Coroner Story:Visqueen

This call came in the late fall. Darkness would come soon. So, I set out before finishing my dinner with the girls. Martha would care for them. Light will fade.

The sheriff’s dispatch lady said there was a dead body I needed to investigate out past Bovill. That’s a 45-minute drive to the east.

“Is there a detective there? Can I call him?”

“Just a patrolman sir. The sheriff didn’t assign a detective.”

He was a new Sheriff, and we weren’t getting along.

He did this to me for his four years in office. He even got a friend of his to run against me. We each have four-year terms, mine alternated two years before and after his. But he smiles and talks to me friendly now when we pass in town. He only got the four years, and I quit long after he was gone.

It couldn’t have been partisan animosity. I ran unaffiliated, no party attached to my name on the ballot. Maybe he just didn’t like me. Indeed, we hadn’t met until a few weeks ago.

The blowout down by Julietta might have fixed it.

That was another late evening call a few weeks back. I had gotten a call after dinner from the sheriff’s dispatch that I was needed down in the canyon. No details, just that I was to go to a scene. So, I took off in my rusty Toyota Hilux.

When I made the turnoff in Troy, there were barricades in the road. “Road Closed”.

I went around them like a kid sneaking candy. Then I drove on at 40 mph when I could have been doing 55, maybe feeling guilty.

When I got down to Kendrick and needed to turn right there was another barricade in the middle of the two-lane. “Road Closed”. Very serious, I guess. But I sidled around this one too and went on. The little Hilux fit around such obstructions.  Duty calls.

When I got to the scene it was in fact pretty impressive. Lots of lights, bulldozers, a mash of mud and big basalt boulders across the two-lane highway. I parked and got out. I walked forward, nodding to the deputies I knew until I saw our Sheriff. I went up to him.

I only knew him from his pictures in the local paper. He probably didn’t know me. They never ran the coroner’s headshot.

But then, maybe he did.

He had never introduced himself or called to talk to me. But I hadn’t done that either. I got paid $500 a month with no benefits to do my job, and he got a full-time salary, five figures with health insurance.

But here’s the kicker.

The coroner is the only one who can arrest the Sheriff.

If the sheriff is for some reason subject to arrest, the only person in the county who can do that is the coroner. And if the sheriff dies or absconds, the coroner becomes the sheriff. It’s some sort of chain of command thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I would later. Idaho laws are mind boggling.

I had found out about sheriff summons in my first years, before I had to deal with this guy. I wasn’t even sure what a summons was, but the previous sheriff had the decency to inform me.

Phone call came between patients: “Doc, you’ll get a summons for me tomorrow.”


“I’m being sued, and the summons server will bring the summons to you and then you are supposed to serve me with it.”

“Really? Serve?”

“Yeah, that’s how these things work. I’ll have a deputy down there so you can just give it to him, and he’ll give it to me. Save you the hassle of coming up the hill.”

“Is that legal?”

I heard him exhale and I imagined his girth in his chair. “It follows the spirit of the law, let’s say.” So that’s what I did. Seemed pretty civil.


So maybe this sheriff’s animosity was out of fear. But then he would have to be doing something wrong, wouldn’t he?  I didn’t know, despite the summons thing, at the time that I outranked him. I don’t know if he knew this. But I did come to learn this clearly later on. Not then, not at that time in the Potlatch River canyon. I just walked up to him.

It was unbelievable that he was shorter than me. I have always dealt with taller teammates. Basketball, football, volleyball, me being 5’8” doesn’t make me substantial. We have to find other ways.

“Hello Sheriff. You needed the coroner?”

He turned to me, looking away from the bulldozers. He didn’t seem to recognize me but smiled and shook my hand. He looked absent and didn’t say anything. It was like we were at a wedding, and three drinks in, he was meeting a distant relative.

“Hello, my name is Sid Hawthorne, and I am the county coroner and you requested I come to this scene.”

He focused a bit. “Oh yes. Some people were killed in this landslide.” He waves off toward the mud and bulldozers.

“Should I look at them?”

“Uh, no, they’ve been taken off to the hospital in Lewiston.” His vague goes up a bit and he turns back toward the bulldozers.

The hillside and scene are illuminated by the mobile lights, and the multiple generators and heavy equipment are filling the deep valley with their noise. But I notice a tall deputy coming toward us behind our diminutive sheriff.

He’s got the swagger. He stands behind the small man with his hands on his hips, glowering down at us two small men below him. I am the object of this glower.

I too appraised the muddy scene. It looks like some significant uphill precip had washed a shit-ton of Palouse mud with some basalt rubble downhill. And I could believe a car on this road might be a casualty.

“Where’s the car?”

