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Milwaukee death investigators hope to bring facts to police, grieving families

A dummy in a lab
Chuck Quirmbach
This dummy serves as a teaching tool in a death investigation lab at UW-Milwaukee.

Homicides in Milwaukee continue at roughly double the pace of last year at this time. There have more than 40 people killed so far in 2022. Add in suicides, fatal car accidents and drug overdoses, and it's easy to see how on-site death investigators face a very busy, very grim workload.

But more people are being trained for that work, and say there's a commitment to finding out information helpful to grieving friends and relatives, and the police.

Advisory: Portions of this story contain descriptions of violence that might be troubling to some people.

Local homicides are most prevalent in the city of Milwaukee. But some occur in nearby communities as well. Last month on an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon in Brown Deer, Police Chief Peter Nimmer told reporters about an apparent murder-suicide at a nearby apartment complex.

"There's a male white, 31 years of age who is deceased. A female, Black 23 years old, who is deceased. And the suspect is a male Black, 26 years old and deceased," Nimmer announced.

Police and rescue squads respond to fatal shootings in Brown Deer, on Feb. 5.
Maayan Silver
Police and rescue squads respond to fatal shootings in Brown Deer, on Feb. 5.

When what are called unnatural deaths occur, more than police and emergency medical technicians are called to the scene. UW-Milwaukee anthropology professor Emily Middleton said other early responders typically include death investigators.

"They're going to be looking at things like position of the body, whether the body has been moved or not, but also, just the general state of the body — is there blood trickling out of the ear? Is there bruising? Also, algor mortis, rigor mortis — signs that might fade or be less pronounced later on, that they can make very good notes of and communicate later on with the forensic pathologist before the autopsy happens," Middleton told WUWM.

Middleton directs UWM's Center for Forensic Science, which offers a certificate in death investigation. She said students have a well-rounded background, learning chemistry, biology, anthropology, the basics of criminal justice and criminalistics. That's using scientific methods to recognize, collect and compare physical evidence generated by criminal or illegal activity.

UW-Milwaukee Anthropology Professor Emily Middleton in one of the death investigator training rooms at UWM.
Chuck Quirmbach
UW-Milwaukee Anthropology Professor Emily Middleton in one of the death investigator training rooms at UWM.

Middleton said the teaching also includes a warning for students: "There's going to be a lot of graphic content. You'll be seeing pictures of autopsies, pictures of crime scenes. We have a retired lieutenant who comes in with a very no holds barred discussion of crime scenes, of cases, and it can take an emotional toll."

Students' willingness to deal with graphic crime gets a test in a small UWM lab inside Sabin Hall.

A male training dummy sits at a decorated table strewn with soft drinks and half-eaten food. Student Jana Plotkin said the scene looks like a birthday party gone bad, and notes if the dummy was a person, he'd be dead.

"Yeah, looks like he's got a slash wound to the neck. Looks like some blood on the floor. Somebody tried to clean up maybe? But there's some things we need to pay attention to, like there's a cigarette butt in the ashtray, and there's some drug paraphernalia over here. Also somebody took a bite [of food] — this could be from the suspect, and you've got to confirm that this is DNA from the victim," Plotkin said.

Plotkin, who already has a biological sciences degree, is taking part in a death investigation internship at the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office. She said the investigators, toxicologists and forensic pathologists are serving the deceased and the community.

"They're the ones who have to look at the individual and say, 'I'm going to tell your story for your family, instead of it just being a theory,'" Plotkin explained.

UWM students Jana Plotkin (left) and Lilly Perkins.
Chuck Quirmbach
UWM students Jana Plotkin (left) and Lilly Perkins.

UWM senior Lilly Perkins was a death investigator intern at the medical examiner's office last fall. She said during an earlier job shadow there, she went through a real-world test.

"I remember thinking like, 'If I pass out or throw up, like maybe this isn't for me.' But, it was kind of an out of body experience watching the first autopsy. And, I think you almost kind of step outside of your mind," Perkins said.

Perkins said she plans to apply to medical school in the next year or two, with the goal of becoming a forensic pathologist — using that early experience she's had going to photograph corpses and collect other evidence at scenes where people have died an unnatural death.

There's no shortage of the work. Milwaukee County reported more than 550 fatal drug overdoses last year, and the city is on pace to set a new homicide record of more than 200.

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