After 10,000 autopsies, pathologist says ‘death is like a box of chocolates’
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org July 21, 2012 12:58PM
Dr. Larry Blum (file)
Updated: August 23, 2012 10:37AM
Movie buff Dr. Larry Blum agrees with that font of homespun American wisdom, Forrest Gump — the mentally challenged philosopher played by Tom Hanks who said that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Except that after cutting open 10,000 dead bodies over a 32-year career as a forensic pathologist, Blum amends that. He says his version is that “Death is like a box of chocolates. And the smart investigator should never walk into an autopsy room with any preconceptions.”
The 68-year-old Blum has done many of the autopsies in Winnebago County (which includes Rockford, his hometown) and the collar counties around Chicago — plus some western Illinois counties — since the 1980s. Three days a week, he can be found in the morgue of the Kane County Coroner’s Office in Geneva, using his scientific skills to unearth the truth behind another mystery death.
“You never know for sure what you’re going to find in an autopsy,” the dapper, energetic doctor says after getting back from taking his 4-year-old daughter to preschool. (Yes, 4-year-old daughter. When they were already in their mid-60s and the parents of four middle-age children, Blum and his wife, Mary Ellen, volunteered four years ago to become the legal guardians of the newborn child of a family friend.)
“You might have a history of the victim and a death scene, and it looks like things are all pointing one way. But when you get in and look at that body, you have to be ready to be surprised,” Blum says, surrounded in his basement study by preschooler’s toys plus books about anatomy, true crime, Christian inspiration and the movies.
Blum gives some examples of that Gump wisdom.
A homeless man had been found dead near a railroad trestle in Rockford, a bag of aluminum cans by his side. “They thought he had been hit by a train or maybe he had been beaten by someone. So the coroner ordered an autopsy.
“The man had a couple of marks on his body, but nothing too severe. Then I noticed he had a burn mark under where his belt buckle would have been. We noticed that some metal objects in his pocket had become magnetized. We checked the weather records and concluded that this man had been hit by lightning.”
A man staying in a seedy hotel had been found dead in bed. He looked quite peaceful with his head on a pillow and a blanket wrapped around him. But the coroner asked for an autopsy.
“When I opened him up, he had fractured ribs and internal hemorrhage. Somebody had beaten and stomped this man to death, then wrapped him up cozily in bed to make it look like a natural death.”
A woman collapsed, went into convulsions and died. But an autopsy showed she had been strangled.
In a Lake County case, Blum was called to examine an almost totally decomposed corpse that had been exposed to the elements for five years. In the head area, nothing remained except the skull bones. Blum saw that one side of the skull had a bullet entrance wound, the other side a bullet exit wound. Now if only investigators could find the bullet that had caused those wounds, they might be able to find markings from the gun barrel that could point to the killer.
Blum knew just where that bullet might be found. He sawed open the skull and, surely enough, the projectile was still inside, even though the skull had an exit wound.
“I knew from experience that the skin is very elastic. Often, a bullet that has enough force to pass through one side of the skull plus the brain — and even through the other side of the skull — will be stopped before it can break through that last layer of skin,” he explains. “This bullet had been stopped from leaving the man’s head, even though the skin that had stopped it was now gone.”
Under Illinois law, one county — Cook — has a trained medical examiner. The other 101 counties each has a coroner who is either elected by the people (as in Kane County) or appointed by the county board. But, Blum said, the coroner is meant to be only an administrator and overseer of death investigations. State law actually prohibits a coroner from doing autopsies himself. He must hire a trained pathologist such as Blum to do that.
Occasionally, a relative or an insurance company will hire him to do an autopsy on some case that raises their curiosity or could be grounds for a lawsuit. But Blum said the great majority of his autopsies are requested by a county coroner and paid for by taxpayers. The cost of the average autopsy, including moving the body and analyzing bodily fluids, is $1,000 to $1,500, which he notes compares favorably to the cost of operating on a live human.
Today’s surgery bills “blow my mind,” he says. But then, he has to admit, “The people I work on don’t complain as much.”
Like many paramedics and cops, he says, he has found that some degree of gallows humor is essential to keeping one’s sanity in a job like his. “It’s probably even more stressful for people in the emergency room, because they’re trying to save the person and they see the people suffering. But the cases I work on never end happily. Some cases I’ve had to work with are especially heartbreaking, even after doing this for 32 years — especially the children who have been murdered. Such defenseless victims.
“About 10 percent of my cases have been homicides, 20 percent suicides, 20 percent accidents and the other 50 percent natural deaths. I have been called to testify in court approximately 600 times.”
The last three trials involving Elgin homicides all included testimony by Blum.
When Timera Branch was convicted of murdering 17-year-old John Keyes III by crushing him against a wall with her car, Blum explained calmly but graphically how the blow from the car had torn ureters and arteries in the boy’s abdomen and even inflicted wounds to his genitals, causing death by internal bleeding.
In the Keyes case, the autopsy actually had been done by another pathologist, Bryan Mitchell, who had taken over most of Kane County’s work when Blum went into semi-retirement in 2003. But when Mitchell died in 2010 at age 44, Blum again became the first pathologist Kane County would call upon. And in some pending cases such as the Keyes murder, he was called to testify based on photos, notes and test results left behind by Mitchell.
Testifying about the death of Paola Rodriguez in a gang-motivated mistaken-identity shooting, Blum told how the bullet had passed through the woman’s brain and how swelling of the brain had started pulling apart the plates of bone in her skull as she lingered in the hospital before dying.
Blum’s testimony may have exerted little influence on the guilty verdicts in those murder trials. But what he said probably played a key role in the minds of 12 other jurors this spring as Elgin homeowner Donald Rattanavong was acquitted of manslaughter but found guilty of reckless discharge of a firearm. Rattanavong had killed teenager Guillermo Pineda while trying to scare away suspected car burglars by firing “warning shots.” Blum testified that the bullet that hit Pineda in the head followed an almost-level trajectory from front to back, belying Rattanavong’s testimony that he had aimed his gun toward the sky to avoid hitting anybody.
Fact and fiction
Blum’s findings also will undoubtedly be critical this summer as he testifies in the Will County murder trial of Drew Peterson. It was Blum who autopsied the exhumed body of Peterson’s drowned third wife, Kathleen Savio.
That could put Blum on national TV, a spot he says he tries to avoid, although he did appear on an episode of “48 Hours” about two men who may have been unfairly convicted of a murder in Missouri. He says he also has offered off-camera information for episodes of Bill Kurtis’ “Forensic Files” based on cases Blum handled.
In fiction TV, he says he “loved” the 1976-1983 medical-examiner drama “Quincy, M.E.”
“It was fairly accurate about what we do,” he said.
Among current TV series, he gives high marks to “Bones” but finds “CSI” to be “overblown and overdramatic.”
As for his own funeral plans, he says, “I’ll rest when I die, because my life has been too busy. I tried to retire nine years ago, but I’ve been a total failure at that.”