Halloween 2001: Nothing is Sacred 

Gross! Point blank

The usual complaints against the police—never around when you need them, can’t solve their way out of a paper bag, wasting their time harassing innocent people while the “real” crimes go unsolved—ring hollow and naive in the face of the truth. Some of the jobs we ask the police to do are so gruesome that we simply shut our ears to the facts. Just clean up society’s messes, please, and spare us the details.

Reporters tend to soften the blow for the reading public by employing such vague terms as mitigated homicide, self-inflicted gunshot wound and unattended death, rather than the more to-the-point phrases like maggot-infested, bile-covered and eviscerated.

The real stories behind “unattended deaths” (or those attended by only the killer) are, in the words of one veteran Montana law officer, too unseemly to be told. But he agrees to do just that on the conditions that we not use his name or the names of the people who died, either at the hands of a killer or alone of natural causes.

But first, be forewarned. The tales told here are all true. Most occurred in western Montana. All are horrible. The squeamish will want to stop right here and move on to the next story.

The Exploding Lady: A concerned neighbor calls the police to report that she hasn’t seen the woman next door in quite some time, but notices, after looking in her neighbor’s window, that there is a large black woman, apparently dead, lying in the house. That’s how the call comes in, the officer says—“a large, black woman”—which is odd, considering that the woman who lived in the house was white.

The officers respond. “It’s in August. The woman’s obviously been dead for a considerable period of time in a hot house.” Hence, the skin discoloration and the bloating.

“I’ve been on a lot of deaths, but the odor was the worst I’ve ever been on.” The old cop trick of putting Vicks VapoRub under the nostrils to mask the scent of decaying human flesh just isn’t doing the trick. Despite the eye-stinging, overpowering stench, the officers notice that the woman’s body fluids have leaked out onto the floor and have flowed to low spots on the linoleum. The officers grab her arms and legs in a coordinated effort to turn her over. “And that’s when the maggots started falling out of her nose and ears.”

The officers regroup outside to retch, gag and get some fresh air and come up with a plan for removing the body as quickly as possible. They go back inside and begin pulling on the body, which explodes at the stomach from the pent-up gas inside, sending guts, body fluids and bile flying around the room.

The Cat Lady: Officers respond to a call that a woman has died in her home. The body is, typically, bloated and discolored in death. “But what was really interesting is that the flesh was gone off her face and her fingers. We looked at it for awhile and realized that her cats had been eating on her.”

After the police removed the body they found suitable homes for the cats.

The Headless Biker: A motorcyclist is riding down a road. Some of the nearby landowners had previously expressed their displeasure at his behavior and have strung up a cable across the road to discourage other bikers. The cable is at neck height. As he comes flying down the road the biker doesn’t see the cable, which takes his head off “slick as a whistle.” It rolls down the road, still encased in its protective helmet. The police remove the body and the head.

The Gunshot Wound to the Head: A man has been shot in the head. In an effort to resuscitate him, the officer begins CPR and applies chest compressions, which causes the victim’s brains to pulse and squirt out the side of his head.

Murder at the Pizza Parlor: The officer is working the graveyard shift. It’s early morning when he spots an open door at a local pizza joint. He calls for backup. The two officers slip—literally—in the front door, crouching down and carefully making their way under the glass wall that separates the pizza kitchen from the dining room—“duck-walking,” as he calls it. “I rounded a corner and realized my feet were sticking to the floor.”

He shines a light around the corner. “And there’s a pair of legs and a body, and this body had been disemboweled.” Specifically, someone has taken a knife to the victim’s abdomen, sliced it open with a number of vicious swipes, then cut off the victim’s penis and stuffed it in his mouth. “What we were duck-walking in was guts and bile.”

The “homosexual love triangle” as he calls the case, was ultimately solved, and the killer was caught.

