Longform

A LIFE AMONG THE DEAD

Portia Erickson, the assistant county manager who oversees the ME's Office, notes that the economy is picking up and there may be funds available soon. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid given the workload and the facility, that's not good enough," says Keen. You can't just put the bodies in plastic garbage bags somewhere and let them pile up until someone perceives it as a problem."

Accidents, suicides and homicides don't observe budgetary constraints. In fact, when times are bad they increase.

I think Phil Keen is a competent pathologist, but he's going to need help," says Dr. Thomas Jarvis, the former assistant medical examiner. I think he'd be well-advised to turn it down and let them stew in their own juices."

Even before the resignations, the staff was minuscule to those in cities of comparable size. Dr. K points out that San Francisco, which has one-third the population of Maricopa County, has twice the ME budget, twice the staff and performs twice the autopsies.

Furthermore, the ME building at Sixth Avenue and Madison does not comply with new health regulations regarding its ventilation system and other design elements that would lessen the risk of airborne pathogens or blood-transferred diseases such as AIDS.

Finally, whereas Karnitschnig has always argued forcefully that the Medical Examiner's Office must remain independent of all other agencies, Erickson has made it absolutely clear that his successor will answer to her. Karnitschnig never would. She wants a manager, not a hands-on pathologist. So who will do the autopsies? And where will the pathologists come from? ÔWe don't have any idea," says Erickson.

Karnitschnig says he no longer cares. But if county officials decide to hunt for more money in light of his retirement, he says, then they should put my name on the outside of the building, because that would be my greatest accomplishment." A WEEK LATER, Karnitschnig is relaxed and jovial at his Prescott hideaway. It's a board-and-batten, wood-heated cabin built into a hillside beneath ponderosa pines. Dr. K is pleasant company away from the office. Even his bureaucratic nemesis, Portia Erickson, says she has developed a major attachment to the man. He's honest and sensitive to people, and every time he sent a scalding memo he told me not to take it personally," she says. They and their spouses socialize, share drinks and dinner at each others' homes.

Karnitschnig takes a walking staff from beside the fireplace and leads the way through a scrub-oak thicket to a second cabin he owns just uphill, then, puffing from exertion, he plops into an Adirondack chair on the front deck to admire the view.

Ah, yes, you can see the San Francisco Peaks there," he points out. And that red cliff? That's Oak Creek Canyon." He is in love with the terrain and plans to spend many retirement hours here with his second wife, Maria. Between them and their marriages, they have eight children.

It is too early to decide what other plans he might have. He is an active man, still energetic at 62. He talks passionately about skiing. He was a ski racer and instructor in his native Austria, and, in fact, he met his first wife, an English doctor, in a class he was teaching in 1956. He studied medicine in Austria, Scotland and Virginia, and took his first medical examiner's job in Richmond, Virginia, in 1959. After a brilliant piece of work in which he identified all 77 bodies in an airplane crash, he was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration to travel the country probing through airplane wrecks in which the biggest piece you find is a thumb."

He came to Maricopa County in 1971 at a salary of $35,000 to head a two-person Medical Examiner's Office.

Now that he has retired, friends have suggested he write his memoirs, but he fears that readers would want to know about such sordid cases as the death of actor Bob Crane, which he says was a boring autopsy, no more than a few lacerations to the head," and not about the grotesque, no-name cases, the crushed and desiccated head and leg found in the desert that he and his former investigator, Eloy Ysasi, identified as belonging to a man and a woman who ran away together, only to be done in by the woman's husband. Or the time in 1981 when he exonerated a defendant by finding undigested banana bread in a dead man's stomach.

A witness for the prosecution had allegedly returned from his mother's house-he went to great lengths to describe the banana bread she had baked for him-to find the defendant and the wife bent over the lifeless body of the victim. Grant Woods, now the state's attorney general but back then a defense attorney, asked Dr. K to examine the contents of the victim's stomach. Karnitschnig found an aromatic cake."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Kiefer