Longform

A LIFE AMONG THE DEAD

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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.

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Michael Kiefer