My First Body: Conversations with the Dead

7:00 pm Essays

Dawn Shurmaitis

Everyone remembers their first body. Mine died in a shallow creek during a hard winter. By the time she was found, a delicate sheen of ice had covered her homely face. She looked like an aging ice princess, albeit a very dead one.

It was my first homicide as a fledgling newspaper reporter, and I was determined to get it right. From my vantage point, I scribbled furiously, describing the clothes she wore (short skirt, flimsy blouse), the number of detectives scrambling along the bank (three), even the body bag they used to take her from the scene (thick, black, zipped). As I took notes, I congratulated myself for not losing my lunch (soup, split pea). “I can do this,” I thought. But my bravado deserted me the second after I arrived at the dead woman’s door.

I went to her home angling for quotes. I knew a few choice recollections – heartfelt, poignant, maybe tinged with some tears – would make or break the story. Her house was a lopsided double-block squeezed between a hotdog stand and a Triple X “theater.” I geared myself up, silently rehearsing my introduction. “Hi, I’m from the newspaper. I know this is a terrible time. I was hoping you might…” I knocked. The door opened. And a 5-year-old child answered. “My mommy’s dead,” he said. “Do you want to see my new truck?”

I know the stereotype: heartless scribe relentlessly pursues victim’s family for big pay-off in screaming tabloid. Sometimes, that is the case, especially when the victims are young or rich or beautiful, traits that draw the media pack like sharks to blood. I covered crime for more than a decade. Over the years, through hundreds of stories, I learned many hard truths, about myself as well as the people I wrote about. But it’s that first, hard lesson that’s served me best: that every body has a story – and a loved one. And that, sometimes, that loved one is wearing Mickey Mouse pajamas.

A strand of hair, a speck of blood, a tiny slice of human tissue. That’s what the forensic scientists study in an effort to find out the “how” behind a violent or unexpected death. I looked for the “who.”

Monica, one of the youngest victims of the Flight 800 crash over Long Island. At her memorial service, her family laid out the stuff of a 16-year-old’s life, Monica’s life: green sneakers, a Grateful Dead tee shirt and copy of “Jane Eyre.” Hank, who still keeps the clothing his teenage son was wearing when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver, the blood stains now faded to the color of weak tea. When I interviewed the brother of a man killed in his just-opened video arcade, he kept repeating, “But he laid down carpet just that morning,” as if that simple chore should have somehow prevented the gunmen from mowing him down.

Sometimes, I didn’t have to knock on doors. The families of the dead came to me.

Charmaine spent 11 years waging war against the very government her daughter once swore to serve. The 58-year-old widow was convinced her youngest child died because the military didn’t follow its own regulation to protect spouses from violence. Her 20-year-old pregnant daughter, an Army private, was killed by another soldier, who “kinda looked like Elvis Presley.” He stabbed Charlene once in the stomach and three times in the back. For that, her mother wanted the government to pay – $10 million. After years of letter writing to lawmakers, and getting form letters in return, she finally wrote to me.

“It’s not right,” she said. “They did not do her justice.” Snapshots of her daughter – a high school cheerleader – filled her tiny apartment, decorating the walls, the refrigerator, even the covers of phone and address books. I wrote the story. She did not win her lawsuit, which she filed using a how-to book from the library.

The dead I came to know so well weren’t all crime victims. There was 14-year-old Justin, who died of a brain tumor just short of his 8th-grade graduation. When she talked about her son during an hours-long interview, his mother’s eyes didn’t fill with tears. They danced. “He was a riot,” she said of her first born as the stories tumbled out. Justin in the kitchen, chopping fresh garlic for spaghetti sauce he made every spring for the school picnic. Justin at the lake catching fish with his dad and little brother. Justin at his computer, lost in a simulated city of his own making. “He was an old soul,” she said. I never knew Justin. But after talking to his family, I wished I did.

Sometimes, the ones charged with the crime turn out to be the real victims. A 67-year-old foot doctor kills his 34-year-old only son with three gunshots to the chest. Why? He was afraid he would die, leaving his wife with their increasingly erratic son, who’d threatened to rip out his mother’s heart.

