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Authors: Louis Cataldie

Coroner's Journal

BOOK: Coroner's Journal
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Table of Contents
“Louis Cataldie is one of the most honorable people I have ever met. And one of the most compassionate. . . . His book is more a journey than a journal. It is a ticket to an inaccessible and unimaginable world, and your guide is a man who is simply remarkable.”
—Patricia Cornwell
“I've kept a personal journal, starting in the coroner's office of East Baton Rouge Parish in 1993. I wrote whenever it struck me, jotting notes in the field and later sketching images on a small pad as I remembered them. I wrote in my journal mostly at night, usually after a particularly troublesome autopsy or a visit to an unsettling crime scene. . . . The journal is about how the lives—and untimely deaths—of the people I investigated crossed my path, and how I tried to bring order and integrity to the aftermath.”
—Louis Calaldie, M.D.
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Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2006 by Louis Cataldie, M.D.
All rights reserved.
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eISBN : 978-1-440-67954-4
Cataldie, Louis.
Coroner's journal : forensics and the art of stalking death / Louis Cataldie.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-440-67954-4
1. Cataldie, Louis. 2. Coroners--Louisiana--Baton Rouge—Biography. 3. Medical examiners
(Law)—Louisiana—Baton Rouge—Biography. 4. Forensic pathology—Louisiana—Baton Rouge—
Case studies. I. Title.
The events described in this book are the real experiences of real people. However, in some cases, the author has altered their identities and, in some instances, created composite characters. Any resemblance between a character in this book and a real person therefore is entirely accidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

To my son, Michael
I first met Louis Cataldie in the summer of 2002. While doing research at Harvard University for the book I was writing about the infamous serial murderer Jack the Ripper, I came across a newspaper article about similarly vicious multiple murders then occurring in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana. Already DNA had linked the cases of three women who had been raped and murdered. In time, more victims would be discovered.
The Baton Rouge case—now solved, the killer on death row—would prove to be one of the most difficult and disturbing such cases we had seen in a long while. I suggested to ABC that we do a story on it for
Primetime Live
, hoping that the most important person in the story—East Baton Rouge Parish coroner Louis Cataldie—would agree to tell the truth about what was really happening in his small, violent parish. At the outset it was apparent that scarcely anyone wanted to talk about the murders, including the Baton Rouge police. Not even in the investigation of Princess Diana's death had I encountered such a hostile news blackout. The Baton Rouge authorities seemed to have no interest in disseminating accurate and helpful information about their latest serial killer (they've had more than one), and I began to fear that Dr. Cataldie wouldn't be any different. But he was. He was open. He didn't mince words. He was boldly honest.
In the course of doing that story, I saw firsthand how Louis made himself accessible to the devastated family members and friends of the victims, and how he became for them the family doctor they never—not even in their darkest nightmares—would have imagined they might someday need. Throughout a tragedy I began to think would never end, Louis consoled the bereaved and faithfully tended to his dead patients in a morgue fashioned from a trailer and equipped with hand-me-downs from funeral homes and restaurants. All the while having to work with officials who seemed hell-bent on gagging him, even running him out of office.
Three years later, two hurricanes—Katrina and Rita—have ripped through the corner of the world Louis loves so much. The scale of this tragedy—so many victims and such utter devastation for the survivors—would defeat most of us. But not Louis Cataldie. Sometimes sleeping no more than three hours at a time for days, he oversees the identification of the bodies of victims, counsels the suffering survivors, and copes with politicians and bureaucrats who get in his way.
In his native Louisiana, Louis Cataldie is a hero. He is, I think, nothing less than a national hero.
This book is the chronicle of a life spent doing work most of us would find depressing and grim. It is Louis's account of his passion for his agenda: dignity for the dead. It is told with both compassion and color, in a manner that is sometimes irreverent and never swollen with self-importance, by one of the most honorable people I have ever met.
Patricia Cornwell
On August 29, 2005, weeks before
Coroner's Journal
was scheduled to go to press, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Louis Cataldie was asked to assist in the massive evacuation of patients from Louisiana's State Emergency Operations Center at the New Orleans Superdome, an effort coordinated by Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer for Louisiana. In addition, Dr. Cataldie helped monitor the setup of field hospitals in and around Baton Rouge, gave medical attention to the injured, and began the arduous process of overseeing that every Katrina-related death was properly investigated. Then Hurricane Rita hit. With a medical system in chaos, and with more than 1,000 deaths associated with the two tragedies, the state appointed him Louisiana Medical Examiner. As of this writing, Dr. Cataldie is heading up the makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, outside New Orleans, where the processes of identifying the victims and assessing cause of death are expected to take months.
October 2005
St. Gabriel, Louisiana
—I am exhausted. I haven't had the luxury to reflect, or even to think—I'm simply on autopilot. My clothes stink and my head hurts, I haven't slept for more than three hours at a time for weeks; haven't seen my wife and my son but twice, and then for only a few precious minutes. My life seems so remote and far away.
It's been a month since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and tore a deadly path through the state I call home. I had always feared this day would come, as had anybody who lives around New Orleans, a city in a bowl below sea level.
“What if a cat-five hit N.O.?” De and I talked about it many times. “You don't want to know,” was usually my answer. Actually, we had been preparing and training for such an event since 2004; that ongoing planning, which we had labeled “Hurricane Pam,” was interrupted by the real thing. We implemented that plan, but the component that dealt with the dead was simply “Call in DMORT.” Little did we know that DMORT, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Recovery Team, was not prepared for such a catastrophe either. Over the next several months, I would become acutely aware of the limitations of the DMORT system. It was a tough lesson for us both.
And then, on August 29, it happened. Katrina slammed into the coast with 140-mile-per-hour winds, leaving a path of ruin in her wake. A month later, Mother Nature demonstrated her supreme indifference: on September 24, Hurricane Rita crashed into the Texas/Louisiana coast, deluging the area and pushing water back over the levees around New Orleans, which was still 80 percent covered from Katrina. Though Rita did not take the same deadly toll, the damage was incalculable.
I thought I'd seen everything. But now, as I look here at the remains of the dead and the empty eyes of their survivors, I feel utterly helpless. In the face of the annihilation of whole towns and neighborhoods, I am as lost and confused in this carnage as anyone. But then I ask myself,
Who else will account for the dead?
I am still in the thick of it—more than 900 deaths in Louisiana alone, and I cannot see quitting anytime soon. In all, the storm has already killed 1,130 people in five states.
I take a reconnaissance helicopter flight over Cameron Parish, a coastal area near the Texas border that, since Rita, does not exist anymore. There is no town of Cameron. The only building left intact is the courthouse. Faint skeletons of what once were homes rise like matchsticks from the water, in a landscape that is desolate and eerie and that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The first person in charge I meet is Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, a fellow native appointed to clean up the Katrina mess and bring order to chaos. “Hi, we need tetanus,” he tells me—that is about the extent of the conversation. The general, who said Cameron Parish was the worst he had seen in his survey, would later use a single military term to describe it:
BOOK: Coroner's Journal
9.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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