Remains of the Day

Everyone is good at something. Dr. Laura Fulginiti's genius is her ability to determine how someone died -- even if there's very little left of him.

Peering over the lid of a burbling Crockpot inside the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office, Dr. Laura Fulginiti appears for a moment as the housewife she never was, despite the skeleton earrings hanging from each of her lobes. Clutching a pair of metal tongs, Fulginiti tenderly fishes out a human skull decorated with remnants of decayed flesh. Steam swirls from the eye sockets, smelling faintly of burning hair."

You can see where the bullet went in, right here," says Fulginiti, turning the skull to display a beveled cavity just behind its left temple. "No gun was found at the scene, so it looks like a murder, not a suicide."

The skull came to Fulginiti as one piece in a body-bagged parcel of decomposed remains recently found west of Phoenix, about five miles from the nearest convenience store.

Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Paolo Vescia
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Paolo Vescia
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.

As the county's forensic anthropologist, it's Fulginiti's job to determine if the remains are those of a homicide victim. Her first step this morning was to submerge the skull in the pot, fire up a hot plate and bring the water to a slow, rolling boil. Every 30 minutes or so she checks on the progress of boiling the skull clean for a full examination and photographs.

"You have to take your time with this part. Keep checking your temperature," she says, then offers a smile that brightens the morgue's windowless chamber. "It's like cooking a good stew."

Pray your head doesn't wind up in Dr. Fulginiti's Crockpot. Because if it does, or if she otherwise examines the fragments of your mortal shell, you probably died an untimely, untidy death. Murder, maybe, or suicide. Perhaps you got lost in the Superstitions, and it was years before your bleached skeleton was found, or the commercial airline flight you were on crashed and Fulginiti was called in to sort through the mess.

Experience has taught Fulginiti -- who goes by "Fulgi" (pronounced "FULL-gee") -- that charred airplane insulation is tough to distinguish from crushed, cremated bones. Also, after a decade on the job, she can look over a murder victim's skull and report not only that the person was killed with a hammer, but what kind of hammer.

"Your standard roofing hammer's pretty obvious," she says. "It just looks like they got hit in the head with a hammer. Whereas a tack hammer leaves a flat, rectangular shape. Drywall hammers create more of a square, wafflelike pattern. I never realized how many different types of hammers there are until I got into this line of work."

At 37, Fulginiti is a young lioness in her field, acclaimed by her peers and law enforcement agents nationwide as one of the most thorough, best-trained and credible forensic anthropologists money can hire.

"She's a natural," says Dr. Walter Birkby, former head of the University of Arizona's forensic anthropology department. Birkby's program was regarded as the best of its kind when Fulginiti got her doctorate there in the mid-'80s (the UofA discontinued the program when Birkby retired in 1996).

"There's a lot of people out there saying they're forensic anthropologists who don't know shit from Shinola, but [Fulginiti] now ranks with the best," Birkby continues. "This comes as no surprise to me. As a student, she was outstandingly bright, she understood the need to develop a morgue sense of humor, and she never, ever let the smell get to her."

One gem among Fulginiti's memory trove of anecdotes attests to her olfactory resilience: In 1994, she was hired to help identify the remains of victims of an airline crash in Guam. Unfortunately for her, the Boeing 747 had gone down minutes after a seafood dinner of squid and haddock was served.

"There were pieces of people everywhere, along with pieces of seafood, and they were all decomposing," she says. "Taken together as one stench, it smelled the same. So I was the person who picked each little bit up and sniffed and went, 'Squid.' 'Person.' 'Haddock.' 'Person.' 'Fish part.' 'Human part.'

"I guess that was about as close as I've come to being completely disgusted."

Fulginiti came of age in Tucson. Her father was a well-respected doctor, but she wanted to be the next Jane Goodall. After high school, she enrolled in the anthropology program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

"I started out monkey-watching, and I hated it," she says. "My log was like: '10:03, monkey scratches butt. 10:18, monkey staring at other monkey. 10:25, other monkey scratches butt.' It was so boring."

So Fulginiti switched tracks from monkey-watching to skeletal biology, studying skeletal remains from archaeological sites. She got her first taste of forensic science near the end of her senior year. One of the college's skeletal biology instructors moonlighted for the local medical examiner's office, and he asked Fulginiti to assist him on a fresh case.

"A young woman's body had been found chopped up in a field," she says. "We got her out on the table, and I took one look at all these nice, even pieces, and said, 'I think somebody chopped her up so they could put her in a trunk.'"

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