I’d like to introduce you to Yvonne Bradley. Yvonne first reached out to me back in September of 2016 to tell me that she had been enjoying my books and that my forensics are well researched and believable. She told me that she had worked in the Medical Examinee’s office in Warner Robins, Georgia, as an assistant and deputy coroner for Houston county for eighteen years. And she offered to help me if I had any questions along these lines. Little did she know that her timing was impeccable!
I was working on Remnants (Brandon Fisher FBI series) during this time and needed the assistance of someone who had her experience.
Yvonne also worked with Michael Baden (host of HBO’s Autopsy) and Henry Lee who was involved with high-profile cases such as the JonBenét Ramsey murder case, O.J. Simpson, and a reinvestigation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Yvonne met and conferred with Jerry Beck, upon whose case the 1989 movie Dead Bang was based.
Equally as impressive as her resume is the woman herself. She’s been selfless with her time, answering my questions patiently and methodically. It’s her belief that knowledge isn’t any good if it can’t be shared. How amazing!
I have learned many things from corresponding with Yvonne when it comes to forensics, but primarily, there is no such thing as a “quick question.”
So without further delay, let’s begin.
What drew you into the forensics field and specifically to work as a coroner?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be the first woman in the FBI – much to my father’s dismay. I majored in Criminal Justice in college, but ended up working first as a data entry clerk at Chemical Abstracts in Columbus, Ohio, and then at Merrill Lynch when I returned to Georgia. One of our account holders just happened to be the Director of Pathology and Forensic Medical Examiner in Houston County.
I reached out to him, and he hired me to be his secretary/assistant/gofer – basically “Gal Friday”. I was with him for a few months – soaking everything up like a sponge, when he called me over the intercom one day, telling me he needed his check book. He had always been very careful to never call me into the morgue – guess he was being considerate – he thought. That day, I waltzed around the wall into the morgue, and walked right over to the autopsy table, fascinated by what was going on.
He enjoyed teaching, and I remained fascinated by everything. I began by transcribing his reports, and later accompanying him to scenes and to court. The Coroner of the County, Danny Galpin, was an EMT at the local hospital where our offices were. Both the Ambulance Service and Pathology offices were housed in an outbuilding on the hospital grounds, just outside the Emergency Room. Danny needed a Deputy, and I was a logical choice. All of us worked closely together for eighteen years. Danny and Dr. Whitaker are still in their offices. Danny is elected to four-year terms, and Dr. Whitaker is appointed as a State Medical Examiner by the Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Georgia in Atlanta.
How much schooling is required to work in this field?
To be a medical examiner in Georgia, you are appointed by the chief medical examiner, and you must be a physician. The state has now hired several forensic pathologists, and have staffed State Forensic Laboratories in three locations, I believe – in Savannah, in Atlanta, and in Albany. Dr. Whitaker is probably one of the few who are appointed who do not work directly for the State.
A coroner is an elected office, and does not have to be a Physician. The coroner in Georgia is charged with determining the cause and manner of death in any unattended death. To do this, he is afforded the services of the State Forensic Laboratories, which could include the services of a pathologist for external examination or autopsy, if deemed necessary.
An unattended death is considered any unexpected death. If Great Grandma is 97 years old and passes peacefully in her sleep, her family physician is probably comfortable signing her death certificate, indicating advanced age was a contributing factor. If, on the other hand, Grandma was found in bed, with numerous new bruises and a broken arm – suspicions are raised, and the coroner is going to step in.
Any inmate death is considered a coroner’s case, and necessitates an Autopsy.
Coroners in Georgia are basically bureaucrats. It was only because of my particular circumstances – working for the ME, and working with the coroner – that I was so immersed in all phases of the process.
When you were present for your first autopsy, what did you feel?
I was fascinated. I never looked at one of our bodies as “someone.” To me, the shell we were working with appeared nothing like the people walking around on the street. There was no life there, no soul, if you will – whatever had made them who they were – was gone. All that was left was like a jigsaw puzzle to be pieced together – a mystery to be solved. We took the physical findings, the external appearance, any injuries, the history investigators were able to provide – and were able to part the curtains to look into what might have happened. We were the ones who had to speak for the dead.
Will you share with us a case that has stuck with you most over the years? (Graphic details have been omitted.)
