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.

Her instructor was incredulous.

"He looked at me like, 'What planet are you from?' Then he pointed to all the dirt and hay that arrived on the bones, and the precision of the cuts. Then he said, 'It was a hay thresher. It was going through the fields, and it ran her over.' He was right, I was wrong, but I was immediately fascinated. I realized I could take everything I'd already learned in a research and archaeological setting and apply it to solving crimes, or at least ruling them out.

"I decided to find out where I could go to learn how to do it forever. That brought me back to Arizona."

Fulginiti's first exposure to violent death came after a plane crash in Colorado.
Paolo Vescia
Fulginiti's first exposure to violent death came after a plane crash in Colorado.
Fulginiti says her work on the Denise Huber murder case was among the most satisfying.
Fulginiti says her work on the Denise Huber murder case was among the most satisfying.

Fulginiti moved to Phoenix after she graduated from the UofA. While in graduate school, she married Dan Martin, who's now an administrative law judge for the State of Arizona. The couple has an 8-year-old son.

"It's normal to him what I do," Fulginiti says of her boy. "When he was 3 years old, we were at Thanksgiving dinner and I got called to a body recovery and had to leave in a hurry. Some of the other guests asked him, 'Where's mommy?' and he said, 'Digging some guy out of the sand.'"

Recently, Fulginiti says, she and her son found a squirrel drowned in the family pool and turned the rodent into a show-and-tell project.

"We buried it and dug it up a couple of months later and glued the skeleton together and he took it into his first-grade class. The other kids thought that was pretty cool. He tells his friends his mommy works with dead people, and they think that's pretty cool, too. He gets upset I won't let him come in here and look at the bodies."

The bulk of her work is for Maricopa County, so Fulginiti works primarily out of the Medical Examiner's Office in downtown Phoenix. As an independent contractor, however, she also works for practically every other law enforcement agency in Arizona, as well as the National Park Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Disaster Medical System's D-MORT (Disaster Mortuary Team).

Her office in the county morgue has an impressive view, if not a coveted one. A narrow window stretching the length of one 10-foot wall looks out upon an autopsy room, where corpses are dissected in full view while Fulginiti checks her voice mail.

"There's no doubt this job has changed my perception of death," she says. "At first, just witnessing the randomness of it, I was in a questioning phase: Why, why, why, why? But when you see wholesale death, day after day, you get very numb, even to that question.

"I think my anthropology background helps me, because I'm able to think in terms of evolutionary time. It may sound terrible, but my attitude has become: Everybody dies. Next gurney, please."

Laura Fulginiti takes the stage of a packed Arizona Science Center auditorium. She's the featured speaker for the Science Center's nighttime lecture series. After a brief self-introduction, Fulginiti asks for the lights to be dimmed, and begins a slide presentation. The first image is a close-up of a deranged-looking cocker spaniel on an easy chair.

"Does this look like a happy dog?" Fulginiti asks.

"Noooo," answers a scattered chorus from the audience.

"That's because this dog has just eaten its owner's face," says Fulginiti.

"Ewwwww," goes the chorus.

Gross, but true: Fulginiti has worked several cases where dogs, trapped in a house with a dead owner, have feasted on the hand that fed them, not to mention the lips and larynx that called their name.

"Basically, I go in to find out whether the dog erased evidence of an injury, or if it's a case where the guy died naturally, and the dog just got hungry.

"One interesting theme I've noticed, though, is that all the dogs that eat their owners are little yappy dogs."

Fulginiti tells the Science Center crowd that she's never had a case where a "real dog" ate its owner, although she's read case studies where large dogs starved to death in a house containing a corpse.

"So, I've developed this theory that real dogs will lay down beside their owners and die, but little yappy dogs just start scarfing. I think it has something to do with their metabolism."

Fulginiti pauses.

"Now, how many of you own cats?"

Three or four dozen hands tentatively rise.

"Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to find your cat staring you in the face?"

Three or four dozen heads tentatively nod.

"They're checking to see if you're still breathing."

The crowd titters, and Fulginiti grins in response, though, as usual, she's only half-joking.

Like many homicide detectives and emergency-room doctors, Fulginiti has developed a finely attuned sense of gallows humor. It's what cleanses her psyche's palate of the aftertaste of evil, tragedy, despair.

"People who are not in our field don't understand why we make utterly irreverent, horrible jokes about people when they're lying dead in front of us," she says. "The reason is you simply cannot allow yourself to focus on the fact that this person was at one time alive, with people who loved them. Because if we admitted that what happened to this person could possibly happen to us or someone we loved, we couldn't do our jobs effectively. In fact, we'd probably be screaming-meemies in a padded room."

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