Updated: March 25, 2014 6:07AM
George Deliopoulos has seen just about every shade of death.
Suicide. Homicide. Drug overdose. Train versus vehicle. Triple-fatality car crashes. Natural causes. Abuse and neglect. You name it, he’s had to respond to it.
The 54-year-old Crown Point man has spent nearly the past 25 years as a Lake County deputy coroner, mostly on the graveyard shift. He has witnessed man’s inhumanity to man on a regular basis.
“Let’s say you wanted to write the most gruesome horror movie script, like from a Stephen King novel. Well, I’ve seen it,” he told me matter-of-factly, not proudly. “People in my business see the most horrific things that people can do to one another. It’s unbelievable.”
Deliopoulos, a mild-mannered guy with a respected track record, also instructs and educates high school and college students on how the coroner’s office interacts with other agencies. He has a great rapport with this region’s police departments and other coroner’s offices.
“I’m always learning something new in this business, that’s for sure,” he noted.
He’s processed more than 2,000 death investigations, each one a puzzle, some with missing pieces. Many cases take weeks to determine an outcome. Others take months. A few never get solved, with bodies forever remaining John or Jane Doe.
“Nothing gets wrapped up in an hour like on those TV shows. It’s all fake,” said Deliopoulos, who met with me after finishing up paperwork for two homicides a day earlier, one of them a teenager who was shot and killed.
Does seeing death after death after death ever get to him? Of course. But he has learned to detach himself as best he can. Still, some cases hit closer to home than others, especially the death of a child.
Once, after returning back to his office from a death scene involving a kid, he pulled over his vehicle, paused to absorb what happened, and had a good cry. Then he got back on the road and continued on to his next call.
“I’m not bulletproof,” he said. “It sticks with you.”
By far, the hardest part of his job is informing a family of their loved one’s death. He’s the last guy you want to see solemnly walking to your front door. When he does, he routinely uses the purposely direct words of “die” or “killed,” not softer words such as “expired,” “departed” or “passed away.”
Families typically ask a plethora of difficult questions about their deceased loved one. How did it happen? When? Where? Why? Was he in pain? Did she suffer? Where’s the body?
“I’ve told such sad news to so many families, but I always try to be honest with them, even if they don’t know what questions to ask me,” he said. “Many times, they’re simply in shock or lost in thought.”
As a former Lake County police officer and Indiana Police Academy graduate, Deliopoulos had to learn the coroner’s office ropes as he went along before getting officially state certified. These days, he works 12-hour shifts on the day turn.
“How many people can say they truly enjoy going to work each day?” he asked rhetorically.
Once Deliopoulos arrives at a death scene, he is the primary official in charge until the body gets carted away.
I’ve been to numerous fatal crash sites and death scenes through the years and, at each one, I’ve had to wait around for a coroner’s office official to show up before anything moves forward.
At one crash scene on the Borman Expressway, Deliopoulos arrived to find a deceased motorist whose vehicle went underneath a semi-truck. The driver’s body was almost completely severed in half except for one thin thread of body tissue keeping it together.
Deliopoulos worked laboriously with other responders to keep the driver’s body intact – for the family. It doesn’t matter to him how someone died, who they were or what circumstances caused a death.
“You have to remember it’s somebody’s loved one,” Deliopoulos said.
Deliopoulos is working with his fifth coroner, Merrilee Frey, in that high-profile office, along with nine other investigators, including a couple in training. Together, they work with the county CSI team, prosecutor’s office, state fire marshal, forensic pathologist and entomologist, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“I’m honored to have George on our team,” Frey told me.
Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris also has high praise for Deliopoulosm, after working together on a few cases.
“George is a highly respected Medical Legal Death Investigator in our community and state, and extremely qualified in death investigations and forensic science,” Harris said.
“His enthusiasm for this field far surpasses what is expected. The citizens of Lake County are very fortunate to have someone with such a high level of motivation, dedication and vast knowledge to serve as a deputy coroner.”
Away from the office, Deliopoulos loves being with his family, watching comedy shows and making homemade pizza. He has been married for nearly 27 years to his wife, Karla, an airline attendant who travels the globe. The couple has a 26-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who lives in Los Angeles.
My final question to Deliopoulos was this: What has he learned from seeing so much death, pain and grieving on a daily basis?
“To cherish your family and friends,” he replied immediately. “Show your family that you love them and show your friends that you appreciate them because, well, you never know.”
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com .