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tv   This Is Life With Lisa Ling  CNN  October 12, 2019 9:00pm-10:00pm PDT

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conversation with my kids. i realize they're only 5 and 2 but i am ready because i know if i don't have the conversation with them, someone else will. >> careful. it's 10:00 a.m. in los angeles. this is crazy. and i'm following rudy malano down treacherous ground. police have been waiting for rudy to inspect the scene. >> we have a floater. lifeguard personnel brought him ashore. >> but rudy isn't a detective. he's an investigator with the l.a. county coroner, the first person allowed to examine the body lying in the water just a few feet away. what happens to us if we die suddenly or violently?
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more likely than not, we'll be picked up by a coroner. everybody on this floor is waiting for people to die. >> you never know what the next phone call is gog to be. we never know what is going to happen. >> it took me a year to get access, but for the next 10 days, i'm embedding with the l.a. county coroner, the busiest under one roof in the nation, and while i'll see things that shock me -- oh, my gosh, i'm a little speechless. -- for the men and women who work here, dealing with the dead is business as usual. >> death is going to happen, and seeing all the bodies, it's just part of my job. ♪
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i've lived in l.a. for most of my life and driven by this nondescript building countless times. but i had no idea what i would face with had i finally got inside. >> coroner's office. >> this is the department of the los angeles county coroner. >> okay. unknown male caucasian face down found in the river bed. i'll phone someone out. thank you. >> and somewhere in the city, someone has died. >> hey. >> hey, i have a field call for you. okay. >> dispatch assigns the case to
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investigator rudy malano. >> so i have a field call in long beach. >> okay. >> it is a unidentified caucasian male. they might have a missing person's match on him. they don't know yet. >> okay. thanks. >> mm-hm. less than 15 minutes before we're called into the field with rudy, one of l.a.'s 33 coroner investigators, the department's first responders. so what do we know about this death? >> well, as far as we know, it's undetermined at this point. it's possibly a missing person out of long beach. hopefully, i can identify him at the scene. >> so about how many dead bodies have you investigated during your time at the coroner's office? >> in the thousands. >> and when you hear that there's a body laying face down in the river, what does it sound like to you? >> it could be anything. it could be homicide, suicide, natural, accident. i just try to keep an open mind
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at this point because who knows what happened? >> we arrive at the scene, a secluded culvert along the l.a. river 20 miles south of downtown. >> okay. >> can we go with you, rudy? >> yeah, come on. >> okay. careful. this is crazy. >> yeah, never know where you're going to end up. >> long beach p.d. got here an hour ago after a passerby called 911. >> so what we got here? >> we have a floater. he was about midway out there. >> okay. see what we have. >> the cops are here to
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determine if a crime has been committed, but only rudy can touch the body. he must try to learn this man's name and gather evidence of how he died. detectives believe that the deceased could be a missing person, someone who's been missing since wednesday. today is monday, but they haven't actually looked at his face. rudy will be the first person to do so. >> oh, yeah. i see something. >> rudy documents the scene, searching for signs of trauma and proof of this man's identity. for rudy and the detectives, this is a daily routine. for me, it's heartbreaking. who was this man, and how did he end up here?
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>> rudy finds no obvious evidence of foul play. >> hold on. let me come down there. >> but he is able to i.d. the man using a license and a tattoo. rudy and the detectives just confirmed that the deceased is the missing person. >> let it go. >> they haven't determined the cause of death yet, but some family members are going to be delivered some pretty sad news pretty soon. >> there is a mom. >> there is a mom. >> do you guys have her info, by chance? no? okay. >> no. >> i'll grab it. >> what happens now? >> so now i have to meet with the family and let them know the process after this as far as release of the body. >> is there anything that you do to prepare yourself to talk to family members? >> i just try to have some compassion, put myself in their shoes, you know, and just try to be as helpful as i can in
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the situation, you know? i don't know what they're going through, but i just try my best to help them through it. >> while rudy leaves to take on the hardest part of his job, the deceased begins his own journey into the los angeles coroner system. twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week. >> coroner's office, this is lieutenant dietz. may i help you, please? >> the reports come in of bodies found throughout l.a. county. >> okay. what's the last name of the decedent? >> those who died under a doctor's care can go directly from hospitals to funeral homes. any suspicious passing falls under the coroner's jurisdiction. >> thank you for calling. you're welcome. bye-bye. >> the coroner's mission is to recover the bodies from their death scenes, identify them through fingerprinting, locate
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their families and determine cause of death using autopsies and toxicology. every year, the l.a. coroner handles over 11,000 bodies, which begs the question, where do they keep them all? department chief craig harvey has agreed to show me. >> we are going over to the security floor. >> so that's -- it's the first place where the bodies come when they enter the department? >> right. >> chief, there's this smell in here. there's definitely a distinctive -- >> yeah. it will be a little bit more powerful in the crypt. we call this a crypt. >> and just like that, i come face-to-face with l.a.'s dead.