The sheriff still looks absently at the bulldozers, like he doesn’t hear me. I wait and take a breath to repeat with a louder voice and the tall deputy intervenes.  “It’s up here.” And he turns and strides toward the generators and noise and mud.

I follow.

Below the road is more mud and a very muddy vehicle on its side. I can’t even make out it’s color or type. In my memory it’s a 1938 Packard, but that’s got to be wrong.

“They got them out of there?” I’m incredulous.

The tall deputy looks down on me, imperious. “The bodies were recovered. They have been taken to Lewiston.”

I turn away from him and walk back to the sheriff. He’s still gazing at the heavy equipment. When I get to him, I speak loudly, so I can be sure he hears me. “You called me out here to come to a scene and these bodies are not even going to be in our county jurisdiction.”

He slowly pivots his absent gaze toward me, probably not remembering just who I am.

“You don’t need a coroner.” I yelled at him over the generators and bulldozers.

The sheriff says nothing. But the tall deputy asserts himself. “We don’t need your complaints while people are out here risking their lives,” and he waves back at the bulldozers.

I turned and walked back to the Hilux. This would not be the end of me and this sheriff. And his deputy.

Pissing contests between elected officials don’t end well. You will see.

So now I’m heading out to a dead body out of Bovill, with no detective. And Mr. Sheriff is probably finishing his dinner and starting into nightcaps. Or maybe, he’s well past the beginning. Can’t we get petty, us public servants?

I turned north in the hamlet as the dispatcher had indicated and looked for the mill, but the western light was fading. I saw no mill. But ahead of me was a long straight stretch of road going north so I slowed down. It should be close. There was a track to the right and some trailers. I turned in. There was a county patrolman’s rig parked toward the end of the track past the trailers. I had found it.

He was standing by his rig. I’d met this guy before. He was solid.

“So, what have we got?”

He stood with his thumbs on his belt and told me what he knew.

The guy was employed to tear down the mill. He ran a cutting torch all day to cut through the steel beams so they could be sent off for scrap. He had squatted here in his hooch at the end of this lane for the last couple weeks. He hadn’t showed up for work today. No one from work had come to look. But the lady in the last trailer here had noticed he hadn’t come or gone and called it in.

“So, she called you guys?”

“Yeah, a welfare check.”

“So, you were the first to find him?”


“When was that?”

“About five.”

“So, you’re getting overtime?”

He looked at the ground. “Naw, Doc. That’s not been approved. I just stayed because I found him, and I thought I should be the one to talk to you.”

I looked at him and shook my head. We shared a grimace. New sheriff.

“You got his ID?”

“Just his name from the mill contractor. I didn’t get his wallet. Waiting for you.” “Well, thank you for this. Is there anything you have seen you think I should know?”

“Not really. Just poverty.”

I look intently at the young patrolman in the fading light. I worry he might be a Democrat in law enforcement. I go elsewhere. “Have you talked to anyone else?”

He also looks to the western fading light and nods toward the closest trailer. “She came out and said she was who’d called it in. Said she was worried about him.”

I pause. “Anything else? Drugs? Guns, alcohol?”

He smiles a small smile. “Not really.”

“No foul play?”

He slightly gusts a laugh. I’m treating him like a detective, and he knows, and I know he isn’t. “Not that I could see.”

I look down again, though the darkness hides the dirt at our feet. “Thanks, I’ll go look.”

I head back into the trees toward the end of the lane.

His hooch is visqueen.

Black plastic sheeting formed into a tent between trees, strung with cord. There is a small fire pit outside his tent with some garbage around it. No booze or beer bottles, but I notice some cigarette butts. I don’t see any roaches.

I raise the plastic flap and the first thing that impresses me is his size. Lying on his side, his body almost fully occupies the weak plastic tent. His left arm is under his head, and his face is black. It’s not a black I had seen before.

If it weren’t for the black, I’d say he might have appeared peaceful. Death doesn’t turn the face black. Black comes in death, but not to the face first, not in this position. And not that color. It was like he had bent over a sooty fire. And indeed, he had, for days.

There were little votive candles in front of him, now burned out. He had a weak sleeping bag, but no real pad beneath him that I could see. There was no way I was going to be able to move him. From my perspective he was 350 pounds plus. I looked down at his arm under his head and protruding toward the little candles. His forearm was bigger around than my calf, his upper arm like my thigh.

It had been cool in the days, and pretty cold at night. The chill was coming on as I looked at him. He did not stink, and he wasn’t bloated, just huge. I bent down and tried to move his upper arm that laid along his mass. It was stiff, full rigor still, though the fingers were loosening.

I do the best I can to get his wallet from his pants pocket. The denims are so dirty they feel like oiled canvas. He has ID and three dollars.

I went back to the deputy. “I’ve done what I can. Here’s his wallet. Name fits. Could you call dispatch to have the funeral home come pick him up?”

