. " hulking, moody, odorous" seems to describe it rather well!

  4. Caro, what is the difference between an osteopath and a M.D.? (I've been trying to ask this all day but cyberspace wasn't cooperating.)

  5. Wonderful description, Cara, and your mention of Sam Sheppard made me think of a man Sheppard catapulted into American history: F. Lee Bailey. Lee was a relatively unknown Ohio attorney who successfully argued the appeal before the US Supreme Court and later obtained a not guilty verdict in the retrial. The rest is history....