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>> most of the folks that you see wrapped in cloth sheets loosely, those are folks that have just come into the facility. >> should we go in? >> if you would like. >> wow, it's really. >> pungent. everybody is in various stages in exhibiting signs of death. >> this crypt has a capacity of 500 bodies. today, it holds 329, chilled to about 40 degrees. >> i'm a little speechless. >> mm-hmm. -- i -- wow. >> yeah, most folks are not prepared for the scale that we do stuff here. >> i never seen anything like this. >> they were parents and children, spouses and friends.
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some might have been famous, others homeless, but in death, the coroner treats them all the same. if you die in a car accident or are shot, or you're killed, and you live in los angeles county, in all likelihood, your body will end up here. >> oh, absolutely. you will be here. you will be here for a period of time. >> okay. >> some bodies can come in and out of here in 24 hours, worst-case scenario up to 10 days or more depending on how business i did we are. >> when i walked into that crypt today, i was so overwhelmed seeing hundreds of bodies stacked on top of each other. i almost felt detached because i was experiencing such sensory overload. i couldn't help but think about
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[ ty♪ing ] [ engine accelerating ] [ typing ] ♪ one of the most famous stars in hollywood history is dead at 36. >> when it comes to dying in los angeles, the media spotlight shines brightest on stories of celebrity, beauty and power snuffed out.
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>> tonight, remembering michael jackson as the picture of his sudden death starts to come into focus. >> one of the greatest voices of our generation, singer whitney houston has died. >> but every passing, be it notorious or anonymous, is a mystery to be solved. that's what captivated marlene navarro. >> the moment i knew that you can have this job, that was the job i wanted. i love the places i go, the people i meet, the stories the families tell me, just seeing little portions of this person's life even though i'm dealing with their death. >> thirty-year-old marlene was born and raised in the los angeles suburbs. she's got a boyfriend who's a cop and a dog named bubba, both of whom support her career choice.
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two years ago, she landed her dream job, an investigator on the graveyard shift at the l.a. county coroner. have you always been comfortable with, like, blood and guts and things like that? >> yeah, ever since i can remember. i'm not comfortable with a person screaming in pain, but seeing it after the fact, it's fine. my first dead body ever was a decomposed body. >> you didn't freak out? >> no, i didn't. it's so just surreal to see what our bodies do once we're dead. sometimes people might get a little weirded out by my enthusiasm about when i talk about what i do, but, you know, i think you should like your job. i like brightness. i like positivity and happiness. i just like to be able to see the other side of it.
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>> night settles in over l.a. >> we're going to put some of these on. they just slip on over your shoes. >> and marlene starts her ten-hour shift preparing to gather dna samples for an open case. for her, it's just another night on the job but not for me. >> hi. >> oh, my god. oh. >> did you just bring that baby in? >> yes. >> can you tell us what happened? >> it was just born about 6 days ago and just found unresponsive, rushed to the e.r. >> oh, my god. a little girl.
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oh. >> now we're going to go this way. >> at the coroner's office, tragedy comes with the territory. marlene must move on to collect forensic evidence for a homicide investigation, but i can't take my mind off what i just saw. this is just the craziest job. there's no time even to express any sensitivity because it's just -- you have to be on and you have to be prepared for the next one and the next one. it's unbelievable.
