A LIFE AMONG THE DEAD
TWO DAYS BEFORE his retirement as Maricopa County medical examiner, Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig swings open one of two silver vaults near the back of his office complex to survey last night's harvest. It's a walk-in refrigerator about the size of a restaurant's meat locker, and inside there are eight corpses. Except for one, their tagged feet, white and waxy, protrude from beneath sheets. The eighth, the uncovered body of a middle-aged man, lies on his back, legs twisted stiffly to the side, with heart-monitor patches still stuck to the matted gray hair and blue flesh of his bare chest.
The stench of death wafts out suddenly from the vault. It's a primordial odor that raises the hair on the back of your neck and sticks in your nostrils, a smell that Karnitschnig admits he has never grown immune to in 33 years as a forensic pathologist. He shuts the door quickly to lock it in.
The other refrigerator is where we keep the decomposed ones," he says matter-of-factly. The words have a vaguely Germanic roll to them. I won't open it because it smells too bad." Any death of questionable circumstances comes through the Medical Examiner's Office-the Midwestern tourist who drops dead on the golf course, the worker who dies cleaning out industrial tanks, the victim of a traffic accident, the suspected overdose, the patient who doesn't live through surgery, the suicide. Only about 30 percent are autopsied; for the rest, the cause and manner of death can be more easily determined. Most of this morning's dead, however, are weekend murder victims, and they must all be disassembled and examined, for they have ceased to be human and have become murder-trial evidence.
The number of deaths each year is about the same," Karnitschnig says with tired exasperation, but it used to be that suicides were much higher than homicides. Now the homicides are going up and up." The instrument of choice, most frequently, is a gun, but whereas in the past it was a Saturday night special, more and more it's a semiautomatic weapon with a multiple-shot magazine, and each bullet needs to be dug out, catalogued, the range and direction of fire determined.
Modern autopsies are more complex for other reasons, too: for the sheer technical wonder of forensic tests that match hair and blood and DNA, that can detect the residues of ejaculate, foreign hairs. Karnitschnig, on his tour, wends past white-jacketed technicians operating gas spectrometers and other machines that can detect minute traces of drugs, alcohol, inhaled volatile liquids, poisons.
Dr. K, as he is called as often for brevity as affection, is handsome in a graybeard way. Despite his cowboy boots, he is a short man, and like many short men he can fight like a badger. Depending on whom you ask, Karnitschnig is either a charming and compassionate mensch or an arrogant, Napoleonic son of a bitch. Judges like him for his precision and ability to explain complex medical issues to juries. He has tangled with law enforcement officers because he would often refuse to run tests they deemed essential. This is not some forensic delicatessen," he huffs.
Every time you went in there, it seemed you got off on the wrong foot," says Sergeant Mark Mullavey of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. He was not alone in his thinking. The animosity grew so bad that in 1985 then-county attorney Tom Collins tried to have Karnitschnig removed from his job. Karnitschnig says it was because his autopsies didn't fit in with what they wanted."
His former associate, Dr. Thomas Jarvis, who retired in 1988 and who still describes Karnitschnig as one of the four or five best in the country," responds, To hell with those guys. They're a bunch of amateurs. Heinz and I ran that office together for 17 years, essentially alone with very little outside help. We never had a cross word or an argument in 17 years."
Dr. K vehemently insisted that his office remain independent of courts and law enforcement agencies. The paper-pushers in the County Building are fearfully admiring of his intellect and pointed tongue, but found it so hard to deal with that independence that they are restructuring the job so they will never have to deal with another person like him again.
Attorney General Grant Woods, who owes Karnitschnig a major court victory from when Woods was a public defender, marvels at Karnitschnig's longevity in office. Temperamentally, it's surprising that Dr. K's been there so long, because he is outspoken and not fond of brown-nosing," Woods says. When you're appointed by the government, brown-nosing is a part of the job." In fact, Karnitschnig has consistently pushed the envelope in telling people just how stupid he thinks they are. He's sometimes right.
Karnitschnig's successor has been named, but two staff pathologists have quit. So what was once an overworked, three-and-a-half-person operation will now be a one-person operation. The office is in big trouble.
BY THE TIME Dr. K crosses the hall from the toxicology lab into the autopsy suite, the bare-chested corpse has been wheeled in from the vault to be autopsied. He was the unfortunate victim of a holdup, and was shot twice in the back of the head. His face is bloodied, grinning obscenely, like a badly painted mannequin. His legs are so puffy that his jeans look as if they've been stuffed with rags.
The pathologist who will perform the autopsy studies x-rays on the light board, pinpointing the location of the bullets. Within 20 minutes, the murder victim has been opened from throat to crotch, his entrails removed, examined and placed in a beet-red pile on an adjoining gurney. The hollow torso is a surprising, Technicolor vision of yellow, subcutaneous fat and white bone. The skin on the back of the head has been slit from ear to ear and the entire scalp and face peeled forward over the head like a rubber mask turned inside out. The hair that belongs at the nape of his neck now hangs near his chin like a beard. His cranium has been sawed off, the brain removed and the doctor is probing inside the skull for the bullets as if scooping out a coconut.
Nearby, an attendant lifts the body of a seven-month-old girl from a table like a Betsy Wetsy doll and places her on a scale. She was beaten to death during the night.
Man is a very brutal animal," sighs Karnitschnig.
ON THE SIXTH DAY of this year, Heinz Karnitschnig tendered his resignation. He has always given good memo, the sort of sharply worded missives that get circulated around government offices by an underground network of secretaries with bad attitudes.
