Season 1 Episode 14: A Call from the Medical Examiner
from room to room, collecting this evidence of you.
And yet I could not point to the muscle, to a vein
or ventricle and say—here. This is where you are.
These are the parts of me you have touched—
because still I discover you again and again.
- from the poem “houses” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
“Hello Kory, this is the medical examiner. Dr. Champion. I’m so sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I understand you have questions for me?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes I do.”
I leap up from the couch, moving as if I’m on fire. Trying to find my laptop, my notes. I’ve been preparing for this call for so long, that now the examiner has finally called me, I go into a blind panic.
I can’t get the computer unplugged. I yank it once, twice, finally pulling the cord out of the wall…and then tripping over it. I step over the scurrying dog who is now also panicking because he doesn’t understand why we went from mid-doze to this flurry of movement.
“Hush, shhhh,” I hiss.
“If this is a bad time—” the medical examiner begins.
“It’s a good time,” I’m quick to say. I don’t want her to have any reason whatsoever to hang up on me. Lord knows if she’ll ever call back. “It’s just that I have a list of questions for you on my computer and I’m trying to get everything opened.”
It’s a good thing that she’s setting this tone for patience because I type my password into the computer twice, and fail, before realizing the caps lock is on.
Finally I get my questions document open, and say. “Okay I’m ready. Can I begin?”
“Under narrative summary it says ‘the decedent had a history of drug use (heroin), hypertension, and mood disorder.’ Who told you that she had a history of heroin use?”
“Hmm, I believe the brother told us that.”
“But your report says ‘needle tracks are not observed.’ Was there any evidence that she was injecting anything prior to her death?”
“No,” she admits. “There were no puncture wounds. I was very careful and looked very closely. Between the toes and everything I could think of, but I didn’t find anything that looks like a puncture wound.”
“Because Joe lied,” I say. “She’d never used heroin in her life. He was the heroin user.”
“He did say that he thought it was his heroin that she’d gotten into, which we thought was strange. Both the detective and myself were concerned that he’d done something to her. His story simply wasn’t adding up.”
“Detective Barnes told me that he wanted to look for an air bubble or something to see if he’d injected her with an empty syringe. But when you describe the examination of the heart, you didn’t make any mention of abnormalities. Does that mean you didn’t find anything?”
“We did an X-ray to check for air bubbles, but we didn’t see anything, no.”
“According to Joe, he’d taken all her prescriptions, her celexa, seroquel, everything and then locked them up in the safe. And that she broke into his safe and got the heroin that killed her. But I simply don’t believe that if she got into the safe she’d take heroin. She would’ve grabbed her pills or at least something she recognized like a pain pill. Did you find any other narcotics in her system?”
“Let me check.” There’s a beat of silence on the phone. “I requested an expanded profile that includes celexa, seroquel, and essentially everything else we can think of. But there wasn’t anything else in her system.”
“I know that my mother liked pain pills. That’s true. But I just can’t believe that she would break into a safe and overlook the pills and grab heroin. That’s impossible. And I feel like someone in her condition who had access to a safe full of different drugs, would’ve had more than one drug in her when she died.”
“In her condition?” the examiner asks.
“Yes, in the last four months of her life, she was having memory problems. So if she really was home alone with an open safe for hours. At the very least I think she would’ve gone to the safe a few times, took a few different things.”
“Do you know what was causing the memory issue?” she asks.
“No. It started at the end of February after she was hospitalized. Joe said that she went to the hospital because she took her medication wrong—the celexa and seroquel—and that it messed her up. He supposedly took her off everything and brought her home.”
“What hospital was this?” she asks. I give her the hospital name and the approximate dates for my mother’s stay.
Then I move on to my next question. “On the report my mother’s time of death is listed as 2:55 p.m. But I’d already spoken to the detective by then.”
“Oh yes, that’s just the official confirmation time,” she says. “When we go examine a body, we have to call time of death for our report.”
“Do you have any idea what her actual time of death was?”
“It’s very challenging to use lividity to pinpoint exact time of death.” There’s the sound of papers rustling. “Yes, her body was pretty warm when she was examined, but it had been 94 degrees in the house with no air conditioning. So it would be hard to say exactly when she died.”
My heart sinks a little at this news because it means we might not be able to determine for sure if Joe was home at the time she died. He could fudge the times of his alibi if he needed to, for a situation like this.
I decide to move on. “Under external examination, there’s mention of a lot of bruising. ‘A purple bruise on her left arm. A faint blue bruise on her right forearm. A red-purple bruise on her left middle finger, and a faint purple bruise on the left side of her lower back.”
