There are times when it is very difficult to tell, even with careful investigation the manner of death.  There are only six choices: accidental, natural, homicide, suicide, pending investigation and of course, Could Not Be Determined.  Let’s see what you think of this one.

I was called by the sheriff’s office to go to a mountain area not too far from our town.  It was a warm fall Sunday afternoon.  I left Martha and the kids back at the homestead. I didn’t usually share much of these calls with them. Maybe I am now.

I got explicit instructions from the dispatch deputy because I’ve been lost looking for these sites on country roads before.  With the discovery of a dead body there were a few sheriff’s department volunteers along my route to secure the area so I just kept asking them for directions as I went along.  I wound my way up the mountain on gated logging roads.  My little two-wheel drive Toyota truck managed. The westering sun was filtering through redden bracken leaves.  The ground was dry and dusty.  It’s the time of year you feel the corner of the seasons turn.  The days are shortening perceptibly, and the nights can be quite cool.  There will even be frost.

I stopped behind the sheriff’s detectives jeep.  The back was piled high with investigative stuff, camera boxes, test kits.  There was yellow tape above the road “crime scene keep out”.  The detectives strode down the slope and met me as I turned my little truck around and headed it back down the hill.  “What have we got?”

Earl caught his breath and caught me up.  “Well, we’re not really sure.  He’s a 48-year-old guy.  Last seen five nights ago by his sister.  We think maybe a city cop saw him three nights back when he was headed up here.  He lives in town and works as a dishwasher.  She says he commonly would go to the wilderness to be close to nature.  I guess he kinda worked odd jobs and worshiped nature.  Well, a mountain biker rode by and saw him dead and called us.  We got up here about one this afternoon.  We haven’t disturbed anything.”  By now we’re all hiking up the slope, the three of us.  Earl has another deputy with him.  There’s a trail of sorts but it looks like mostly mountain bikers use it from the tracks.  Steep and clear through the brush.  There are also the deputies boot tracks in the soft dust.

“Did you guys look at the tracks when you came up?”

“Yeah, nothing new or recent that we could see.  The bikes covered even his tracks if he came up this way.  No other tracks that I could find coming or going.”  Earl was real thorough.  I’m breathing hard by the time I get to the second line of yellow crime scene tape stretched between two bushes.  I can see the body.  I stop and just look. 

It’s a nice spot. There’s a bit of an opening with tall trees around. The sun still shines off to the west and will for another few hours. Then I look at the deceased.

The skin has a taut, grey cast.  I can see his back, his knees are drawn up under a cover, the cheap sleeping bag.  The back of his head is covered with grey, brown thinning hair.  It’s longish.

“Any signs of injury?”

“Well, tell me what you think.”

We cross the yellow tape and circle the body on the soft dry earth.  The detective, the deputy and I form a rough triangle.  I watch the ground carefully as I step, the area is covered with their recent boot prints.  I gaze down on the body now.  His face is turned toward the ground, his arms pulled up across his chest.  I can see an eye socket, shrunken with flies buzzing.  The mouth not visible in this position but the cheek very shrunken.  Mostly we can just see his back, emaciated.  There are four parallel scratch marks from the left scapula toward the lower back.  Bear claw marks.  His face and forehead also have parallel scratches.

“You get ID?”

“Yeah, his clothes were piled over here.  Some had been spread around but his pants were there, folded.  And the wallet was in there.  It identified him, a couple bucks still there too.”

I studied his position.  It looked like he had laid the sleeping bag on the ground with his head uphill, now his head was downhill, and the sleeping bag folded across his bent legs.  “These are postmortem marks.”  I say.  “Looks like bear.  You guys see tracks?”

The deputy chimed in “Not when we first got here.  How can you tell these are postmortem?”

“No bleeding.  And see how the skin was rigid when it was scraped.  It didn’t slide with the claws. He was good and dead when the bear pawed him. I think he laid his head up there in the sleeping bag uphill.  Don’t you always try to put your head uphill when you’re sleeping out?  And then he died. And then the bear messed him around, a day or two after he died.  Must’ve flipped him over and downhill.  Probably got him twisted up like this in the bag so he was laying like this.  Maybe he was in the bag or just on top.  Was he in it?”

Earl offers, “I can’t tell.”

“Can we flip him over?  We gotta look for the knife in his back.”  Always trying to make light of a dead body.

