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Jerry Davich: Many faces of death in our region

Portage Police Department Detective Robert Shrader (front right) assists removing body Wednesday from Beverly Shores beach IndianDunes National Lakshore. |

Portage Police Department Detective Robert Shrader (front right) assists in removing a body Wednesday from a Beverly Shores beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakshore. | Andy Lavalley~Post-Tribune

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Updated: October 10, 2013 6:06AM



A toddler dies from digesting a parent’s daily dose of methadone, prompting suspicions by police.

A man dies from drinking antifreeze; his severely decomposed body is found months later in a boat.

A woman dies from hypothermia in a horse stable. A man commits suicide after his wife catches him molesting their granddaughter. A baby dies from being rolled upon while in bed with its father, mother and a girlfriend. A severely obese man dies from “fatal sexual gratification” involving computer porn, sex toys and an enema bag.

This is just a sampling of deaths handled by the Porter County Coroner’s office, which deals with homicides, suicides, accidents and natural deaths. These deaths, like most, don’t attract front-page headlines or back-pew prayers, but they take place in our proverbial backyard on a daily basis.

Today I’m giving you a peek behind the coroner’s curtain, which typically conceals the grim reaper’s gruesome handiwork.

“You’d be surprised the cases we see,” said Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris, who’s on call around the clock along with his deputy coroners.

That county coroner’s annual salary, $26,000, doesn’t nearly reflect the office’s importance to police work and public safety. A county coroner’s duties include identification of the deceased, determination of the cause of death, and also manner of death, among many other duties.

Unlike at funerals, coroners rarely find bodies all nice and tidy for public showing, as I have noted before. Sometimes the bodies are soaking in blood, urine, or other bodily fluids. Sometimes they’re infested with flies, maggots or rat droppings. Sometimes their eyelids are still open with the look of shock at meeting death face to face.

“On April 15, 2013, at 6:26 PM, I was notified by Porter County Sheriff’s Department dispatch of a body located in a ditch on County Road 500 West, between 900 South and 1000 South,” Harris wrote in one of his many death investigation reports.

“I arrived on scene and observed the body face down in a large pool of water in the ditch with the back exposed from the water. From the road it was apparent that the body had been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time and decomposition was advanced.”

The body was transported to Porter Regional Hospital’s morgue, and an autopsy in Lake County revealed the deceased had several gunshot wounds. The 32-year-old victim had been missing for several months, his vehicle found in Chicago.

Another puzzle solved.

“On Oct. 4, 2012, I received a courtesy call from a detective with the Porter County Sheriff’s Department. He asked if I had been notified regarding the death of a full-term stillborn at Porter Regional Hospital by a 16 year-old female,” Harris wrote in another report.

The Marshall County Police Department was investigating this situation for several reasons and asked if the coroner’s office could also look into the death.

“According to the report, the mother of the baby was reportedly brought into the hospital by her mother, stepfather and uncle. Both male subjects were found to be registered sex offenders,” Harris wrote. “The patient stated, ‘There is something stuck down there and I’m having a lot of discharge.’”

“Prior to the pelvic exam, the uncle was asked to leave the exam room but stated, ‘I’m fine, I can stay.’ Police eventually determined that the mother was actually 14, not 16.

“CPS overheard a phone conversation with the mother of the (stillborn) and her mother, asking if all the poisons were out of her body yet,” Harris wrote. “I was informed that the uncle was under arrest and that a search warrant for his home would be ordered the following week.”

Lab tests using DNA samples later confirmed that the uncle, who was in his 60’s, fathered the baby with the 14-year-old girl.

Another perverted puzzle solved.

In another death investigation, Portage police requested the coroner’s assistance regarding a body found inside the holding tank of a portable toilet at a local park.

On a Sunday, police patrol units responded to a reported abandoned vehicle complaint at Wolfe Park, where officers found several homosexual references on it, hand-written with lipstick.

“Patrol officers searching the park subsequently discovered the remains of a white male completely submerged inside the portable toilet’s holding tank,” Harris wrote. “We dismantled the toilet by removing the roof first, then the four walls, to expose the tank. The top of the tank was then cut to expose the body inside the holding tank.”

The body of a white male, nude from the waist up, was identified by using his Indiana driver’s license photograph. “A reddish-pink colored lipstick is smeared about the mouth,” the report states. “The color of the (toilet’s) chemical is bright blue and the odor is pungent and provides a burning sensation to the eyes, nose and skin of those that would physically handle the remains.”

Another puzzle handled, but not quite solved.

In April, 2012, Harris was called by police to contact an Indiana Dunes State Park conservation officer who discovered an “extensively decomposed, deceased female on the beach of Lake Michigan” between the park beach and Beverly Shores.

“The decedent is believed to be the female subject that went missing in Lake Michigan a few months earlier off Mt. Baldy Beach,” the report states.

“Only clothing noted on decedent is a bra, shorts/underwear, jeans, socks and winter boots. Decedent unable to be identified by facial features due to extensive distortion and decomposition, and no form of ID.”

The woman’s body, however, had two tattoos, one on each wrist, which helped to later identify her body.

“It was noted that the subject had extensive outdoors experience and, at the day of her disappearance, would have had to walk onto an ice shelf to get to the lake water,” Harris wrote. “It is my opinion that anyone that experienced in the outdoors would only walk onto an ice shelf in those conditions with self destructive intentions.”

A few years ago, I watched an autopsy in action and I wrote about it in graphic detail. You can read that column on my Facebook page and blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, I will take you behind the curtain of the Lake County Coroner’s office, which is dealing with an eye-raising rise of infant deaths. Stay tuned for more investigation details courtesy of Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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