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Authors: Louis Cataldie

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BOOK: Coroner's Journal
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The autopsy revealed that James Page, the nineteen-year-old found in room 227 of the motel on Airline Highway, had been beaten and choked to death before the room was set on fire. If the victim had been alive at the time of the fire, there would have been soot in his nose and trachea. There was none present. He died of asphyxia secondary to strangulation. The police arrested Shawn Thompson of Denham Springs, which is just over the river from Baton Rouge. He was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated arson.
Shawn Thompson, a confessed drug dealer, pleaded guilty to the murder of the Texas teenager and signed a “Contract for Life” plea agreement that put him away for life without any right to appeal. The victim's family agreed with the plea in order for them to try and get back to some normalcy without having to go through the ordeal of the trial process. With the signing of the plea, Thompson's murderous scheme was revealed in district court.
The motive for the murder was for Thompson to escape arrest for indecent behavior with a fourteen-year-old girl whom he had been accused of having a sexual relationship with. He planned, set the stage for, and then carried out a “fake” suicide.
As the story unfolded in the courtroom, it was apparent that we were right on target with our reconstruction of the crime. Thompson had told several friends and acquaintances that he was depressed and thinking of killing himself. His “suicide” plan included slitting his wrists and setting himself on fire.
His next move was to kill his “look-alike.” That was James Page, whom Thompson knew from the motel. He beat James then strangled him. Once this nefarious part of the plan was accomplished, Thompson pulled James's teeth out. He thought that once the teeth were removed and the body burned, there would be no way to identify the victim and everyone would assume that it was Shawn Thompson who was dead.
James's body was then moved onto the bed, wrapped in a blanket, doused with lighter fluid, and set on fire. The room in which Thompson set the fire was next to the one he occupied.
Police discovered the victim's teeth and the pliers Thompson used under the burners of the stove in Thompson's room.
When the body was first discovered, his roommate, Ronnie Atkins of Maurepas, told police that the dead man was his friend, Shawn Thompson. But later he gave another version of events. Finally, police matched the DNA recovered from under the victim's fingernails at autopsy directly to Thompson.
Thompson's accomplice, Ronnie Atkins, pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and could get up to five years in prison.
Few people would argue that the wave of crime shows on TV hasn't influenced the criminal mind. Tonight, I got a full dose of criminal thinking, straight out of Hollywood. What's hardest to register is that the only “crime” of this dead boy was that he looked somewhat like his killer. Talk about a random victim! It's scary as hell to think that some sociopath is prowling the city, looking for someone who resembles him so he can murder and then torch him. How do you protect yourself or your family against that sort of behavior?
I'm not sure what I'm most angry about, because I'm angry about all of it. An innocent young man is dead—for nothing. The killer is an idiot who must think we are morons. How stupid can you be?
It is extremely difficult to burn a body up—really hard. Anyway, the fire self-extinguished. The root canals still in the jaw would have been enough for ID, and there are other means we could have used. All I need is a little DNA and your hair-brush to make a comparison.
style “cover-up” failed. The murderer is behind bars. What a dumb-ass.
What Are the Odds?
Sudden death is always hard to explain to survivors. It's particularly hard when the circumstances surrounding a death are unlikely. One gunshot victim, a barbershop customer, was killed by an assailant who had come to murder the barber. Another man was shot while visiting a friend's home. I am sure that none of these folks got up on that fatal morning and thought, “There's a good chance I am going to be killed today.” None of these people were involved in high-risk behaviors. They never saw death coming. Why does death seem to single out that person when the odds are so high against it? It sounds so hollow to say, “Random tragedies just happen.” But they do.
We've all done stupid things as kids or young adults. At least I certainly have. How many of us have looked back at some dangerous behavior and wondered how or why we didn't get killed doing it? Worse, as we get older, we worry that our kids may do the same stupid things, so we fear for them and we hope that they, too, will survive.
Those thoughts came flooding back to me on July 19, 1999, as I stood looking into the garage at Corley Drive. Before me lay Latonya Hall, a twenty-one-year-old female, who was face down on the concrete. Her arms were at her sides, indicating that she did not even try to break her fall. That meant that she was probably unconscious or dead at the time her body impacted with the concrete. The reddish coloration of her skin suggested carbon monoxide poisoning. Blood tests the next day confirmed my initial clinical impression.
Her friend, Jessie Hebert, also age twenty-one, was still sitting in the car; he was in full rigor mortis. Both had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Evidently they decided to take advantage of a friend's enclosed garage in order to have some private time for themselves. The engine had been left running to keep the air conditioner and the music going in the car. It was a fatal mistake. Carbon monoxide is a poison that sneaks up on you, displacing oxygen in the bloodstream. In some cases it causes drowsiness, headaches, or confusion, but by the time you realize you're in trouble, it's usually too late because you're incapacitated.
I suspect that Latonya may have realized what was happening and tried to get to fresh air but was probably confused and then overcome by the poison. When I arrived, the ignition key was in the “on” position, but the car engine had stopped.
My friend Stan was with me that evening and he helped me extricate Jessie from the automobile. It was difficult due to the rigor mortis. Jessie was essentially molded into place.
It only takes a body a few hours, especially in the Louisiana summer, to decompose to the point that gases build up internally and are subsequently expelled. Unfortunately for Stan, he was face to face with the body when a gush of air escaped through the dead man's mouth, and Stan caught it full force. The look on his face was a mixture of disbelief and horror. It impressed me so much that I still have a vivid visual of his expression. But he held his ground, as well as his end of the body, and he and I managed to get Jessie Hebert into a body bag. Such is the lot of a volunteer.
Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning is not that uncommon, especially after the power goes out in the wake of a hurricane and people use gasoline-powered generators as a source of electricity. One of the problems is that in some areas they keep the generators inside the house to reduce the risk of the units being stolen. Not a good idea. This time it was just kids being kids.
As I was signing a death certificate in the fall of 1999, I paused and asked myself: How could this happen?
Gloria Reese, a fifty-five-year-old female, goes into the bathroom to take a bath on a Monday morning. This is her routine and she has done it innumerable times before. Family members note that she is in there longer than usual. They call to her. She does not answer. When they finally go in, at around seven A.M., they find her dead in the tub.
Cause of death: electrocution.
An electrical short in the stove was grounded to a pipe that touched a water pipe under the house at Connell Street. Water faucets could be used without a problem as long as the user wasn't also touching a conductive surface that would then complete a circuit through the user's body.
The woman's daughter actually discovered the problem when she kissed her dead mother before her body was removed from the tub. It shocked her. Emergency workers including my deputy didn't get shocked because they wore rubber gloves while removing her body from the tub.
By touching the water faucet in the tub at the same time Mrs. Reese had a foot in contact with the drain, she completed the circuit to ground through her body—death by bathtub.
Mr. Reese, who is disabled because of a stroke, said his wife was a “strong Christian” who got up early that day to bathe and then take someone to work. He heard her yell when she got shocked, but she was dead by the time he got there, he said. Ultimately, he had to move from the house.
Subsequently, I had our own house checked for similar problems, given that it was built some eighty years ago. It was discovered that we did indeed have a similar situation with our stove. Somewhere along the way, some genius had actually grounded a wire to the kitchen sink drainpipe! If someone had been touching the stove and the sink at the same time, that person would have been electrocuted. “That person” could have been any member of my family.
I wonder how many other older homes in Baton Rouge have the same potential death traps?
You never know.
John Sullivan, Jr., was the well-liked and admired manager of the Louisiana State University Ag Center Livestock Show, a position he held since 1995. He had served at the LSU Ag Center since 1966, and was a beef-cattle production specialist credited with a number of innovations, including the use of computer programs for livestock shows across the state. He was a native of Zachary and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. People called him “Doc” in deference to his Ph.D.
When I first saw him one Monday morning in late May of 2000, he was face up, lying in a pool of blood about his head just inside the Ag Center Barn. Apart from the blood, he looked like he was asleep.
The LSU police, a professional group I have always found to be on the ball, were already on the case. Lots of people discount campus police as rookies or rent-a-cops; that would be a mistake with this bunch.
I learned from them that earlier that morning, at around nine A.M., Sullivan nudged open a large metal door near the livestock office and stuck his head partially out the door, perhaps to investigate a strange sound. At that exact moment, while Sullivan's head was between the door and the door frame, another university employee, spraying weeds, hit the door with the golf cart he was driving. The driver was shaken up when I saw him, and utterly remorseful. My autopsy of Doc Sullivan would indicate severe head trauma.
I wondered how many times in the past he had opened that door and looked outside. What a tragic and bizarre coming together of events it was that caused his death.
Around the scene I heard some people say, “Stay ready to meet your maker,” and “When your time is up, there is nothing you can do about it.” I'm not going to take a position on the subject of predetermination. Things like this just make me realize how much of a gift life is, and how easily it can be taken away.
Some people are killers and they don't even know it.
One Fourth of July night—it was 2001—the office got a call that brought me to the home of a distraught family whose nine-year-old boy had suddenly died before their very eyes. Earlier that evening, at around 8:45 P.M., the boy had been with them in the driveway of their house.
Police say Seth was standing in his front yard on St. Gerard Avenue with his sisters. They had heard firecrackers going off in the area, lit by people celebrating the holiday, and wanted to be outside. Suddenly Seth drops to the ground. The family thinks he is just kidding around. He doesn't respond when they tell him to get up.
The sisters notice blood coming from his head and realize he is unconscious. He is transported by EMS to Baton Rouge General Medical Center, where he dies.
Seth died from a gunshot wound to the top of his head. During autopsy, the bullet was recovered and given to police for testing. Where did it come from?
The police had a ready answer. On the Fourth of July, some people adhere to the dangerous and illegal custom of firing guns into the air. Well, those bullets, after traveling vertically about a mile or so, come back down to earth. What are the odds that in all of Baton Rouge it would land on this child's head and kill him? I have no idea. This is the kind of death that can really cause impotent rage.
Ballistic tests showed it was a .380 caliber, likely fired from a semiautomatic pistol. Police then narrowed their search to a quarter-mile radius and began knocking on doors. To date, no one has come forward, and no suspect has been named. It was an accident, although I am sure a case could be made for negligent homicide. The killer doesn't know he or she is the killer. Where do you focus the anger and the blame?
When I saw Milton Graham hanging dead from a shower-curtain rod in the spring of 2001, I had two immediate reactions: (1) I was amazed that the rod would hold him; and (2) I was even more shocked by his
He had on all the trappings of autoerotica. The noose around his neck had an escape loop, which meant he was no novice at this. Duct tape had been used to hold a washcloth around his neck to prevent any chafing or noose marks. He had duct tape over his mouth, too, though his nostrils were clear of any obstruction. His hands were tied, but in reality the rope was looped about them and he could easily have escaped the bond. He had several small superficial cuts on his buttocks from an Exacto knife that he had close at hand. He was nude with the exception of a bright-red “specialty” garment that looked like some type of underwear, except for the gold metal clip that constricted his exposed genitals. Electrical clips had been clamped to his nipples. He obviously did all of this to obtain sexual gratification, and he certainly did not expect to die from the practice. But there he hung—dead.
BOOK: Coroner's Journal
8.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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