It would be out of character were I not to tell you some additional reasons for my walking away from a job that for many years I enjoyed immensely," he wrote that day. And then he numbered his reasons:
1. Deja vu once too often [for several paragraphs he rants about the constant demands to cut staff and costs despite a growing workload].
2. Suffocation under dead trees. A distended bureaucracy in an attempt to justify its existence spews forth reams of paper filled with flummery, e.g., a memorandum advising you of an enclosed memorandum and instructing you what to do with it.
3. Management by innocents. ...
4. `Instruction' by acolytes. While barely able to get our work done, we spend untold hours in meetings where trendy phrases worthy of a Japanese automobile prospectus are hurled about with great abandon and gusto by acolytes with the shining eyes of the true believer. At one such meeting, professionals with decades of experience questioned new dogma and were told by a young management- school graduate: `Trust me. ...'
Enough of the mutterings of an elderly grump."
Since the resignation, he has poked fun viciously. He returned from a vacation to find a staggering load of autopsies and that employees were ill and out of the office, and while he was up to his elbows in body cavities the telephone rang insistently, demanding that he turn in his scheduled management report or bullet"-short for bulletin." He sarcastically dashed off, I returned yesterday from a two-week skiing vacation in New Mexico. I am tanned and had a good time." The paper-pushers in the County Manager's Office were not amused and memos flew.
On another occasion, he received a photocopied invitation that had been designed on someone's Macintosh computer asking him to witness" the unveiling of the Maricopa County Corporate Strategic Plan and BE PRESENT AS A PAGE IN MARICOPA COUNTY HISTORY IS MADE!" Gleefully he penned a bogus press release in response: Dr. K witnessed history being made, when, on January 27, 1992, he and many fellow apparatchiks were present at the unveiling of Maricopa County's `Perestroika in the Sun.' `I haven't been so moved since the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989,' he said." His superiors either didn't get the humor or didn't think it was funnyÏor just didn't want to spar with him linguistically. Karnitschnig speaks and writes English better than most native speakers.
He is a man of considerable ego-his scrapbook is the size of a coffee table, and its first page displays a collection of letters he received with his name misspelled. (One vintage envelope from the Arizona Highway Patrol is also imprinted with the message Fight Communism.") And he is a daunting opponent who will not suffer fools. Once in court, Karnitschnig says, a hot young lawyer was trying to intimidate him. You don't like me, do you?" the lawyer asked aggressively.
No, I don't," Karnitschnig snapped back.
Why not?" the lawyer pressed. Because you're wasting my time." The courtroom tittered and the lawyer lost momentum. Later the judge took the young buck into chambers and told him he'd forgotten the first thing he was taught in law school-not to ask questions for which he didn't already know the answers.
Karnitschnig has been forceful with his superiors as well. In 1983, when the Board of Supervisors refused to let him hire replacements for two mortuary attendants who had quit, he shut down the morgue at night and on weekends. Ordinarily the office stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but he didn't feel he could keep his staff on double shifts. His memo was quite graphic: Nor does one have to be a forensic pathologist to know that dead people don't move from stretcher to table and back on their own, do not undress themselves and do not oblige you by assuming various positions so that you can properly examine their bullet holes or stab wounds," he wrote. ÔDead people have to be lifted and pulled and pushed and the heavier they are the more muscle power is needed. Finally, one doesn't have to be a management expert to realize that once you have a rigid 200-pound cadaver precariously perched on its side to undress and examine it you had better not let go of it to answer the telephone or to open the back door."
The bodies piled up quickly and he made his point. Rabbis complained because they couldn't bury their dead within the time limit of religious tradition. Police officers complained because they needed autopsy reports as evidence. Families complained. And Karnitschnig got his way.
That scenario may soon repeat itself. Whereas the Medical Examiner's Office has been operating with three full-time forensic pathologists, including Karnitschnig, and one part-timer, it will soon only have one. The two full-time staff pathologists, Drs. Fred Walker and Larry Shaw, were initially considered to take over the office. Walker withdrew because he felt he didn't have enough management experience and then resigned, effective June 1. Shaw also resigned because he was allegedly so nonplussed by the advisory selection committee. (Neither would agree to be interviewed by New Times.)
They cannot be replaced easily. In 1990 Karnitschnig sent out 650 letters looking for candidates and got 12 replies, most of which he says were from unqualified or over the hill" doctors looking for a forensic Sun City." The next year, he went to a national convention, advertised a vacancy and sat in a hotel room for a week waiting for the telephone to ring. It never did.
Dr. Philip Keen, who has worked part-time for Karnitschnig for several years, signed a one-year, renewable contract with the county to assume the post. Keen, who is currently medical examiner for Yavapai County, is a tall and slender man, at least compared to Karnitschnig, clean-shaven to Karnitschnig's beardedness, and Dr. K is the first to say that Keen's also more diplomatic.
Everyone from the County Manager's Office to the courts to the law enforcement agencies agrees that the Medical Examiner's Office is underfunded.
Although Dr. K was the highest-paid Maricopa County official, his salary of $127,000 is rather low for a doctor with 33 years' experience. Entry-level pathologists in other parts of the country can command salaries well over $100,000.
Dr. Keen may end up working by himself. The storage vaults hold about 30 bodies; the vaults can fill up over the course of a violent weekend. It's more than one doctor can handle.
part 1 of 2
A LIFE AMONG THE DEAD DR. HEINZ KARNITS... v5-27-92