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the moment passes. the hours slip by, and the night shift settles in. waiting on death to call investigators like marlene into the field. >> investigations, can i help you? all right, thank you. marlene, i've got a field call for you. okay, we're going to panorama city. we have a approximately 49-year-old male found deceased in his residence.
quote
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neighbors had claimed there's a foul odor. we don't have any family at this time for him. last seen according to the neighbors was about friday. >> okay. >> marlene's assignment is taking us to a gritty suburb north of the city. at 10 minutes to midnight, we venture out unsure of what we'll find. how do you feel right now? i mean, is your adrenaline going? >> i think i always feel a little bit nervous. i'm going somewhere i've never been. i don't know what it's like. i don't know who's around or who's going to be watching us. i don't carry a gun. if something, you know, unexpected happens, that's scary. >> there's the building right there. that's the apartment?
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>> yeah. hi, i'm investigator navarro. just tell me a little bit about who found him, why someone was checking on him. >> the manager i think walked by the apartment earlier in the evening and noticed a foul odor. >> okay. >> coming from the apartment, and -- >> okay. >> so that's when he called 911. >> and he's last known alive when? >> friday morning when he walks with his dog. >> friday morning when he walks his dog. >> i don't smell anything right now, but if the man has been dead for a number of days, there's a chance that he could be decomposing, so not sure what i'm about to see. [ "turn around, look at me" -the vogues ] ♪ there is someone
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>> snooping has such a negative connotation to it, but, i mean, that's my job is to snoop, to be inquisitive, to find out how they lived their life and what actually killed them. >> the police officer inside said that the man was struggling to find some pills, but he died in his bed, that when he was found, he had a little dog that was just sitting next to him, and it was really sad. he had a nice little apartment, has some family pictures around, and this is obviously where he breathed his last breath. marlene, what's in these bags? >> his personal property that i'm taking back with me. >> what are you taking? >> cell phone. >> oh. >> for phone numbers, the ipad just in case there's something on it, a couple pictures, his driver's license, and then the small bag is all the medication we found.
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>> mm-hmm. >> by the time the investigation is over, it's 1:30 a.m., but there's still more work to be done tonight. the body is loaded onto the van, and marlene and i make our way back to headquarters. i can't believe you do this every day. are there nights when the case is so intense, you just can't go to sleep right away? >> no. i mean, honestly, you don't want to be stuck on something like that. it's bad enough to have to, like, see somebody else go through something that maybe you're in fear of happening to you or your family. i don't want to think about it. i just want to let it go. >> being willing to touch the dead and stay impervious to the horror of it, it's a job requirement for forensic attendants like mike aparicio who transports bodies from death scenes to the coroner.
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>> all the bodies get logged in on the trip sheet, and they get weighed, measured, tag them, put them in the computer system. >> mike is one of the department's 19-person transport staff. no one handles more bodies than they do. you're the ones sent out to actually move the body. >> yeah. we're a 24/7 operation, so, you know, we're moving all the time. >> there are days when, like, you're putting, like, several in the back of the van at once, and you may come back here, and they'll get a third call. get another one while you're out there. >> do you all have unique things that you do to decompress or unwind? >> you just crack jokes on each other. >> i mean, you can't take every case seriously or you'll just go crazy. >> did any of you always want to do this kind of work? >> yeah. >> you did? >> yeah. i mean, it's probably all of us. >> yeah, kind of. >> yeah. >> it's definitely a very physical job.
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that's what kind of appeals to me. >> it beats working at an office. >> in this room, who has the most bodies? mike? >> me. >> probably mike. >> how many do you think you've collected? >> between 11,000 and 13,000. >> wow. >> yeah. >> but even for employees as seasoned as mike, some cases still stand out. are there cases that haunt you? >> sometimes. i went to a call once. it was a little boy that ran into the street, and he got hit by a car, so he's laying there, and there's a little hispanic kid, and i'm looking at little boy the same age. this was years ago, and i could see my son there, and i looked over across the street, and i saw the parents. >> hmm. >> and they could be me and my wife, and it really affected me. i don't think about it most of the time.
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we got to do it. it's our job. >> as mike's shift winds down, and the body of the man we brought in tonight takes his place in the crypt, marlene completes the final phase of her investigation. >> hello, my name is investigator navarro, and i'm calling from los angeles county. >> using the deceased man's cell phone, she's managed to track down his next of kin. >> i'm so sorry to have to tell you over the phone, but he passed away. do you think that his mood was so down that he would want to commit suicide? okay. do you know of any drug history? what about alcoholism?
