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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."

The moment I opened the stomach, the fumes of that cake just came up to my nose," Dr. K later told the daily newspapers. He put it in a jar and brought it home and kept it in the refrigerator so that it would not ferment before he took it to the courtroom the next day.

In the morning, one of his daughters asked what it was, and he asked if she would smell it. She recognized it as banana bread. Later, on the witness stand, Karnitschnig was asked by Woods what the dead man had eaten.

He said `banana bread,' and I knew it was over," Woods recalls. It was right out of Quincy."

Clearly there is drama to the job. The horror is tempered by the challenge of solving a problemÏthe unexplained death, the unidentified, decomposed corpse-though Dr. K admits that, If, on the other hand, [the other pathologists] call me back there to take a look and they have this stinker with maggots all over the place, I may gag myself." He stops a moment to reflect. You never get over the smell. It remains offensive all through your life. You learn to stay in there and get used to it, but the moment you go out for a breath of fresh air you have to acclimatize yourself all over again."

The years have not totally dulled his reflex to horror. He admits that it's still a great shock to enter the scene of a murder and see one victim, let alone nine arranged so methodicallyÏas he saw last summer at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist temple.

You are constantly made aware of the possibility of instant extinction," he says, and it has confirmed his disbelief in an afterlife.

BECAUSE LIVES and convictions hang on the medical examiner's findings, Karnitschnig has been at the center of controversies.

They caught up with him in the spring of 1985, when then-county attorney Tom Collins launched a full-court press to have him and his entire staff removed. He had tangled with local law enforcement agencies too many times; the banana-bread case came up, and so did a death Dr. Jarvis had ruled an accidental cocaine overdose which the prosecutor wanted classified as a homicide. Unmentioned but likely contributing was the death of a man police said was scuffling over a gun with an officer when it discharged; Ysasi, Karnitschnig and Jarvis all said the victim was shot in the back from a distance. And there were many times when the medical examiner's staff overrode requests for tests it deemed unnecessary.

Collins accused Jarvis of numerous errors, Ysasi of performing autopsies without a medical license, Karnitschnig of intransigence. When they said Ysasi was surly, Karnitschnig jumped to his defense, saying maybe that was why he and Ysasi got along so well.

Then a shocker: The Arizona Republic learned that two years earlier Ysasi had lent photographs of the naked, bloodied corpse of an 8-year-old girl to prominent Phoenix outdoorsman Bob Housholder, who subsequently pleaded no contest to a charge of showing a child nude photographs he'd taken of another minor. Housholder's crime had nothing to do with the photos from the Medical Examiner's Office.

I didn't commit a crime," Ysasi says. In retrospect it was bad judgment."
Karnitschnig fired him immediately. I was repulsed," Dr. K says. I don't understand why anyone would show those pictures to anyone, let alone lend them out to be shown to kids."

Ysasi successfully appealed, but Karnitschnig would not allow him to do anything more than sit at a desk for his whole shift, and eventually Ysasi's position was eliminated altogether.

The scandal was not enough to get Karnitschnig removed, however. For one thing, he was the only county government department head classified as a merit employee," meaning that he could not be fired for political reasons and without showing just cause. Collins' presentation at the hearing was so clearly emotional and badly prepared that when he had finished, Karnitschnig, according to newspaper accounts of the time, smiled broadly, then stood up and dramatically said, Three weeks ago, the county attorney hinted darkly of more malevolent facts to come. Everybody waited for the other shoe to drop. What you have just experienced here is theatre of the absurd."

Karnitschnig attributes his governmental longevity to being right. Or, rather, he has a great intolerance for being wrong. Ysasi relates how during autopsies being witnessed by detectives, he and Dr. K would get into arguments. He once called attention to a nonfatal bullet wound in a homicide victim's arm. That's a stab wound," Karnitschnig said. Ysasi had already probed the wound with his finger and felt the broken bone and a fragment of metal, and he protested. Dr. K swiped at the arm with a scalpel and the bullet fell out. ÔSometimes even the blind sow finds a pearl," he snapped.

As of this writing, Karnitschnig is appealing a 1990 lawsuit that awarded $950,000 in the case of a skeleton that Karnitschnig initially misidentified as to gender and race and that was mistakenly cremated years before the victim was identified. He is outraged by the accusation of wrongdoing, even though the financial burden is the county's, not his. Regardless of the verdict, he does not think he was wrong.

UP IN PRESCOTT, Karnitschnig is clearly relieved to be away from the fight. He admits he is leaving while he is still completely in control, afraid that as he gets older he might not realize that his faculties are weakening, his judgments clouding. He has boundless energy to hike along ridge lines and point out landmarks, but he could no longer muster the strength to face a day of memos explaining that the reason he requested a bookshelf was to have something to put books on. He can't understand why he should be expected to forsake the autopsy suite for a manager's desk when that was the life's work he chose. Besides, there was always more work than there were assistants to delegate it to. Even with his staff before retirement, Karnitschnig complained of having to cut corners, of doing only a cursory examination of an HIV-positive suicide, for example, because a full autopsy would have required that the entire facility be disinfected afterward-while there were ten more bodies waiting. Over and over, he comes back to the bureaucratic octopus," sitting through five-hour meetings when five bodies are in the refrigerator and someone is talking about do-right management" or something else that pales in comparison to the stuff of Karnitschnig's day, the convenience-store clerk with a bullet in the brain, the seven-month-old baby girl beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend, the ugliest realities.

Portia Erickson has both sparred with Dr. K and socialized with him, but she has never seen what happens in the Medical Examiner's Office. On their first meeting, she asked Karnitschnig if pathologists needed to be doctors. A few weeks later, he realized that she would be writing his performance evaluation and basing it largely on the flow of paper that came out of his office.

Once he sat through two hours of a meeting in which it was debated whether a document should read to foster a better work environment" or in order to foster a better work environment." How utterly ironic. What will happen now that he's gone, that his assistants have quit, leaving one doctor to perform work that was too much for four doctors? Where will the county find replacements?

On April 14, Karnitschnig composed his last management bullet."
Today we had 18 cases including 4 homicides," he wrote. After strategically visioning the situation individually and collectively, we conceptualized a methodology that was then to be operationalized in order to foster expeditious disposition of the 18 bodies.

The above paragraph was made possible through attendance of `Language Butchery 101,' given intramurally by Maricopa County.

To conclude, Hasta La Vista, Baby!!"
part 2 of 2

THE MYSTERY OF NOVELISTS... v5-27-92

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Michael Kiefer