There was a very high profile case that involved a young mother, her wheelchair-ridden boyfriend, and her two young children. The mother seemed to be special needs, and the boyfriend was extremely controlling. He did not want the children around. They were a bother. He convinced the mother to kill her two children. Because there was no solid evidence indicating he had anything to do with their deaths, the prosecutor had to make a deal with the mother, in order to put away the person everyone felt was the most heinous perpetrator. No one had any indication that the mother conceived and carried out that carefully thought out plan without the mastermind of the boyfriend. She simply did not have the thought process to do it. It went against the grain of everyone involved to set her free, but it was the best we could do for the children.
My characters have commented before while attending autopsies that a once-living person has been reduced to an inventory of parts on the morgue table. How do you separate yourself from what is before you? I’d assume there has to be a high-level of detachment you must call upon.
That was one of the reasons I left. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. I found myself becoming very callous – damned near uncaring. The police officers and sheriff’s deputies I worked with were fabulous people. They taught me a lot of very valuable lessons – and were a wealth of information and support. Most were like brothers to me – all became my family. I had to bury some of them, and each time it was like losing a family member. I would be called away from my family to a crime scene – somehow it always seemed to be in the wee hours of the night. We would finish up at the scene at 4 or 5 in the morning – too late to go back to bed; too early to wake my family up for school or work – so we all went back to their offices to drink way too much coffee and talk “shop” until it was late enough in the morning for me to go home, wake up the troops, shower and go to my day job. My job eventually cost me my marriage. I was no longer the person who had married and then raised three children with this man. He was not at fault. I could not relate to “normal” any more.
Did you ever have nightmares brought on from working with the dead?
The dead can’t hurt you (despite the new zombie craze). The stuff of which nightmares are made come from the living. I never cease to marvel at the extent of man’s inhumanity to man.
How long does it take to perform a standard autopsy? I’m suspecting this isn’t a “quick question” and would greatly depend on what was in front of you.
Usually when bodies were brought in, they were x-rayed to look for any trace: say to find the bullets from an obvious gunshot wound; or to see that what appeared to be blunt force injury was to cover a gunshot wound; to find knife tips; any metal trace. A full autopsy was not always necessary. If the victim was witnessed to put gun to his head and pull the trigger, we would x-ray, then secure the bullet, document the trajectory, GSR, soot markings—all the pertinent information, without having to venture into the body. If a full autopsy was necessary, it started with external examination, documenting all bruises, injuries (old and new), photographing everything, in addition to the written documentation. Fingernail scrapings are taken, vitreous humor and/or blood and urine, if any, are collected for toxicology. The chest and abdomen were opened with a Y-incision (from each shoulder to lower sternum and then down to the pubis; with ladies, the Y was more like a U, as the cuts were made under the breasts). The chest plate would be cut out with tools much like hedge clippers, clipping through the ribs, and removing the entire sternum. This would open the chest and abdomen to examination. The heart and lungs were usually first – weighed and then examined grossly. The heart valves and vasculature would be examined for blockages or defects, and sections of tissue would be taken for fixation and microscopic examination. Lungs would be examined (color, consistency) – if a suspected drowning, for water in the lungs (froth in the bronchus), and healthy lungs would float when immersed in water-if the necropsy was of a newborn – if lungs sink, the child was stillborn – If the lungs had been filled with air, they would float – therefore, the child never breathed.
The abdominal organs are removed too, and then individually weighed and examined, taking tissue samples from each organ.
The head and cranium is last. An incision is made behind the front hairline and to each ear, usually just across the top of the head. The face is literally peeled down onto the chest, leaving the skull exposed. A Stryker saw is used to saw through the top of the skull, and using a flat edged tool and a twisting motion, the top of the skull is literally popped off, giving access to the brain. The brain stem is severed and the brain removed for weighing, gross examination and sectioning.
The skullcap is replaced and the face pulled back over the skull.
Here comes the tricky part – the pathologist will reach into the throat, and through the chest cavity to remove the cartilage of the throat, including the hyoid bone. In most strangulations and/or hangings, the hyoid bone will be broken. Note: hyoids in young children has not hardened, and will usually not break.
You could generally count on the autopsy itself to take upwards of two hours. If there was a lot of trace to be taken, of course, it would be longer. The autopsy assistant (diener) would sew up the wounds and contact the appropriate funeral home or mortuary to pick up the remains.
After the autopsy was completed, tissue samples were set into containers of formalin to fix, so that they could be set into wax blocks which were then shaved onto microscopic slides, fixed and stained per the Pathologist’s orders. Histology took care of this portion of the examination. It generally took a few days for this process to be completed – longer to fix the brain – and the slides would be presented to the Pathologist for examination.
At the time I was there, it would take 4-6 weeks to get toxicology results from the State Crime Lab. We had excellent techs, but they had an entire state to take care of. Budgetary restraints could slow things quite a bit.