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okay. >> the answers to these painful questions are essential to marlene's investigation. those closest to the deceased can best shed light on the circumstances of their death. >> i didn't see any trauma to his body, so in my opinion, it looked maybe like a natural death. i'm not sure, but our doctors will definitely run toxicology on him just to double check what was in his system. >> you must have heard a lot of tears throughout your two years here. >> yeah. sometimes there's no answers to the questions that they're asking, but i think just being honest with them and telling them, like, "i don't have an answer for that," i can tell that they're comforted by that. i get to bring closure to the families. >> so at 3:15 in the morning, it
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seems that marlene's job is done. she has found a relative, but the body is still here, and it's now the job of pathologist to try and find out how he died. tonight's investigation went smoothly. the deceased was recovered and identified and the family found in a matter of hours, but the coroner has one final task to complete in this man's case, solving the riddle of how he died. ♪ ♪
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it's thursday afternoon at the l.a. county coroner's office, and forensic technician ted morris is suiting up. >> my role in the autopsy is to be that second pair of eye and ears for the pathologist. when someone dies, family is in the dark, and we try so desperately to give them answers for closure.
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>> today, ted is assisting the pathologist on call, dr. kevin young. their subject is the body marlene recovered 2 days earlier. i've been allowed to observe. autopsies happen every day here, an average of 12 to 30 every day. the autopsy is a key part of the process in determining how and why this person died. not every corpse is autopsied, but when the cause of death is uncertain, it's an essential diagnostic tool. over the course of an hour, ted and dr. young inspect the body, weigh the organs and sample the blood looking for signs of disease or trauma.
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soon, they recognize a likely culprit. >> he's got cirrhosis of the liver which could be the cause of death. >> it will take further testing to confirm this diagnosis, but for now, ted replaces the man's organs and sews up his incisions. >> are there ever moments where you are working on someone, and you just stop and just go, "whoa?" >> of course. i mean, we're only human. >> are you afraid of death? >> no. i'm a religious man, and i hear it in religious sermons about death and how it comes knocking. we can't avoid it. it is just something that we have to prepare for. >> this man's body will wait in
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the crypt until his family recovers him, but what about those whose next of kin never come calling? >> well, i'm sorry to say this is the los angeles county coroner's office. the police discovered her unresponsive. >> for every death, field teams have just 24 hours to track down relatives. >> i'm looking for her family. >> when they can't do it, the case falls to investigator joyce kato. >> i'll immediately try and tap into their prior addresses, arrest history, dmv, vehicle registration, missing persons to locate the families. >> when you do have those cases where you're unable to find family members, what does that feel like? >> well, it's very frustrating. we'd like to say our success rate is very high, but there are some cases where i've gone back
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and forth with every resource i possibly can think of, you know, and, unfortunately, i've been unsuccessful. and i have a whole pile of cases i'm working on simultaneously. we're just hoping we can find their family for them. >> each year, more than 1,000 bodies go unclaimed in l.a. many broke ties with family while still alive. others are abandoned by kin who can't afford to bury them. a very few are john and jane does, people whose names the coroner can't verify. one such case has confounded joyce for months. >> according to the investigator's report, he was found hanging in a tree in a wooded area. no notes were found. no abandoned vehicles were
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found, and no missing person's report was found. he had absolutely no papers on him. >> is there even a photograph of him other than the photographs that the investigators have taken? >> no. >> nothing? >> no. there was no driver's license found under his name. he was kind of man of mystery. >> here is what investigators eventually learned about this man who, for the sake of privacy, we'll call john doe. using his fingerprints, the corner uncovered an arrest record from 2007 which revealed that he was a 59-year-old sushi chef who emigrated here from china, but his name was written down inaccurately, and a search for family came up empty. >> you can only assume his situation. he probably immigrated here.
