Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deborah Halber's "The Skeleton Crew"

Deborah Halber is a Boston-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe; Technology Review; the interactive, illustrated digital magazine Symbolia; and many university publications. A native New Yorker, she received her BA from Brandeis University and an MA in journalism from New York University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases, and reported the following:
From page 99:
It was only seven in the morning but I was wearing the desert heat like a lead suit. My throat, eyes, and sinuses had shriveled up like a slug doused in sea salt. Somewhere to the west the Las Vegas strip hummed, but the taxi had deposited me on a seemingly deserted street of low buildings of the type favored by personal-injury lawyers and insurance agents. I pushed a buzzer next to the mirrored door of 1704 Pinto Lane and admired a Japanese-style sand garden of swaying grasses, flowering desert plants, artfully placed boulders, and cacti. Excellent landscaping is not something you expect at the morgue.

When Mike Murphy opened the door, nothing about him dashed the illusion that I’d come to inquire about life insurance or a timeshare. (Famed forensic expert) Marcella Fierro complained to me once about “Joe Coroner from East Wherever”—the elected official who’s also the local feed store operator or a farmer who milked cows before signing the day’s death warrants—but she wasn’t talking about Clark County coroner P. Michael Murphy, known to pals as Murf. He’s an FBI National Academy graduate and holds a doctorate in business administration. Vegas’s death chief likes to say he’s in the people business. The day I met him, he was revved and brisk, clearly prepared to interact with someone with a pulse.
Page 99 marks the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, in which I meet legendary Las Vegas coroner Mike Murphy, have a panic attack in a morgue, and learn the backstories of some of the country’s most moving and perplexing unsolved cases of Jane and John Does. Like many of those I encountered during my research for The Skeleton Crew, Murf is a larger-than-life character. The Clark County coroner’s office is the model for the first CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and it was Murf who was brave or foolhardy enough to post actual morgue photos online in a desperate attempt to engage the public’s help in identifying Clark County’s unidentified--the likes of Jane Cordova Doe, found in a dumpster at the Villa Cordova apartments; John El Cortez Doe, dead of a heart attack in the El Cortez Casino; Jane Sahara Sue Doe, a murder victim between seventeen and twenty-one years old who wore a complete set of dentures. Many were scandalized by the images Murf posted on Las Vegas Unidentified, but the controversy helped focus attention on the estimated 40,000 cases of unidentified human remains in the US--a little-known travesty that has been called the nation’s silent mass disaster. All the stories I tell in The Skeleton Crew start, like an episode of Bones or CSI, with the discovery of a corpse or skeletonized remains, or even a single body part. Then the mystery is: Who was this person? I traveled the country to meet the web sleuths--ordinary citizens who had managed against all odds to match the missing with the unidentified. I tell the story, among others, of Todd Matthews, who was only 17, living in a trailer home and working the night shift in a factory when he became obsessed with a young woman who had been found dead in 1968 near a Kentucky road, wrapped in a carnival tent. The advent of Internet databases--official ones such as Las Vegas Unidentified as well as strictly volunteer efforts such as the Doe Network--helped Todd give Tent Girl back her name. Todd helped bring a degree of closure to a family that had been searching for a young mother, sister and daughter for three decades.
Visit Deborah Halber's website.

--Marshal Zeringue