“Yes,” she agrees. “That’s quite a bit of bruising.”
“Did all of this happen at the time of her death?” I ask. Because if so, then there would’ve been more of a physical altercation than Joe led me to believe with his ‘we had a fight about money’ comment.
“No, it’s very difficult to date bruises on the body. I can only tell you that they were in different stages of healing, so it is unlikely they all happened at the same time.”
Still, as clumsy as my mother is, some of the bruises are hard to ignore. How does one bruise their own forearm, for example, or their left lower back.
The reminder that Joe was most certainly pushing her around, roughing her up at the very least, pisses me off all over again.
“I’m sure it’s probably the same for the scrapes on her left elbow, knee, and right ankle.”
“Yes, unfortunately,” she says.
“What about the hemorrhages in the parietal scalp and left temporal scalp. What causes that?”
“She could’ve bumped her head real hard, or if she collapsed and hit her head on impact. It might also happened if he moved her body.”
“But the fact that the scalp bled definitely means it happened before she died?” I ask.
“Yes,” she confirms.
Then I ask what I’ve been asking myself for months, on repeat. “If my uncle can go into her bedroom, take one look at her body and know it’s an overdose, how did he see her overdosing in the floor, and instead of calling an ambulance, he moved her to the bedroom.”
“Sometimes they think that a person will simply sleep off whatever they took,” she offers.
“No, he knew what an overdose looked like,” I tell her. “He was with my aunt when she died of an overdose and he’d been a long time addict himself. He would’ve known what he was looking at. But he chose to drag her to a room rather than call for help. Why?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s a good question.”
“So it’s not clear if he roughed her up the night she died or not.”
“Unfortunately, no. It’s not clear from the physical condition of the body alone.”
“What about the hyoid bone?” I ask. Because a broken hyoid bone is a common result of a strangulation.
“I think I may have done that during the autopsy,” she says and sounds truly apologetic about it. “I try to be very careful when I remove it for examination but it’s very fragile.”
“So you don’t think he strangled her?”
“No, there were no other indicators of strangulation. No bruising on the neck or hemorrhaging.”
“Oh and I wanted to ask about the clothes. It says there were clothes, piled on top of her body?”
“Hold on.” More shuffling of paper and I imagine she has real life photographs. And her response confirms this. “Yes, it looks like he covered her legs with clothes.”
“Like he just piled them on top of her legs?”
“Isn’t that a little weird?” I ask.
“Yes, we found this a bit strange.”
I type her answers beneath the questions as I go, moving down the list as fast as I can. “You wrote in the report ‘an old incision with hardware is identified in the left frontal and left temporal bones. You also note hardware in the right knee.”
“Yes, there were two screws in her right femur, near the knee.”
“I’m pretty sure that was from a car accident,” I tell her. “But the hardware in her head is from where he hit her with the glass ashtray and caved in her skull. Almost killing her.”
“I see. I was curious what had happened there.”
“Speaking of curiosity, when you wrote ‘a whorled mass in the myometrium of the non-gravid uterus’ are you talking about a fibroid?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Good to know. I’ll have to update my own medical history next time I see my doctor.” My humor feels weird and out of place, so I just jump into the next question to hide my awkwardness.
“I want to ask you a bit about her lungs. You wrote ‘the pulmonary parenchyma is red to purple, exuding slight to moderate amounts of blood fluid. Anthracosis is noted.’ And you also added under pathological diagnoses that she had mild pulmonary congestion.’ I know she was a smoker, but I don’t understand the rest of it. Are these interrelated or separate conditions?”
“Anthracosis is from breathing dirty air, or smoking. The drug intoxication would’ve caused the pulmonary congestion.” More pages turn. “But it’s weird that she has more in the left lung, because it should be more in the right lung since she was lying on the right side.”
Because he moved her while she was dying, I think. Instead of calling the damn ambulance like he should have.
“I just don’t understand why he didn’t call an ambulance instead of moving her. He was supposed to be on high alert to her collapsing, having seizures, all of that.”
“What do you mean?” she asks.
I tell her everything Joe told me. About the seizure that turned her blue, stopped her breathing. About the memory problems and the fact she was supposedly setting pans on fire and acting erratically.
I finish up by saying, “He was responsible for her. He went down to the SSI office and signed his names onto her checks under the pretense that he was going to take care of her, look after her. Why would you leave someone home alone who was setting pans on fire!”
“It’s a very good question,” she says gravely.
