Coroner Story: Disability

Earl is trying to talk me into seeing this as an accident. “See, he could have pulled the shotgun this way by the muzzle across the seat. With the truck canted over on the slope like that it would be about right to hit him in the temple.”

I use all my patience not to laugh. I like Earl. He’s a good detective. He’s been out here on this back road in the dark for hours, taking pictures, setting up lights. He wants this to be an accident. It just isn’t. I have got to tell him so, one way or another. Kindly.

The call had come around 2AM. Dead asleep, not on call for my group, no lady in labor, so I was sound, dead asleep. But I still keep the skill of waking briskly whenever needed. The nice dispatch lady asks me to go to a scene in the far north of the county. For once, I know the location as she describes it. I used to hunt up past there. “Plus” she says, “You’ll see all the lights.” What? “They got all the night lights set up to investigate the scene.”

Sure enough, when I got there about 45 minutes later, in the chill of a dark late winter night, the whole valley glowed from the generator driven work lights. Their hum, roar, mutter kept a constant crowd noise in this isolated spot.

As I pull up, between the Sherriff’s Department rigs, I see a dirty four-wheel drive truck kind of on its side, down below the road. The passenger side is up against a tree. It doesn’t look like a wreck or a rollover, just like the little truck is tired and leaning on its right two wheels to take a break.

There’s a body back behind the truck, up on the road. I can’t really see it because they’ve thrown a red tarp over it. But there’s a blood trail in the gravel I can see leading from right outside the driver’s door to the tarp.

The road is gravel here. The pavement ran out a quarter mile back. The truck is off the outside of a turn. The drop off is steep, as is the uphill cut bank. If that little tree hadn’t held, she could have tumbled a few times before she landed in the river below. But instead, she’s on two wheels, the uphill ones up in the air. I can’t imagine rocking out of this stuck spot.

Earl tells me the story. “Well Doc, it looks like he got off the road here and couldn’t get back up on. See the spin marks under the tires? Hell, that little tree is starting to bend a bit since we got here. These uphill tires are six inches higher than they were. See, we think he reached across the seat to get his shotgun after he got stuck and it went off right in his hand.”

Rushing the story, a bit. I’m groggy. It’s cold. The lights make your breath a cloud at their angle. My nose is dripping. Back up a bit. Keep getting the story.

“Earl, who called it in?”

“Well, we got his name. Seems he came by and saw this guy dead on the road and the shotgun by him. He was worried someone shot him and might still be around, so he drove on. Called it in from Potlatch.”

“What time?”

“That was around ten.” And I’m here at 3AM. And these guys much longer. I appreciate that.

“Did he know him? Did the guy who called it in know the guy?” I gesture toward the tarp.


“Anybody else see him today?”

“Well,” Earl shifts, “Somebody said they saw him with a passenger go through Potlatch this afternoon.”

“Jesus, Earl, you think somebody was with him when this happened?” I’m not being real kind here. I should have done better. But Earl plugs on.

“Not really, no sign of it. Course, the ground is frozen, and we wouldn’t see any tracks.”

“Who is this guy?”

He gives me the name, struggling with the pronunciation.

“You guys know him?”

“Well, yeah. He’s been taken in a time or two, mostly for drunkenness. Last time he was wacko, doc. He had to go to the State Mental Hospital for a time. Seems he’s got some mental problems, plus he drinks.”

“Where does he live?”

Earl smiles. “Up here somewhere. No one knows, really. When we took him in before he wouldn’t tell us where he was staying. Some of the guys are pretty sure it’s up one of these logging roads. I figure he’s built himself a hooch out here in the woods and just comes to town now and again. He’s a real looney, doc.”

Earl smiles at that, knowing I love medical terminology.

“But get this, doc. Look at all these papers we found on his front seat.” He goes over to the back of one of the rigs and pulls out a plastic Ziplock with the papers. “These describe his diagnosis, what the VA is treating him for and all his disability forms. Seems he was working with this lawyer in town to get the disability he wanted. And right here on top is the notice that he got it. Dated just last week. So, the guy should have been as happy as a pig in shit.”

I look down at the frozen gravel, almost white in the glare.

 I know this story.

The disability dance so many do for so long, and then what does it mean? I have watched patients fight, so sure they were right to get “their disability”, like it was a possession kept from them. Then, when granted, this long sought determination, it gives so little. But the fight, at least was over. And their touchdown dance was as pitiful as their chronic pain. This long-sought determination of permanent disability granted that they would receive a measly $759 a month was not a real victory. It was a sentence. But that’s maybe another story. Why is this guy dead?

I keep asking Earl questions. I’m putting off going straight to the body.  “Any family? Is he from here?”

“No, family back east somewhere. We don’t got no next of kin. But we’re going to call his lawyer in the morning, see if he knows anybody to contact.”

I’m feeling tired. And it’s cold. But I’m trying to respect the work my colleagues have done. They have put a lot of information together. “Can I look at those papers?” I take the Ziplock, but then ask, “Any booze in the truck, any medications?”

“Look for yourself, doc. Brandon, open up the door for him, would you?”