Ballistics were also handled by the Crime Lab.
What is the most rewarding experience you had during your time working in this field?
I had the opportunity to meet and talk with and learn from some of the most brilliant minds in the business. Because I was a female working in a male dominated field, I was an oddity. When the men found out I knew what I was talking about, they supplied me with a wealth of information. I was able to talk with Michael Baden, Henry Lee, Vincent DiMaio, Werner Spitz, Victor Weeden. I was privileged to call them friends. I had access to some of the most experienced homicide detectives in the country…Jerry Beck, Gil Carillo, Bob Carr – all from LA County Sheriff’s Homicide. They were brilliant. I had a wealth of knowledge and experience at my fingertips at any time.
Does having a good sense of humor help offset the stress and intensity of the job?
We developed what is called “morgue” humor. No one else would appreciate the remarks like “I’m hungry, how about going out for ribs?” after we had just worked a fatal fire scene. We had to roll with it. That’s why I felt like I had a huge number of brothers. I couldn’t talk to my family about what I did. Most of them didn’t take any of it home with them, either. We protected our families by bonding together.
We talked quite a bit about DNA testing and how in the real world results don’t come back as quickly as they’d have one believe from watching TV. This is one of the challenges I took on in Remnants as I wanted it to be as true to real life as possible. Since I only had limbs, it was tricky to work around this and investigate so I could find an ID without relying heavily on DNA. You shared a case with me about a young naval officer and all you had was a torso. Are you at liberty to share this story and how did you identify him?
He was actually identified because his mother was adamant that her son would never go AWOL. He called her every week, without fail, so when he missed his usual call, she called the Chaplain at the base where he was stationed. She would not settle for his just having “run away”. When our detectives put out the information to all the surrounding counties, this poor mother had raised such a ruckus, they responded to our wires. Without the determination of that mother, we would have had absolutely no where to go, because what we had was a trunk only – no fingerprints, no identifying marks, no face, nothing. You go with what you have, and do it the old-fashioned way – one step at a time, one bit at a time, one puzzle piece at a time – until you can tie it all together.
We had a torso that eventually could have been matched through CODIS, since he was military, but DNA testing at that time was going to take upwards of 6 months, since it was not a high priority case (not missing child, serial crime, etc.).
DNA is the ultimate testing at present, however, there is still limited access and high expense.
On another note, I see that you have gone on to run a salon empire in Las Vegas! There must be in a good story in there as to how you went from the field of forensics to your new line of work. Will you share this with us?
It was actually the other way around. My mother and her two sisters were raised during the Depression, and all three were hairdressers. When I came along (one of only two female grandchildren on the maternal side), they all insisted that I needed a trade. I was just as adamant that I was going to college, so I didn’t need a trade. My mother had insisted that I work in her salon as I was growing up, first as just clean up and shampoo girl, then she had me to apply for an apprentice license, so that I could actually “do” hair. It was at their insistence that I stayed for my Cosmetology license in 1969, before I graduated from High School. I kept the license current just to earn a little extra money in college, and because it was reasonably inexpensive. In 1978, I bought into a local salon that rented space to stylists, and worked on weekends from 6 am until 6 pm, just to have the opportunity to mingle with living people! I’m kidding about most of that – I cut many a cop’s, EMT’s and firefighter’s hair. It was fun!
When I left forensics, I still had my “trade” to fall back on. I started with Great Clips in Atlanta in 1996, moved to Las Vegas in 2006, and am still with Great Clips. I have worked for some fabulous franchisees, and met many more wonderful, caring people in the business. My managers are my extended family. They have been teasing me about blowing up my phone tonight so that I couldn’t finish this interview. Little did they know that I turned the damned phone off!
And last question. When I interview people who have worked in any capacity of law enforcement, I love showing the human side of these selfless people. What do you enjoy doing for fun and if you were to have your dream vacation where would it be, what would you do, and who would you be with?
There is no doubt I would be with the poor, longsuffering fellow I married (who has to put up with me). He is a retired Navy Chief – and that makes for some good stories – who still shakes his head, wondering how in the heck he ever ended up with someone who is absolutely his polar opposite. We ride our motorcycles. He helps me when we do charitable events like the St. Baldrick’s events every year. I like to give back. I had many people who helped me along the way, that I can never repay. I can pay it forward.
Fun would be toes in the sand, book in one hand, drink in the other – and nothing but the sound of the waves.
Sounds wonderful! Your life journey has been amazing and thank you for sharing it with us! 😀