“And she insisted to me that she hadn’t taken anything for months. Not even her meds and now she is dead from an overdose? Only one person was bringing drugs into the house and it wasn’t my mother. And since you’re telling me that all that was in her system was caffeine, cigarettes, and this massive dose of fentanyl, it just doesn’t make sense. Is it possible that my grandmother had been prescribed fentanyl for pain and she got ahold of that?”
Because if my grandmother had been prescribed something and it had been in a pill form or a patch, my mother might have taken that not understanding what it was. But again, she would’ve had to have taken a lot of it to get the 33 ng/ml reading that was found in her blood.
“It’s impossible to know what form the fentanyl was in but we do know that it was illicit,” she says. “That compound 4-ANPP is only present in illegally made fentanyl. If it manufactured properly it wouldn’t have that.”
So the drugs that killed my mother, were definitely brought into the house by Joe. And either given to her directly, or left within reach. At the very least this is gross negligence.
“I’m confused by why he said heroin though,” I say. “Is it possible that he thought it was heroin that he’d bought. I’ve read that heroin is often mistaken for fentanyl. I mean one of it’s street names is synthetic heroin.”
“It’s possible he thought he was giving her heroin, yes. 33 ng/ml is a massive dose.”
My voice doesn’t break until I ask her the last question on the list. The one I’d most feared the answer to.
“Do you…do you think she suffered?”
“No…” she says. “Fentanyl is given for pain. She would’ve gotten very sleepy, passed out, and then felt nothing at all.”
“What if he smothered her, just put a pillow over her face and—”
“To be honest, she wouldn’t have noticed. She would’ve been so unconscious, she wouldn’t have put up much of a fight.”
“Well thank you. That’s all of my questions,” I tell her finally, realizing that she’d been talking to me for more than an hour. But I feel tremendously grateful that she’d given me so much of her time.
“Well I’m glad we talked. There’s quite a bit here that I didn’t know. I’m wondering if I should change my diagnosis. I mean, the fentanyl killed her. That won’t changed. But I don’t believe we realized how responsible he was for her. If that’s the case, perhaps “accidental” isn’t accurate. Either way, I’ll try to get a hold of those medical records from February. And I’ll follow up with the detective and let you know what I find.”
It’s been three months since that phone call. And I haven’t heard from her or the detective again.
When I was a fifteen, there were few things that I loved more than books. There was the girl I was really into, but how could she compare to Louie, Lestat, Armand, Pandora, and Akasha, Queen of the Damned. If you didn’t spend the 80s and 90s reading Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles, you have no idea what I’m talking about.
But if you have, or if you’ve ever been part of a fandom, you can understand what I was feeling when I touched the glossy cover of the hardback edition of The Vampire Armand, noted the exorbitant $25 price tag and slipped it back on to the shelf.
It was October 1998, but I was still almost a year away from getting my first job at Burger King and having my own money. And $25 for a book—no matter how badly I’d yearned to read it—was far out of my price range.
I must’ve whined or lamented about this grievance in some way. Or perhaps I suggested it as a Christmas present, which is often how I got my books in those day—if the library didn’t have a copy available that is.
However it was brought to my mother’s attention I can’t say. But I remember the gloriously shocking moment when my mother knocked on my bedroom door one night and slipped into the room with something behind her back.
I sat up on my bed cautiously, unsure of where this was going. It was close to Halloween, after all. I was expecting a rubber spider or snake in my face.
Imagine my surprise when what she slipped into my hands was the hardback I’d been longing for. Crisp with its vibrant dust jacket that I’ve since lost, though I still have the book itself.
“Whoa,” I say, accepting it. “You got this for me?”
“I thought you’d like to have it,” she said wryly. “Was I wrong?”
She pretended to reach for it, but I clutched it to my chest. She laughed, her hand dropping.
“Of course I want it,” I’d said. In fact I was so touched that she’d gone out of her way to find and buy the book for me. It was the right one and everything.
But I had no illusions about our financial situation. My mother worked in a factory and Shay screen printed t-shirts. We were hardly rolling in the dough.
“But…but it’s so expensive,” I said.
“It’s okay.” My mom said, straightening. “I wanted you to have it. But if you get hungry this week, you better just read your book!”
She laughed, but I wondered how close to the truth this was.
She leaned forward, kissing my cheeks. Obviously pleased that she’d gotten the reaction she’d hoped for from me. As I was already climbing into my bed, opening the book, unwilling to wait another second to begin my return to New Orleans and the sexy vampires who lived there.
