Real-life look inside Cleveland's Death Investigations Unit

Real life look inside Cleveland's Death Investigations Unit
Field investigators are the eyes and ears of the ME's office (Source: WOIO)
Field investigators are the eyes and ears of the ME's office (Source: WOIO)
Medicolegal Death Scene Investigation course presented by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office (Source: WOIO)
Medicolegal Death Scene Investigation course presented by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office (Source: WOIO)
Participants in death investigation workshop learn to solve homicides (Source: WOIO)
Participants in death investigation workshop learn to solve homicides (Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - More than 100 homicides this year in Cleveland are keeping detectives busy. Other investigators are working alongside them at the crime scene that you may have never heard of.

They're investigators with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office. Their job is to find out how and why each victim died. Sometimes a homicide isn't as obvious as you might think.

We're taking you behind the police tape for an inside look at the death investigation unit. Cleveland 19 was the first media outlet to participate in the Medicolegal Death Scene Investigation course presented by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.

The three day training session included classroom lecture and hands on learning activities to better understand how death investigators do their jobs. Police officers were the main participants, but coroners, forensic nurses and medical students from the area also participated.

Investigators in the field are the eyes and ears of the medical examiner's office led by Dr. Thomas Gilson. 12 of them work around the clock in the death investigation unit, along with five morgue technicians.

"It's detective work, and it's very satisfying in that we give answers a lot of the time," said Dr.Gilson.

In part one of our special, we're taking you to the end of the course, when participants had the chance to step into the shoes of an investigator.

Cleveland 19's Sara Goldenberg joined them on their journey, which included watching an autopsy and learning how to fingerprint the deceased.

Not every death in the county is investigated by the medical examiner. If a person dies violently or suspiciously, their body will be transported to the office
on Cedar Ave near University Circle in Cleveland. But before a body arrives, investigators with the death scene unit have already started working on the case.

Joe Stopak, the manager of morgue operations, oversees the investigators.

"I think the big, important thing we want to get out of this investigation course is that we're there for cause and manner of death. We don't do a criminal investigation. And our findings should support the criminal investigation of police," Stopak said.

It all starts when the medical examiner's office gets a call for a homicide or a suspicious death.

Police officers are likely already on scene. Investigators go out to the field to begin their own detective work.

"Everybody's essential, everybody works together to figure out what happened. Just because you died doesn't mean you don't have a voice," said Erin Worrell, an investigator with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.

I stepped into the shoes of an investigator at one of five mock death scenes.

They were very realistic, from indoor scenes to outdoor environments. Dummies were used to portray the deceased.

The point of this hands-on activity was to see the scene through the eyes of a death investigator, not a police officer. Their investigations are separate and
have different goals. But their work often overlaps.

The mock scene I went to included a briefing from the police officer and the victim's family member. It was based off of a real case.

"The landlord found the decedent in the bathroom," the man playing a police officer told me.

Armed with some basic information, I enter the scene and found a woman lying in a bathtub, fully clothed. The shower curtain had fallen on top of her and she was submerged in water.

I was told a neighbor heard water running from upstairs, so they contacted the landlord to check on what was going on in this apartment. That's when the landlord forced the door in and found her dead in the tub.

First I checked on the body's condition. I noticed the dummy's face was face down, partially covered with water.

Then, I look around the room. Through training I learned that no detail is too small. I found some pills and cough medicine under the sink.

But there were other red flags, too. An empty bottle of detergent was near the bath tub and there was a powdery residue in the sink.

Once I noted these observations, I asked "police" to turn over the "body" so I could better inspect her. I noticed a mark of trauma or some kind of bruising above her eyes, and a few more marks on her body.

But at that point, I still wasn't sure if this was a suicide, an accident or even a homicide.

I turned to the real investigator in the room for help.

"You can have an idea of where you're going with it, but you have to keep your opinions out of it. So we're not going to figure out everything right here, right
now," I said to Erin Worrell, the investigator who was supervising our mock scene.

"No, but you're getting a general idea for the doctors and what to tell them, to put in your report so you can be like, 'okay this is the scene-- this is what
was going on,'" she replied.

Death investigators follow the facts. Their job isn't to track down the suspect. It's to find out how a suspect killed the victim. In any death investigation,
they are looking for the cause and manner of death.

Science guides their assessments.

"You can have a lot of things pointing to one thing, but it could be another," Worrell said.

Their findings help support forensic scientists and pathologists back at the office. If they take the case, evidence collected by police can also provide important clues.

An autopsy and lab results should give investigators a clearer picture of how and why this woman died.

After we finished our mock investigations, we noted our observations in a formal report.

It turns out the case I worked on was an accident.

Investigators ruled the woman died of Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, impacted by other health conditions and acute intoxication from some of the pills found under the sink, which included muscle relaxers, pain medication and anti-depressants.

The end results were eye opening for many students.

"This mock crime scene that we have, it's worth its weight in gold," Stopak said.

Detective Jessica Page with Shaker Heights Police said taking the course helped her build on what she already knows.

"It's important to know what goes on down here, so we can do things right back at the scene," Page said.

Working at the medical examiner's office is a job not many people could stomach or would want to do.

Employees are reminded of their own mortality every day. But it's an essential job that these dedicated men and women wouldn't trade for anything.

"I take passion and I do it for the families," Stopak said.

"It's just speaking for their loved one," he said, tearing up.

Not all deaths are investigated by the medical examiner's office. They generally take in violent deaths, suspicious deaths and accidents, suicides and heroin overdoses.

About 15,000 people die in Cuyahoga County each year and about 6,500 cases are reported to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.

Statistical Reports 

They only accept about 2,500 cases. Investigators are called out to over 900 scenes a year.

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