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How I Became a Death Investigator

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

Why did it happen? How did it happen? What led to this final outcome? Those were my questions as a young child when I would read the Mexican newspaper of the latest homicides. I grew up in a border town and not only did I have the privilege of reading their newspapers but the local news also filtered the airwaves in my house when my mother would watch the news. It was not uncommon to hear of several murders, dismemberments, assaults and many other horrible things. I really was able to see what humans could do to other humans. It was so tragic.

My interest continued through my young life but when a cousin of mine was involved in a car accident and killed his passenger but he did not die, I wondered why he had survived. Why was he different? I needed to get to the bottom of understanding why some people survived horrific events and yet others would succumb to the injuries. I knew at that point I needed to understand how our bodies worked and enrolled in every possible anatomy and physiology class. Initially, I wanted to pursue a career in medicine because I did not know how else you would determine how an individual would die. Additionally, I did not receive guidance from my high school counselor, he thought I was not “equipped” with the smarts to attend medical school. That in itself is another blog topic.

I received a degree in biology later on in life while working at a local coroner’s office. I was blessed to be able to work at a coroner’s office while working on my Bachelor of Science degree. What an amazing experience. Now, I forgot to mention how I ended up working at a coroner’s office. Well, back in the early 1990’s death investigation was not such a hot topic. As a matter of fact, the coroner at the time wondered why I would want to volunteer in a place where there were foul smells, insect activity and evidence of how humans could be animals towards one another. She did not know I had grown up reading and seeing those actions. Needless to say, I was hired instead of being given the opportunity to volunteer. It was a happy day for me.

My intrigue did not stop there. I now wanted to understand the reason behind why certain events led to a death so I once again enrolled in school to obtain a degree in psychology. This degree allowed me understand some of the scenarios I encountered, particularly suicidal deaths. To me a thorough investigation includes the prior actions taken to secure a death but what led to those actions. In my eyes, a death is not an end but rather a beginning. A beginning to understand what led someone to take such drastic measures to end their life.

My psychology degree then led to a Master of Science in Criminology because I now wanted to tie all aspects of a death investigation. Now a death investigation would include the steps that were taken by the individual to either end their life or take someone’s life but also assist in understand the rights of those hurt by those actions. This would allow me to be better informed on support groups, programs and assistance to the victims. Overall, I would provide as much information to those individuals affected by the tragedy and ultimately I want to make a difference.