My mom laughed. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
I looked up a few minutes later and caught her lingering in the door, smiling at me, before finally shutting it.
This is the face I see, the version of my mom lingering in my mind as I close the autopsy report, and file away the answers to my questions.
And I’m left only with question I’m asked most: “Kory, what do you think happened?”
The problem is that the only living person there that night is a compulsive liar. It’s hard to know which bits of information he told me and the police are true and which are fabricated. Did she have a seizure or didn’t she? Did he go to work that night or not? Did he really lock up her pills for her safety or as a way to confuse her and muddle her mind, making it easier to manipulate and kill her? Was the safe broken by police or not at all? Had my mother really ever been to that apartment complex?
But no matter how I manipulate these details, which mixture of truth and falsehoods I arrange, it still leaves me with spectrum of guilt. And no matter where the cards fall, Joe is responsible for my mother’s death.
On one end of this spectrum, my mother took a pill that she’d believed was a garden variety pain pill and began overdosing while she was unsupervised. Then Joe came home, found her collapsed on the floor, saw her symptoms—her labored breathing, her unresponsiveness, her blue face—and chose to drag her to the bedroom and throw clothes on her legs instead of call an ambulance or get her medical attention. Even though he knew what an overdose looked like. Knew that overdoses could be reversed if treated. In this scenario, he chose not to help her and that led to her death. In this version, he’s guilty of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, with a penalty of 1-12 years in prison.
On the other end of the spectrum, Joe planned her death almost as soon as my grandmother died. He stopped giving her her medication, knowing it would alter the clarity of her mind and make her easier to control, confuse, and manipulate. He lied about her having a seizure, as a form of misdirection so I would suspect her health was the culprit or to lead me to believe he was an attentive brother looking out for her, rather than planning her murder.
He called me hours before she died and orchestrated that last phone call because he’d decided that that night was the night he would finally enact his plan and wanted me to have a chance to say goodbye one last time. The story about the safe was a lie. The possible apartment parking lot drug deal is also a lie. Because he’s the one who gave her the drugs. Either rolled in a cigarette, disguised as a headache powder, or maybe even a pill, that he got her to take by some deceptive means. That when she began to overdose, she ransacked her room, taking anything valuable, including the jewelry I’d given her and had covered her body with clothes and closed the door, maybe to avoid looking at what he had done. Or to keep the dogs off of her.
Then he called me. He called the police. And he told them she’d overdosed using his heroin because he thought that was what would show up in the autopsy, because that’s what he’d believed he’d bought and had given her, and because he didn’t think anyone could prove that she hadn’t taken the heroin herself.
At this end of the spectrum, Joe is guilty of first-degree murder because the act of killing her was “willful and premeditated with malice aforethought.” If actually convicted, he should go to prison for life.
But where does Joe fall on this spectrum of guilt?
For me…It all comes down to the phone call. I can’t stop thinking about the phone call. That strange orchestration of Joe calling for no apparent reason, asking me to speak to my mother, as he’d never done before, and her confusion mirroring my own.
All of this just hours before she died. What timing.
A hell of a coincidence. Unless of course, he knew exactly what he had planned for that night.
In the end, no matter where the truth lay on this spectrum, it doesn’t erase Joe’s responsibility or change the facts.
My mother died with caffeine, cigarettes, and a massive dose of fentanyl in her system. She’s sworn she was clean. Joe swore she was clean. And yet somehow illicit fentanyl made it into the house, and into my mother’s body.
The only one buying drugs and bringing them into the house? Joe.
Whose story changed under pressure?
Who lied and said my mother had a history of heroin use and must’ve used heroin though there were no track marks on her body? Joe.
Who had a history of violence against her—who strangled her, who caved in her skull— who had already expressed a complete and total disregard for her wellbeing and her life
Who moved her dying body rather than get her medical attention?
It was Joe. It was Joe.
It was Joe.
I don’t know what will happen in the future. I don’t know that the criminal justice system which has let my uncle off for over a hundred other charges can be trusted to bring him justice now. I don’t know if a world which despises addicts, and women, especially poor women, can be counted on to protect one. Most will look at her record of mental illness and say she isn’t worth it.
But she is. She didn’t know it, but she’s always been worth it.
So what will I do now? With the knowledge that I may never learn more about her death than what I’ve already outlined. That justice may never come.
I don’t know.
I really don’t know.
But my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to worry about it or to suffer on her behalf. She’d want me to move on. To find peace. Not just with her death, but with the life we shared. With everything that happened between us. The good and the bad.
I don’t know if I can find peace, maybe not for a long while.