CSI: M.I. - MIHS grads work to solve crimes and name the dead
November 24, 2008 · Updated 4:48 PM
By Mary L. Grady
There are roles for both the scientist and the artist in the bright light and sober circumstances of the autopsy room.
In the depths of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the formaldehyde-tinged air leads to a series of nondescript locked doors into a huge underground room.
The room, ringed with stainless steel sinks and counters, is large enough to handle the examination of four bodies at once. There are boxes and boxes of latex gloves, aprons and surgical instruments. There are scales, test tubes and lights and scopes. A massive steel door, also locked, leads to the morgue. Brought in from there, the dead are weighed, measured and fingerprinted. A seven-foot-long wooden ruler, splintered now on one end but still serviceable, is used to measure height. From there, the investigation begins.
It is both high-tech and primitive.
For a pair of rather stoic Mercer Island High School graduates, Natalie Murry and Dr. Kathy Taylor, the business of death is a series of puzzles waiting to be solved. Their examinations solve crimes and answer questions for the living.
Taylor is the forensic anthropologist for the King County Medical Examiner (KCME). The job of the KCME is to determine the cause and manner of unexpected death. They also are charged with identifying remains. Murry is a trained forensic artist and retired police officer who works as a contractor for the KCME and other agencies assisting in the often frustrating job of finding out who the dead are -- whether they wanted to be found or not.
The two Islanders followed vastly different paths to working as advocates for the dead.
Taylor, of the MIHS Class of 1984, and Murry, of the Class of 1980, did not know each other growing up on Mercer Island. They grew up on opposite ends of the Island. They find the fact that they are both Islanders mildly amusing. The two speak to groups at events such as the recent Mercer Island High School Career Day. They work together with ease.
They don't find their work as remarkable as some do. Their purpose is straightforward.
``Researching cause of death or identifying a person is as much for the people left behind,'' Taylor explained.
`Bones tell us a lot'
With the menace of serial killer Ted Bundy and later, the Green River Killer, King County law enforcement became sophisticated and cutting-edge in the investigative science of murder.
Five or six times each year a body is found in King County. Taylor, who is one of a few dozen forensic anthropologists in the United States, draws upon all the resources available to her to solve a mysterious death. She is often called to assist in cases in other counties and is currently working with police in British Columbia on the bodies found at a pig farm outside Vancouver.
``People here are very cognizant of the significance of bones in the woods,'' said Taylor, who also determines if bones found throughout the state are human or not.
Taylor, a former Mercer Island High School Rotary Student of the Month, knew from the time she saw her first autopsy as a student in a MIHS biomed class that this was what she wanted to do. But it took her a few years to realize it.
In high school she took all the science classes she could. She attended the University of Michigan and majored in pre-med where she found she had a special affinity for bones. A human evolution class cemented her destiny. She went on to the University of Arizona (where bodies decompose to bones in about a week, she helpfully points out) and completed a doctorate in the science.
``Bones tell us a lot,'' Taylor said. ``I can tell the difference between damage caused by a hammer, a screw driver and a baseball bat or the difference between a gunshot wound and a sharp implement.''
Taylor, with her training in anatomy, physiology and chemistry -- and longtime experience studying the dead -- is an expert in decomposition. She travels to the site where a body is found.
``I use every skill and sense I have,'' Taylor explained of her methods in analyzing manner of death. ``I am a deductive thinker.''
She said she always smells the bones -- to some teasing by her colleagues. Bones keep certain odors for about a year, she said. The sound of bone changes over time and change color. They will absorb the color of vegetation and minerals, such as copper. Such information helps investigators determine details such as if the body has been moved. Every piece of evidence is important. Taylor thrives on it.
Growing up, Natalie Murry was always drawing although she said that she never drew human faces. On some level she considered a career as an artist but never thought it was something she could make a living at.
``No one every told me I could,'' she said.
After a year of college, she took off for New York, where she hung out in bookshops and galleries in Greenwich Village. She is proud to have a signed copy of a vintage book by Edward Gorey, the famous macabre cartoonist.
She worked for a time for Merrill Lynch across the street from the World Trade Center and did a stint as a bartender.
It was Murry's brother, Chris Tubbs, an Island firefighter, who encouraged her to get into law enforcement. She got a job as a dispatcher working at night, while she attended design classes at Bellevue Community College. One night, after listening helplessly to a call involving a shooting, Murry decided to take the test for the police academy and became a police officer herself.
Knowing she liked to sketch, her police sergeant in Kent encouraged her to learn how to draw composites. Murry scored on her first composite drawing of a young man suspected of a sexual assault. Another officer recognized the suspect immediately. From there she branched into re-construction, age progression and post-mortem work with more specialized training in places such as the FBI academy in Quantico, Va.
Reconstruction drawings use the actual skull from the body. Using 21 points on the skull to mark average tissue depth, the artist has the ability to extrapolate contours of the face.
``Reconstructions are easier than composites. You can draw directly on the skull,'' Murry noted matter-of-factly.
But there are challenges -- sometimes she gets only half a skull.
Murry also volunteers her expertise to help the living, doing drawings for DOEnetwork.org, a national Web site for missing persons.
When asked about the numerous CSI television shows and how they have shaped public perception of the work they do, the women exchange a look and laugh.
It has been good and bad, they agreed of the television spotlight on their work.
``It has been good to heighten people's awareness and the need for forensics,'' Taylor said. ``It helps to encourage funding.''
At the recent career day at Mercer Island High School the session on forensics was one of the most popular sessions and was packed with students.
``CSI does give people unreasonable expectations. We do our work here in full light and certainly don't solve crimes in an hour,'' Taylor laughed. ``It is sometimes kind of boring.''
A couple of unsolved deaths nag at the women. Murry ticks off some names: ``Cranium girl,'' a woman known as ``Mary Anderson,'' and ``Man in the tent.''
``Man in the tent'' was found dead in a sleeping bag from a gunshot wound in Olympic National Park in 2000. He had been dead for some time and was fully skeletonized. The man obviously did not want to be found -- he had carefully removed any trace of his identity.
``An adult has the `right' to disappear,'' Taylor admitted.
But that is the exception.
``To me it is so tragic,'' she said. ``I refuse to believe that someone is not missed.''