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.

Steve Mascher, head of the Yavapai County Sheriff's criminal investigation division, who has worked with Fulginiti on "more than 10" body recoveries, describes her as "hard-core."

"You know, working a body, if you show any weakness around cops, you're crucified," says the detective. "It's just better for her to be grosser and louder than we are."

Fulginiti is self-aware to the point of discomfort, and she admits that two things and two things only have ever truly shaken her up.

Denise Huber's reconstructed skull, which had sustained numerous blows from a tire iron.
Denise Huber's reconstructed skull, which had sustained numerous blows from a tire iron.
Dr. Laura Fulginiti: "Each victim I work on takes a piece of me to the grave with them."
Paolo Vescia
Dr. Laura Fulginiti: "Each victim I work on takes a piece of me to the grave with them."

The first is working with the bodies of children who have been abused. She doesn't talk about this further.

The second is plane crashes (most recently, Fulginiti sifted through the sodden wreckage of Alaska Airlines Flight 91, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean in February, killing all aboard).

"I have developed a slight fear of flying," she says. "What happens is you sit in your chair before takeoff, and you look at the overhead bins and think about what they look like charred and mangled. You check out the safety cards in the seat pocket in front of you and think of how they look embedded in a torso. You see the metal bar in front of your legs and you feel the seat back hitting your neck and the seat belt tight around your waist and you think about what happens when all those shearing forces are at work simultaneously, which is your body separated into at least three pieces.

"Working plane crashes, you're not looking for bodies. You're looking for a hip bone, so you can determine age and sex."

The first plane crash Fulginiti worked traumatized her. She was 24, still in graduate school, and guest-teaching at her alma mater in Colorado Springs when a commuter plane from Kansas carrying 25 people crashed on approach.

"I remember thinking it was so random, like a giant hand just swept through the sky and knocked this plane to the earth. What got to me about that crash was things like finding a hand, just a hand, holding a pen, like the guy had been writing a memo as the plane came in for landing.

"I kept finding such normal stuff in such a horrific context that my brain took a little vacation."

A five-year vacation.

Though she got her doctorate and launched her career, Fulginiti says her internalized personality was virtually flatlined following the Colorado crash.

"I couldn't talk about it, wouldn't deal with it until one day I sat down and wrote about it," she says.

This is what she wrote:

It isn't so much the crash and its aftermath that needs to be addressed as the way it affected me, the way it changed my perspective, the way my excitement and naivete were rudely smashed into realism and the discovery that much of what I do is mine alone and can't be shared. . . . The work was endless. They kept bringing body bag after body bag and we had to sort through the hamburger trying to make sense of it. I remember I became the "Queen of the Penis" because for whatever reason that was the one organ I kept finding. I remember trying to sort out clothing and seeing a blue blazer like the one Dad always used to wear. . . . I remember being terrified that I had to fly and wishing it wouldn't happen. I remember walking into the lab [back in Tucson, three days after the crash] and hugging Mike [a fellow UofA grad student who'd also worked the crash] with both of us crying and crying and knowing that our lives were forever changed.

"It was basically just a stream-of-consciousness diatribe, but it worked," Fulginiti says today of her cathartic screed. "Simply jotting down my feelings and how I handled them, or how I had avoided handling them, finally snapped me back into myself.

"That was the moment I put all the ghosts to bed."

Mystery novels are Fulginiti's brain candy. She favors Dick Francis and Ed McBain.

She read a McBain title on her off time recently in which the murderer flayed a victim near the end. "I thought at the time, 'That'd be a cool case to work,'" she says. "It struck me about a week later that was pretty horrific."

Fulginiti likes mystery novels in part because she always gets to know the ending. Unlike the cases she works in real life.

"I'm constantly frustrated that I'm not in charge of every single case I'm involved in," she says. "Often I'm only working with one piece of the puzzle, and I never know where or if it fits. It's like watching The Sixth Sense without ever finding out the guy's dead."

There's no mystery, then, as to why Fulginiti's most gratifying cases are the ones she solves, or at least plays an integral role in solving.

Prompted, she comes up with her two favorites, one high-profile, one not.

The first was the 1991 murder of Denise Huber, 23, who disappeared on the way home from a concert in Orange County, California. Huber's car, which had a flat tire, was found on the Corona del Mar Freeway. Her nude, dismembered body was found three years later in a meat freezer inside a Ryder truck parked outside the Dewey, Arizona, home of house painter John Joseph Famalaro.

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