“Sure thing.” He gets on his radio.

“Make sure you let them know his size. Might take a couple people to load him.”

He nods to me between the radio conversation.

I wait till he’s finished and say, “I want to go talk to this lady here.” I nod at the trailer. “You don’t have to wait for the funeral home. You can go.”

“I’ll be OK.” He says.

“I’ll be here. You can go.”

He shakes his head. Some guys are real solid. I hope they last.

I go toward the trailer. Single wide up on blocks with straw bales around it. Warm lights inside and the porch light on. I knock.

I can hear the steps inside, solid but slow. When she opens the door, I can hear a TV in the background. She’s big too. “Yeah?” she croaks out.

“Hello. I am Dr. Hawthorne the county coroner. You called in concerning the man in the hooch out here. Can I talk to you about that?”

“So, he’s dead, huh?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She exhales like she might have been saying “Sheeeiut” and follows with, “Come on in.” She moves away from the door, conveying my entrance.

I step up and in.

It’s cozy, but small, though, like I said, she’s big. She has moved to the room with the TV, though she politely shuts it off and then sits in her throne, the recliner. I stood. The small kitchen was behind me. It was neat, though the floor vinyl was pretty worn. Hell, it’s a trailer. The hall heading west would be the bathroom and bedroom. I wondered for a second about septic but let go of that.

“So, you knew the deceased?”

She lit a cigarette. The ashtrays were frequent and full. “Yeah, I knew him. He came in here a couple weeks back and set up his camp.” Her voice is like an idling McCullough.

“He was working at the mill?”

She took a drag. “Yeah, cutting steel for them. Ran a torch all day. Tearing the place down.” Another puff. “You see his black face? Cutting steel with that torch. He warn’t no nigger!” and she laughed loud and exhaled toward the ceiling.

“Had he seemed sick recently?”

Here she paused. Fiddled with the ash and looked down. “Yeah.”

She paused, so I did too. Leave space.

She looked both ways fast like something had passed, then, “He was just trying to get by. They didn’t pay him shit, but he thought if he could get this done, he’d get his own trailer down in Nevada.”

“That’s where he’s from?”

“Hell, I don’t know. But that’s what he said. Nevada.” And she did the looking both ways thing again.


“How did he seem sick?”

Long draw and she stared at me with the inhale. “You know.” She glared. “You’re a doctor, ain’t you?”
I looked down to the worn vinyl and laughed a bit. “Ma’am, I am only getting to see this man after he is dead. I am asking you to tell me how he seemed before he died. Your observations will help me understand this.”

She exhaled toward the bathroom and continued her glare at me. We paused together there for a while.

“When he first came, he asked about squatting there. I told him about the landlord. Didn’t think he’d even know, lives in California. So, he set up.” Another puff. “We would have breakfast. Cooked another egg for him. I got to know him some. Damn, he worked hard.” She shook her head. “And now you want to know why he died?” The glare.

I smiled, as soft as I could. “It sounds like you knew him some.”

She waved the butt before her. The pastel housecoat covered her chest and breasts and belly and thighs. Her round, worn face, framed with oily stringy hair softened from her grating pronouncements. “Yeah, I knew him a bit.” She looked me in the face. “It was that work that killed him. Sure, he was fat, but then so am I.” And she laughed like a choked chain saw. “But running that torch all day, breathing in those gases, that’s what did him in.”

“So, he was having a hard time breathing?”

She laughed, and then coughed, then spit sputum into a Kleenex. “Hell, honey us fat people always have a hard time. I offered him my CPAP.” She laughed soft for a while.

“Did he have a fever these last few days?”

She seemed to jolt. “You know, he might have. Sweaty for dinner.”  The both-ways look again. Was this sincere or just her feeding me what she thought I wanted? Get me out of here.

“So, he seemed sick last night at dinner?”

She stubbed out the cigarette. It took a great effort to shift that body forward. She concentrated, then shifted back, coughed a bit, shallow and nodded. “It’s not like I knew he was sick or nothing, Doc. I just noticed he was weaker, slower, and he was sweaty at dinner last night. He didn’t eat much. He said he was feeling tired.” She stared at me with both her hands on the armrests.

“I guess I should have looked after him better.”

Here, I looked down to the worn and chipped floor. I shook my head. “Ma’am, I don’t come here to burden you. I am glad you could get to know him some. It sounds like he was a hardworking man living on the edge. Maybe we all should look after each other a bit better.”

Still standing, but done now, I looked down again at the vinyl squares. “Thank you,” I said to her, looking her in the eyes. And I let myself out.

The deputy stayed, I guess, until the funeral home came. I was gone by then.

Cause of Death: Pneumonia

Manner of Death: Natural

About ddxdx

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