The deputy who has been standing by us goes to the driver’s door and opens it upwards.

The tilted cab is strewn with empty beer cans, Copenhagen tins, pop cans, candy bar wrappers, booze bottles and old papers. And mud; mud on the floor, mud on the pedals. It was like he couldn’t help but track it in. He lived in it when it wasn’t frozen. Or dust.

“Jesus.” I say again.

“Hate to find his hooch.” Brandon grins.

“Hell, it’s probably booby trapped, as crazy as this guy is.”

I look at the papers. Lots of government forms from VA hospitals with lots of diagnoses: Post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, alcoholism, depression, personality disorder, chronic low back pain. There were the lists of drugs prescribed, but it looked like more miss than hit. I doubted any drug was going to cure what this guy suffered with.

“Where’s the gun?” I ask Earl.

He goes and gets it from his rig. Evidence. Pump action 12 gauge.


“We cleared it.”

“How many shells?”

“Four left.”


Earl winces. “No.”

None? I look up startled.

“No but he was wearing gloves, doc. You’ll see.”

There’s still blood on the barrel and the pump handle. I’m standing in the road facing the driver’s side of the truck as it tips upward. At my feet is a bit of the blood and the trail leading back toward the tarp. I look up. There is a canopy of fir and spruce and cedar above, glaringly illuminated by the yammering lights. The cedar boughs hold bits of fat and blood smears that shine different in the tangent light. I scan. Bits of skull are across the cab and hood, as well as blood.

Not much of his head left, I guess.


“Why did you move the body?”

“Had to get the lights in here, doc. Plus, he was kinda blocking the road.”

“Show me where he was lying.”

Earl and Brandon shuffle about, showing me with gestures where the body lay, where the gun was, what they had found.

“Let’s see him.”

We go back to the tarp. The light isn’t too good here. It’s crossways. I try to imagine their description of how he laid, and the gun.

“We gotta get him back into the light. I need to see what’s left of his head.”

Earl and Brandon and I drag him back toward where he was on the gravel by his rig. I put the vinyl gloves on in the cold so I can mess with his shredded head. I turn the shoulders so I can see his right temple. The skin left there is torn and ragged.

“Now show me how you think this happened.” I say to Earl.

He gets a hold of his eagerness and backs the story up to the beginning as he sees it.

“Well, we think he was actually headed out to town, see. There’s tracks up there on the cut bank where we think he turned around.” We all walk up beyond the glare about 40 yards to where there are fresh tire tracks in the uphill dirt. “So, as he’s headed out to town about nine or ten or so, he decides he’s forgot something, maybe and he turns around.”

“Any money on him?” I ask.

“Nine dollars.” Earl pauses. No robbery.

He continues. “Well, he’s drunk and can’t make this turn and drives off the downhill side here. He tries to drive out, but she won’t grab. So, he gets out to go get help. He thinks to grab his shotgun out a the front seat and it goes off as he’s pulling it toward himself.”

“And hit’s him right in the temple?” I ask, skeptical.

“Well, yeah.”

I exhale and shake my head. “Sorry Earl, that is a contact wound on his temple. He, or somebody, was holding that gun against his head when it went off. No powder burns, no distance from the muzzle to the skin. So, Earl, if no one else was here, and you don’t think this is a homicide….do you think it is?”


“Then I’ve got a hard time seeing this as an accident. If he’s pulling the loaded shotgun toward him the shot would have gotten his arm, neck, the whole side of his face, and he’d have powder marks. But the blast hit him square in the right temple. Contact wound, or very near. The muzzle was less than an inch from his skin, maybe even up against it. Plus, look at all that spray.” I gesture toward the cedar branches with blood and brains above.

“I think he pulled the gun out, racked a slug in the chamber, put the butt on the ground, bent his head over the muzzle and pressed the trigger with his right finger.”

Earl and Brandon were quiet. “But why would he do that? When he just got all that money from disability and all? And his truck ain’t totaled. We could pull it up outa there easy enough. What’s the reason for suicide?”

I looked down at the frozen gravel. I thought of all the stories, the reasons, all the patients I have worked with as they struggled with their disabilities and whether they could get “Their Disability”. I had some idea, but I really didn’t know just how the brain, now gone from this dead man might have worked. And I kick frozen gravel.

“Earl, I’m not sure I know. I’ll talk to his lawyer in the morning. I know him. Maybe he’ll have an idea. But the scene says this was a suicide.”

I turn and walk back toward the Hilux, then turn back to them in the glaring, raging lights. “I’m gonna go. I’ll ask the funeral home to run his blood. I’ll talk to you guys in the morning.”

His lawyer was little help. “No way he’d kill himself now. We worked on this for two years getting him his disability. He should have been as happy as a pig in shit.”

“When did you last see him?”

“Thursday, four days ago. I gave him the final determination papers.”

“He seem okay then to you?”

“Yeah, he was fine. He was happy the judge had decided for him, and he would be getting regular money.”


Blood alcohol 280

Cause of Death: Shotgun Wound to the Head.

Manner of Death: Suicide

About ddxdx

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