An eye for an eye

When Deven Richardson graduated from the University of Montana in 1998, he carried a beeper—not to receive calls from his girlfriend or deal drugs, but to remove the eyes of people who had just died. While working days as a sales representative for the Missoula Independent, he moonlighted for the local eye bank. Richardson no longer thinks about how much a quarter-page ad will cost or how his sales techniques are improving. He now lives in Portland, Ore. and spends his days arranging and performing enucleations—the scientific term for the removal of an eye. “A person is allowed to donate three parts of his body when he passes away. Donatable parts include organs, tissue, and eyes,” explains Richardson. Though a donor card stands up in court as a legal document, it is not usually until the family members or legal guardian of the deceased give their approval that a body part may be removed and used for transplant or research. The cornea is actually the only part of the eye that is used for transplant. “It’s the part that lets us see what we see,” says Richardson. “It’s there to put everything in perspective.” It is also the only tissue in the human body that can be transplanted from one person to another without the risk of rejection. The remaining parts of the eye are donated for researching such conditions as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts. Enucleation is, not surprisingly, a very delicate and complex procedure. An enucleation—and the in situ removal of the cornea—must be done within a window of six to 12 hours. The actual corneal transplant must take place within seven days. Though hyperbolic television dramas often paint a different picture, eye bank coordinators and technicians like Richardson do not rush to the scene of an accident to remove the eyes on the spot. “We don’t necessarily do the enucleations in an OR, but we do scrub in, gown up, and do everything aseptically, under the standards of sterile ‘surgical technique,’” he says. “We might do the procedure at a hospital, or at a funeral home. It all depends.” Here’s how it works: Someone is in an accident, for example, and is rushed to the hospital. He dies. The nurse—as required by law—calls the “Stat Line,” the liaison between hospitals and the agency like the Lions Eye Bank of Oregon, which is where Richardson works. The Stat Line then calls Richardson and gives him the general information: the time, place, cause of death, the person’s age, race, gender, and medical history. Richardson then calls the contact person at the hospital, oftentimes a nurse, to obtain further information, including the deceased person’s white blood cell count, temperature, and other specifics that will determine if the person is a worthy eye donor. The nurse then talks to the family who, if they agree, sign a consent form for the donation of their loved one’s eyes. Richardson then arranges to travel to the body to perform the procedure. Again, all of this must take place within 12 hours in order to successfully preserve the cornea. “Each procedure is slightly different,” says Richardson. “Rigor mortis sets in after about four to six hours, which makes everything a bit more stiff to work on. The circumstances can also be sad or gruesome, depending on how the person died. I mean, sometimes a person’s head might be cracked open, the brain exposed … that sort of thing. It can get to you, sure, but you have to remind yourself that this is your job, your duty, and ultimately, another person may benefit greatly.” Removing the eye and the cornea requires a set of specialized tools. First, the eye is exposed with a speculum by rolling back the eyelids. Then, with a special pair of scissors, the conjunctiva is cut—the membrane around the sclera, or white part of the eye. Next, a tool called a “hockey stick” is used to hook around the back of the eye so the six muscles that hold it in place can be cut. Five are severed, allowing the eye to roll to one side. Then, with hemostats that grip both sides of the eye, the optic nerve is cut. This nerve is 2mm in diameter and requires “mean-looking scissors … because it is almost like cutting a bone.” Finally, the last muscle is cut; if all six muscles are cut before severing the optic nerve, the eyeball would fall into the skull. After the enucleation, the eye is confined in a “cage” which is then placed into a sterile jar of saline solution. “The cage looks like a tiny king’s chair. The eye sits in the chair with the optic nerve hanging below. The nerve is pinned so the eye can’t fall out of the chair.” The removal of the cornea can be done when the eyeball is still attached to the head or after it has been removed. In today’s market, one cornea can cost as much as $1,600. Approximately 75 percent of donated corneas can be used for transplant. “So far this year, we have had 131 eye donations,” says Paul Buck, director of the Northwest Lions Eye Bank in Missoula. Donating an eye is a generous gift, he says, one that can change a person’s world from dark to light, blurry to clear. Next time you meet someone, look closely into his eyes. You may be looking into the “windows of his soul,” but you may be getting a small glimpse into the soul of another person as well. The set of eyes into which you are gazing may be looking right back at you, thanks to the posthumous gift of someone who no longer had use for them.

Completely batty

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse. He likes the attic of an aging house ... But when he brushes up against a screen, We are afraid of what our eyes have seen: For something is amiss or out of place When mice with wings can wear a human face. –From “The Bat,” by Theodore Roethke

“We’ve got an excellent location for them,” says Heather Saint. “We’ve got the bugs. And before the bugs come, the bats eat nectar, which we’ve also got. We’re near flowing water, which they need. They’re protected and high up.”

