SAN ANTONIO – Death is a topic hardly anybody enjoys talking about, but it’s a harsh reality none of us can escape. For this KSAT Explains, our crew got a rare behind-the-scenes look into the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office (BCMEO) to find out what happens when a body comes in with no trace of who they are.
For Bexar County Medical Examiner Dr. Kimberly Molina, dealing with the dead is her job.
“We actually do what we do for the living, which I think a lot of people don’t understand.”
Answering questions for those left behind is the overall goal for Dr. Molina, but she can’t do it alone. The BCMEO has six sections.
First is the Medical Examiner’s section, which is made up of licensed Texas physicians and forensic pathologists. The Medical Examiners investigate deaths in Bexar County that are due to a long list of reasons, such as trauma or injury, intoxication, or sudden and unexpected natural disease.
There’s an administrative section, responsible for overseeing the business side of things, and an office section responsible for the office duties.
The process also involves what most people think about when the Medical Examiner’s office is discussed -- the morgue and autopsy section. That is exactly what it sounds like. The team also includes a toxicology section responsible for testing for any drugs or substances in a person’s body.
Finally, there’s the investigative section. Nicole Healy is the lead investigator for the ME’s office. She and her team are called to the scene when someone dies in an unnatural way.
“The investigation section -- we’re the eyes and ears of the doctors and the actual forensic pathologists at the scenes,” she said.
According to Healy, there are multiple basic questions that need to be answered when someone dies. The team first works to find out why or how the person died, then they try to determine who the person was. As you’ll see in a moment, in some cases, that question is the hardest one to answer.
To learn more about each section at the BCMEO, click this link.
There are often questions about how a corpse ends up in front of Dr. Molina. The scenes that Investigator Healy and her team respond to are not always related to a crime.
Dr. Molina says, “The most common preconception is if someone comes to our office, if the death falls under our jurisdiction, they think immediately -- they think, ‘Someone killed them, that it’s a homicide.’ That all we do here are homicides, and we do [handle] homicides here. That is our jurisdiction. But our jurisdiction is actually any unnatural death. So car accidents, people who fall down and maybe hit their heads, or cases where we just don’t know.”
Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even years to determine exactly how someone died and who they were. To do that, the team uses whatever they can to help put a name with a face.
“We can take X-rays and see if they have sort of any implanted hardware, for instance, a pacemaker, or maybe they’ve had a hip replacement and try to track people down that way. We can actually contact the manufacturer of these devices and ask them to assist us. As to, ‘What hospital did you send this to? What date was it manufactured? What date was it implanted?’” Molina said.
“People sometimes will have tattoos that will say who they are, at least give us family members,” Healy said.
Answering the “Who”
Nicole Healy says “[we are] currently working on probably 20 active cases within the past 10 years.”
That’s 20 people whose names the Medical Examiner’s office does not know. They turn to the internet with hopes someone out there does.
This spring, the M.E.’s office redesigned its website to include all the information they know about the person.
“This is another tool in our toolbox that we didn’t have 20 years ago, 10 years ago. Now we have it. Let’s use it,” Molina said.
Details like how the person died, their height and weight, and any identifiable features found on the body are listed on the website.
Each case also has a sketch created by a forensic artist. The sketch depicts what the person might have looked like before their death. Creating those renderings is sometimes easier said than done.
“These forensic artists are not necessarily looking at a face when they are drawing these sketches. It’s going to be case by case,” Healy said. “Sometimes they can do a sketch. Sometimes they go into even more forensic artwork, where they’re just getting details, information, molds and going from there.”
These kinds of cases often stick with the Medical Examiner’s team.
“If you have the cause and manner of death, even if you could provide closure to [the] family, you don’t even have the family to provide the closure to,” Molina said.
A colossal effort to identify remains came in June, when fifty-three migrants were found dead in the back of a sweltering 18-wheeler. The Medical Examiner’s office worked with consulates from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to identify those who passed.
Just a month before, the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde left 21 dead, including 19 students and two teachers. The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office was also tasked with responding in the aftermath of that tragedy. Doctors from other parts of the state were called in to help.
“When people come into our care, there’s not a choice, right? The families don’t actually have a choice,” Molina said. “There’s some part of the mandate, the legal mandate, that has brought them into our care. We absolutely want to make sure that families understand that we are going to treat their loved ones with dignity, with respect. We’re going to get the answers that they deserve,”
WEB EXTRA: Watch our entire interview with Dr. Kimberly Molina below
Visit the Bexar County M.E.’s website by clicking this link.