Hidden Maryland: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

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The fourth installment of Hidden Maryland heads to Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where doctors examine more than 8,000 bodies annually to determine causes of death.

Hidden Maryland


By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

Hearses enter the six-story building in West Baltimore through garage doors that snap open and shut quickly, to keep business discreet.

Researchers who work across from the $43 million, Forensic Medical Center catch glimpses of the drop-offs. They call the state-of-the-art center on the edge of the University of Maryland BioPark the Bat Cave.

The morgue — shrouded in myth, misrepresented on screen — typically is portrayed as a dark, dank basement with sexy forensic investigators peering into microscopes, eccentric doctors weighing body parts, and officials pulling open refrigerated drawers, unzipping body bags and asking spouses: “Is this your husband?”

In reality, the largest free-standing medical examiner’s office in the country is home to about 80 full-time employees, many of them pathologists, who work in an airy, bright, sterile but friendly atmosphere, where death is analyzed and documented in frank scientific detail. It’s here that the state learns the facts behind thousands of deaths each year.

“It’s not at all like it’s portrayed on TV,” spokesman Bruce Goldfarb said. “Our medical examiners don’t wear high heels and they are not running out into the field and chasing down people to interview.”

But while it might not look as if it came from central casting, this building to which few but police officers, paramedics and funeral directors have access is home to museum-quality artifacts, sideshow-worthy oddities — and touches of dry wit.

First, the facts: This summer, crime, accidents or suspcious circumstances are sending between 13 and 18 bodies each day to the sole medical examiner’s office for the entire state. The staff studies more than 8,000 bodies a year — and determines more than half to have succumbed to natural causes.

Homicide accounts for about 14 percent of deaths, suicide for 12 percent and accidents for 27 percent.

Chief Medical Examiner David R. Fowler oversees two deputies and 11 assistant medical examiners, as well as a toxicologists, epidemiologists and several forensic investigators.

The nearly three-year-old building in which they work was designed without a basement to help dispel stereotypes. The quick-closing garage doors were also a carefully considered detail.

The center is equipped with a CT scan machine, so examiners can study bodies without cutting, when religious sensitivities are an issue.

You’d find much of the same equipment in a hospital. Fowler describes the office’s work as a “physical exam, one day too late.”

The first floor of the building serves as a garage that can be transformed into a mass casualty center. A large classroom on the fourth floor, with banks of desks and communication connections, can become an emergency command center during chemical or biological disasters.

The building itself was built to accommodate state population projections for 2035.

Inside the entrance, the scene is unremarkable: O, The Oprah Magazine on a glass coffee table, a long row of U-shaped desks, the scent of a dentist’s office.

A few doors down comes the tour’s first twist.

Room 417, marked “Pathology Exhibit,” holds 18 dollhouses of death.

Enclosed in glass, intricate dioramas called “nutshells” recreate actual murder and death scenes from the 1930s and ’40s in painstaking detail. Frances Glessner Lee, the millionaire International Harvester heiress who advanced crime scene investigation techniques during the first half of the 20th century, created the miniatures to explore unexplained deaths, recreating scenes down to tiny burnt cigarettes on the ground.

Lee, who helped establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard — the nation’s first academic program in forensic pathology — donated the miniatures to the university. When Harvard planned to throw them away, longtime medical examiner Russell S. Fisher brought them to Baltimore.

Scenes portray a man and woman’s bloody bodies still in their bedclothes with blood spatter flecking the bedroom’s wallpapered wall. An inscription explains: “Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor.”

One model shows how a farmer named Eben Wallace was found hanging in a hay-filled barn. There’s a man shot to death in a log cabin, a charred body in a charred home, a body splattered face-down on the sidewalk outside a three-story apartment complex and the decomposing body of “Mrs. Rose Fishman,” found in a pink bathroom in 1942.

The models have been the subject of a documentary. Film director John Waters and musician David Byrne have viewed the exhibit, Goldfarb said. The office keeps them not only for historical purposes, but also to train detectives and forensic investigators on how to read crime scenes.

Doors away is a room called the “Scarpetta House,” donated by novelist Patricia Cornwell. Named after Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell’s medical examiner heroine, the space is decorated as a model house, with a swing set, siding and wooden deck “outside” and a furnished living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry room “inside.” A trash can holds garbage; a box of Food Lion Confruity Crisp cereal sits on top of the fridge.

Using a bloody mannequin, investigators create death scene scenarios to solve.

One floor down are the rooms you would expect in a Medical Examiner’s Office: a neuropathology lab, a histology lab with microscope slides of thin organ samples, a room with rows of white liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry machines that measure compounds in blood.

The two main autopsy rooms, located on the second floor, are cavernous, with cutting boards, scales, sinks and bright lighting that does not allow any shadows.

Three floors up, among cubicles and offices for medical examiners, the main wall displays a gallery of black and white portraits — past pathologists in the Baltimore office.

Hiding in the middle of this Hall of Fame is a picture of “Dr. J. Quincy,” the medical examiner portrayed by Jack Klugman in the long-running television show.

At the other end of the floor is the office of forensic anthropologist William Rodriguez. A cracked skull and jawbone that he is working to identify stares out at visitors.

When he worked for the Department of Defense, Rodriguez investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the crash of space shuttle Columbia, the beheading in Pakistan of journalist Daniel Pearl and war crimes in Kosovo.

In 2009, he helped recover the remains of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot shot down during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In a cabinet above his desk, Rodriguez keeps a cast of Uday Hussein’s leg. The son of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was killed in a firefight with U.S. forces in 2003. Rodriguez helped to identify his battered body by tracing a titanium rod in one of his legs.

Other items in Rodriguez’s office include travel photos and a notepad in the shape of a chalk-outlined body with a red blood spot in the middle.

A popular figure in the workplace, according to co-workers, Rodriguez brings in hot dogs for staff every Wednesday.

That’s a good thing, because there’s no cafeteria in the building.

“Not a very sit down enjoy-your-lunch kind of place,” said Anna Lichiello, a forensic investigator who joined the office in October.



Hidden Maryland: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner from Baltimore Sun's The Darkroom on Vimeo.


900 W. Baltimore St.

You probably didn’t know: In 1939, the state of Maryland was the first state to establish a statewide medical examiner system, which set it apart from the state’s political system and required examiners to be medically qualified.


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