As a family friend told me: “No one knows what goes on in anyone’s home behind closed doors.” That was my job, to go behind those closed doors and ferret out the “why.” The lawyer shot during a so-called “hunting accident?” He was chasing a porcupine, his best friend told police, when he tripped and accidentally shot himself. It took 19 years, but the truth finally came out, thanks to the dead man’s father, who never stopped bugging police and contacting reporters. The motive? Sex. He wanted his best friend’s wife – the prettiest girl in their high school. The data processor, out for a night on the town with her best girlfriend? Shot by a motorcycle gang member. Why? “The bitch got uppity,” the killer told police after his capture. The unemployed factory hand who killed his wife over dinner? She died because she chose the wrong kind of noodle for his supper.

Over the years, I wrote about all manners of death – homicides, suicides, arsons, accidents. Deaths caused by guns, knives, fires, hands, steel-tipped boots – even the rung from a kitchen chair. The husbands, neighbors and Boy Scout leaders who snap, rage, strike out and kill do it because of alcohol, greed, sex, jealousy and, sometimes, just plain stupidity. Most killers are not the cunning creatures portrayed in best-selling potboilers. In real life, it’s the fertilizer salesmen of the world who end up splashed all over the front page – not the Hannibal Lectors.

The first killer I interviewed face to face looked like an older, chubbier version of Macaulay Culkin. He was in the county jail for kicking his mother to death after a night of Rolling Rock and whisky. Like most killers, he tried pinning the deed on random violence, even after his own blood-spattered, steel-tipped boots were recovered from the scene.

When he sat down before the plate-glass window that separated visitors from inmates, he looked almost happy to see me. Jail is a monotonous place, about as exciting as a chained dog’s day, and even a pesky reporter serves as distraction. We talked. Not murder – about art.

I’d learned from interviewing friends and neighbors that he hoped someday to turn his community college courses into an art career. Discussing Picasso and Magritte seemed to relax him. The talk turned chatty. “So where did you get your love of art?” I asked. “Anyone in your family?” Sure, he said. His mom. Bingo. The elephant in the room awoke. Just then, the guard stepped in and announced that visiting hours were over. I had time for one question. The question. “So, did you kill your mom?” He looked at me and smiled. “I loved my mom.”

Over the years, I came to realize certain truisms. The poorer a family was, the more likely they were to talk to me. The rich always hired a lawyer, who stood guard at the door and issued terse, three-sentence statements that rarely mentioned the victim by name. The grieving families would usually invite me to their kitchen, where we’d leaf through photos as they told favorite stories over coffee and cigarettes. When I’d ready to leave, they’d shake my hand, holding onto it long after it was time to let go. “She was a great mother.” “He loved to dance the polka.” “When she grew up, she wanted to be a doctor.”

They didn’t want their loved one’s life reduced to those last terrible moments, to a crime scene photo or body in a coffin. They wanted me to give voice to the dead. When I’d get back to the office I’d stare at the precious pictures they’d lend me, where everyone was invariably smiling, unaware that ugliness and pain were already on a grim march into their lives. A lot of times, I failed the families. But sometimes, I got it down and I got it right.

After 12 years, I could no longer bear the responsibility of holding those hands. I’d shake awake at 3 a.m. the day of publication, combing over every word, every sentence, worried I’d gotten something wrong, or chosen words that would cause more pain than they described. I quit reporting, taking a cushy job in network corporate communications, where the toughest question I had to ask was “When is your limo arriving?”

¬†For the first time in years, I slept like a baby. Lately, I’ve noticed that popular TV shows are including the dead in their cast of characters, from “Six Feet Under,” about a family of morticians, to “Rescue Me,” which features a firefighter killed on 9/11.

I have my own roll call of the dead, and from time to time their faces come to me still. I remember that little boy in his pajamas. He’d be in his 20s now. His mother’s killer was never brought to justice. After a brief investigation, the police dismissed her death, shrugging it off to a drunken stumble. An accident, probably. It nags me still: Why was she on that bridge, so far from familiar haunts, so late at night? If she was just walking home alone, and fell, where was her coat? Her story needed an ending. I doubt I’ll ever know. I know I’ll never forget.

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