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he probably wasn't able to find the american dream and probably was homeless. sorry to say we see these types of cases a lot. it's very sad. >> all that remains of john doe's life are the clothes he died in and a few items he had in his possession now stored at the coroner's office. >> all these envelopes that we have here in packages are properties that have not claimed by the families as of yet: wallets, keys, credit cards, cell phones, beepers, jewelry, whatever they had on at the time of death. >> life is over for everyone whose belongings are in this room, but their possessions are still keeping time. wow. it's so eerie these watches that are going off, the alarms and
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the things like that. the property of the deceased is kept here until family members retrieve it. the coroner will ultimately destroy whatever goes unclaimed, including the possessions of john doe. >> this particular john doe had an open pack of cigarettes, okay? he also had keepsake money which is a 50 cent piece and $8. >> so this is all that's left. >> all that's left. >> and then this is the only thing to show for his life, and now it's going to be disposed of. >> disposed of, yes. >> when he passed away, john doe had almost nothing to his name, yet he died in palos verdes, one of l.a.'s most affluent neighborhoods. his relationship to this place is unknown. so this is where john doe was
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found. apparently, a gardener discovered him hanging by this tree. when i'd heard that this man was from china, my heart sank. i have so many relatives who've come from china. my own grandfather came to this country in the 1940s by himself. then i wonder if when he came here, this man was alone, yet, somewhere in the world, there's probably someone who knows him. somewhere in the world, there's probably someone who loves him who would be really sad if they knew that he was gone. or not. >> like john doe, an estimated 40,000 unclaimed dead languish in crypts nationwide.
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the l.a. coroner has a strategy in place to handle every death. each case is handed off from investigators to porters, from doctors to technicians until it's time for the body to leave the system. that day has come for john doe. the coroner has up to 30 days to locate next of kin.
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once all leads have been exhausted, an unclaimed body must leave to make room for the next one. today, john doe is going to be cremated. we are going to be the last people to see his remains before he disappears forever. john doe's cremation is being presided over by phil white, a fifth generation funeral director who tends to l.a.'s unclaimed dead. how often are you cremating the remains from l.a. county? >> we will cremate on average 20 individuals every two to three weeks. it is sad for us to see so many individuals who don't have families to pay their final respects. however, we feel really honored to care for them. they deserve to be respected as any human being does.
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>> phil heats the cremation chamber to 1500 degrees fahrenheit. then, he ushers in john doe.
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john doe's body incinerates in just over an hour. all that remains are fragments of bone. from flesh to ash, his final transition. tomorrow, more bodies will arrive here to be cremated, and unless someone claims his
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remains, this is how john doe will be remembered. ♪ turn around ♪ look at me ♪ there is someone ♪ look at me was in an accident. when i called usaa, it was that voice asking me, "is your daughter ok?" that's where i felt relief. we're the rivera family and we plan to be with usaa for life. see how much you can save with usaa insurance.
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>> at the los angeles county coroner, life and death go on. today, as many as 50 new cases could come through these doors to be cared for by the men and women who work here. the body recovered by investigator marlene navarro has been claimed by his family. joyce kato continues to search for loved ones in the case of john doe. and across town in a far corner of l.a.'s evergreen cemetery, i'm attending a funeral unlike any i've ever seen.
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most people who die in l.a. county are claimed by loved ones, but every year, there are over a thousand people who are either unclaimed or whose families don't want to take them, and so once a year the county holds a memorial service to honor those people. >> we invite you to just be still for a moment to know of the sacred place of the spirits and souls and persons that have been buried in this whole area to say that we as a society respect their lives. >> every year for the last century, los angeles has buried the ashes of its unclaimed dead. those who perished alone now share a common grave and are honored in a multi-faith ceremony open to the public.
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>> i desire only the deliverance from grief of all those afflicted by misery. >> padre nuestro que estã s en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre. >> today, 1,489 men, women, and children are laid to rest. >> we remember the unclaimed. we honor their lives and their deaths and entrust them into that embrace, whatever we call that which is after death. amen. >> amen. >> i felt really proud to be a resident of l.a. county today. the ceremony isn't something the county has to do. it's something it chooses to do. in a way, it felt like we were all claiming those unclaimed people. they existed, and i'm so glad we took the time to remember them, whomever they were.
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oklahoma city lies at the geographic heart of the country. more small town than big city, it's probably the last place you'd pick to be targeted for destruction. then came the morning of april 19th, 1995. >> good morning in this crisp evening with regard to application 95-501 for a groundwater permit. we'll present evidence, hear ev

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