Saint roosts bats. She lives with her family on 200 acres overlooking Cherry Creek and the Clark Fork River just outside of Thompson Falls, and this past summer she reckons they hosted 300 to 400 little brown bats on their property.

“We have neighbors up the creek who built ponds, and ponds produce mosquitoes,” she explains. “We bought a bat house—and I can’t remember the name of the company that sold them, but they were running something like $32 apiece, and this was 11 years ago. We gave it to a friend of mine who lives up the canyon and he built himself some and us one.”

The Saints’ two bat houses are tucked under the eaves on the southeastern side of their detached garage, some 12 feet off the ground. They look like bird houses in passing, though admittedly bird houses built for an avian Addams Family. Instead of cheery round holes for their occupants to come and go through, the houses have open bottoms and vertical compartments of cedar or rough-cut pine for the bats to cling to.

“Bats can’t take off from a standing position,” Saint explains. “Their wings are completely attached and they can’t flex them like birds can, so they have to swoop in order to gain their altitude. They drop and then go up. That’s why they roost in caves and places like that. If a bat is on the ground, it’s completely helpless until it can crawl up something to drop from.”

Each of the houses can roost about fifty bats, Saint says, which leaves the greater part of their summer guests to fend for themselves in snags and hollow tree cavities and other nooks and crannies where they won’t be disturbed during daylight. The bats have also managed to set up housekeeping in the inch or so of space between the house and a disused cinderblock chimney on one end of the house, and behind the furnace chimney on the other. The Saints’ bats favor southern and eastern exposures, where, in summer months, having consumed upwards of half their body weight in mosquitoes and no-see-ums (or three to five thousand bugs!) they return from their nightly patrols to sleep from dawn until dusk.

“They look for the morning sun,” Saint explains, “Because of course they’re nocturnal and they want their house warm while they’re sleeping.”

The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is one of the most widely distributed bat species in North America, found as far north as Alaska and Labrador and in every American state except Florida and Texas. They can live up to 30 years. An adult little brown bat will have a body between three and three and a half inches in length and weighing up to half an ounce. The average wingspan is between six and eight inches, although Saint contends that once a bat gets inside her house, it has a wingspan of no less than four feet.

“I had a cat—who is no longer with us—that would hunt bats,” Saint recalls. “It would go out the bedroom window at night and catch one and then bring it back in the house and play with it. Or drop it on my chest in the middle of the night. You can hear them squeak—over your own screams—but I don’t think we’re hearing the echo, we’re hearing the actual voice. And when it drops on your chest in the middle of the night, it really is a horrible sound.”

Bats, as everyone knows, use echolocation to locate their prey, which they capture by making one wing into a sort of leathery jai alai scoop and shucking it into the little basket formed by the uropatagium, the flap of skin that partially connects the bat’s back legs. Although I must confess to worrying, at least as a younger man, that a bat might happen to pee into my mouth as it made its rounds above my open-air camping arrangement, the more common fear that a bat might accidentally or intentionally run into a human is no less ridiculous. Any animal with a natural radar system sufficiently refined to locate and capture a meal the size of a flying comma is hardly likely to make such a blunder. And, although a bat will often swerve close enough to a human to pick off the mosquitoes following his warmth, the natural history of the bat has yet to produce a single instance of one making a nest—as the old wives’ tale goes—in anyone’s hair. Bats, incidentally, can further customize their echolocation by contracting certain muscles in their ears to screen out the noise of their own motion.

“It’s a medieval fear,” Saint sighs. “Vampires and all this kind of stuff. But as more people from different parts of the country move into the area, we’re seeing more things like bluebird houses everywhere. They’re coming back. They’re doing away with the insecticides and the pesticides and you’re seeing more interest in things like this. We need more of that, and more education in schools so that kids don’t grow up thinking all bats are vampires.

“And they’re wonderful,” she continues. “When my oldest, who is now ten, was really little we’d lay out on the deck at night and watch right above our heads. You can hear them.” Saint rubs her hands together to produce a leathery flapping sound. “They sound like this.”

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