“OK with me.  We’ve got a bunch of pictures of this so far.”  We glove up and roll his body to the west.  His joints are rigid in full rigor.  The face is now fully exposed.  The cheeks are very sunken as are the eye sockets.  Maggots swarm the gaping eyelids.  The mouth is open.  He is near toothless. And spawning fly larva like this place too.  They are buzzing in and out of his oval-shaped lips.  The chest also has the parallel bear claw marks.  No signs of a knife.  His legs are partway in the half-zipped cheap sleeping bag.  But he’s naked from the waist up.

“You guys find any booze or drugs?”

“No.  We found some really old beer cans about 20 yards down the hill, but no bottle or anything in his clothes.  No cigarettes or dope or anything.  No pipe or matches even.  No flashlight.  Hell, he was packing light.”

“Looks to me like he came up here to commune with nature.  He laid down to sleep and died, either of a heart attack or plain hypothermia.  It got real cold last Thursday night, our stuff in the garden got real frosted.”

“But could these maggots have hatched since then?”

“It’s been pretty warm in the daytime the last few days.  And this is a southern slope, it got real warm in the daytime. I’ll bet he came up here Wednesday or Thursday night.  It got colder than he was expecting.  I’ll bet it got down to 10° or less up here.  He probably froze to death.  Then the bear came along and moved him around.  Amazing it didn’t eat any of him.  Looks like a natural death to me.  Unless he was wanting to die.  Did his sister say he was depressed?  Was he a drinker?”

“No, she did say he’d been losing some weight.  You think you’ll do an autopsy?”

“Geez, I don’t know.  Should we spend a thousand dollars of the taxpayer’s money on this guy dead and we probably didn’t spend a dime on him alive?  Plus, the autopsy findings from hypothermia are negligible, or even a heart attack. If it was acute often there are no conclusive findings.  So, could be a thousand bucks with no answer.  That’s what I’d guess.  There’s no sign of foul play. No, I think I know how he died.  I bet he meant to come out here, get close to nature and nature was just a little colder than he expected.  Maybe not.  Who knows. Maybe he expected it to be cold and he was just testing his ability to be one with the elements. Do you guys suspect anything?  He got a record?  Has he ever been arrested?”

“No, we checked.  Some of the guys said the new him.  They seen him walking.  That one city cop said he saw him Wednesday walking north around sunset.  He had a bed roll with him.  Might a been headed up here then.  His sister said he did this a lot, to be with nature.  She said it was kinda like a religion thing for him.  She said he was overall pretty healthy, but he just didn’t quite fit in.  People always found him kinda odd.  But no, he didn’t have any legal troubles that we could find on the computer.  Less he went by a different name.”

“Well, looks like a natural or accidental death to me.  I’m gonna takeoff.  You guys done?”

“Just a few more pictures.  We’re starting to lose the light.  We called the funeral home but there was no answer.”

“Are they gonna come all the way up here?”

Earl looks up at me with a smile, “I hope so.”

I smile back, “We could put them in the back of my truck.  You got a body bag?”

“Naw Doc, we’lll just wait for the funeral home guys.  They’ll haul him down.”

I drove back down the bumpy road to our sleepy town.  The late afternoon warmth offering a suggestion of the cool night to come.

Monday, I filled out the paperwork.  This guy didn’t fit in well in life or in death. Some of us are like that.

A week later I got a call from the state Department of Vital Statistics secretary.  It’s her job to register and classify all deaths for demographic and official purposes.

“Dr. Hawthorne, you sent us a death certificate on Mr. Blank.”

“Yes, is there a problem?”

“Well, you listed the cause of death as hypothermia and the manner of death as natural.  We always put hypothermia down as an accident, therefore his manner of death should be accidental.”

“The problem is, ma’am, I’m not sure this was an accident.  It seemed to me like this guy meant to go out there, he meant to sleep in the woods on a cold night and didn’t really do a whole lot to prevent his death even though it was awfully cold.”

“Do you think it was a suicide?”  She asks me sweetly, following her prerogative.

“I have no indication he wanted to die, but neither did he do a whole lot to get himself warm.  Heck, he could have just picked up and walked back to town.  The walk would have warmed him up.  Or he could have built a fire.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the phone and then she offers meekly, “There is also the category ‘could not be determined’”.

“So, you don’t want me to put natural.  I’d really like to call this a natural death.  I think that’s how he would’ve wanted it.”

“Well, we just don’t have hypothermia as a possibility in the natural death category.”

“Let’s leave it “Could Not Be Determined”.

I could tell she wasn’t happy with that.  They really don’t like that category.  She really wanted me to call it an accident.  I stuck by my guns.  I felt like I owed it to him.

                        Cause of Death: hypothermia

                        Manner of Death: could not be determined.

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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