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tv   This Is Life With Lisa Ling  CNN  November 20, 2016 12:00am-1:01am PST

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but that's the point -- captions by vitac -- careful. >> it's 10:00 a.m. in los angeles. this is crazy. and i'm following rudy malano down treacherous ground. police have been waiting for rudy to inspect the scene. >> we have a floater. lifeguard personnel brought him ashore. >> but rudy isn't a detective. he's an investigator with the l.a. county coroner, the first person allowed to examine the body lying in the water a few feet away. what happens to us if we die suddenly or violently?
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more likely than not, we'll be picked up by a coroner. everybody on this floor is waiting for people to die. >> you never know what the next phone call is going to be. we never know what is going to happen. >> it took me a year to get access, but for the next ten days, i'm embedding with the l.a. county coroner, the busiest under one roof in the nation and while i'll see things that shock me. oh, my gosh, i'm a little speechless. for the men and women that work here, dealing with the dead is business as usual. >> death is going to happen and seeing all the bodies, it's just part of my job. ♪ ♪
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♪ i've lived in l.a. for most of my life, and driven by this non-descript building countless times but had no idea what i would face when i finally got inside. >> coroner's office. >> this is the department of the los angeles county coroner. >> okay. unknown male caucasian face down found in the river bed. i'll phone someone out. thank you. >> and somewhere in the city, someone has died. >> hey, i have a field call for you. okay. >> dispatch assigns the case to investigator rudy malano.
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>> so i have a field call in long beach. >> okay. >> it is an unidentified caucasian male. they might have a missing person's match on him. they don't know yet. >> okay. thanks. >> we've been in the building for less than 15 minutes before we're called into the field with rudy. one of l.a.'s 33 coroner investigators, the department's first responders. so what do we know about this death? >> as far as we know, it's undetermined at this point. it's possibly a missing person out of long beach. hopefully, i can identify him at the scene. >> so about how many dead bodies have you investigated during your time at the coroner's office. >> in the thousands. >> when you hear there is a body laying face down in the river, what does it sound like to you? >> it could be anything. it could be homicide, suicide, natural, accident. i try to keep an open mind at
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this point because who knows what happened. >> we arrive at the scene. a secluded culvert along the l.a. river 20 miles south of downtown. can we go with you, rudy? >> yeah, come on. >> careful. this is crazy. >> yeah, never know where you're going to end up. >> long beach p.d. got here an hour ago after a passer by called 911. >> so what we got here? >> we have a floater. he was midway out there. >> okay. see what we have.
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>> the cops are here to determine if a crime has be committed, but only rudy can touch the body. he must try to learn this man's name and gather evidence of how he died. detectives believe that the deceased could be a missing person, someone whose been missing since wednesday, today is monday but they haven't actually looked at his face. rudy will be the first person to do so. >> oh, yeah. i see something. >> rudy documents the scene searching for signs of trama and proof of this man's identity. for rudy and detectives, this is a daily routine. for me, it's heartbreaking. who was this man and how did he end up here? ♪
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>> rudy finds no obvious evidence of foul play. but he is able to i.d. the man using a license and a tattoo. rudy and the detectives just confirmed that the deceased is the missing person. >> just let it go now. >> they haven't determined the cause of death yet but the family members will be delivered some pretty sad news, pretty soon. >> there is a mom. >> there is a mom. >> do you have her info? i'll grab it. >> what happens now? >> now i have to meet with the family and let them know the process after this, as far as releasing the body. >> is there anything you do to prepare yourself to talk to family members? >> i just try to have compassion, put myself in their shoes and try to be as helpful as i can in this situation.
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i don't know what they are going through, but i try my best to help them through it. >> while rudy leaves to take on the hardest part of his job, the deceased begins his own journey into the los angeles coroner system. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. >> coroner's office, this is lieutenant deets. may i help you, please. >> the reports come in of bodies found throughout l.a. county. >> what's the last name? >> those who died under a doctors care can go from hospitals to funeral homes. any suspicious passing falls under the coroner's jurisdiction. >> thank you for calling. you're welcome. bye, bye. >> the coroner's mission is to recover the bodies from their death scenes, identify them
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through fingerprinting, locate their families and determine cause of death using autopsies and toxicology. every year the l.a. coroner handles over 11,000 bodies. which begs the question, where do they keep them all? department chief craig harvey agreed to show me. >> we are going over to the security floor. >> so that's -- it's the first place the bodies come when they enter the department? >> right. >> chief, there is a smell in here. there's definitely a distinctive -- >> it will be a little more powerful in the crypt. >> and just like that, i come face-to-face with l.a.'s dead.
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>> most of the folks that you see wrapped in cloth sheets loosely, those are folks that have just come into the facility. >> should we go in? >> if you would like. >> wow, it's really. >> pungent. everybody is in various stages and exhibiting signs of death. >> this crypt has a capacity of 500 bodies. today it holds 329. chilled to about 40 degrees. >> i'm a little speechless. i -- wow. >> yeah, most folks are not prepared for the scale that we do stuff here. >> never seen anything like this. >> they were parents and children, spouses and friends.
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some might have been famous, others homeless. but in death, the coroner treats them all the same. >> if you die in a car accident or are shot or you're killed and you live in los angeles county, in all likelihood your body will end up here. >> absolutely. you will be here. you will be here for a period of time. some bodies come in and out in 24 hours, in worst-case scenario, up to ten days or so depending how busy we are. >> when i walked into that crypt today, i was so overwhelmed seeing hundreds of bodies stacked on top of each other. i almost felt detached because i was experiencing such sensory overload.
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i couldn't help but think about who all those people were in life. you know, what their lives were like and how they ended up there.
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one of the most famous stars in hollywood history is dead at 36. >> when it comes to dying in los angeles, the media spotlight shines brightest on stories of celebrity, beauty and power
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snuffed out. >> tonight, remembering michael jackson as the picture of his sudden death starts to come into focus. >> one of the greatest voices of our generation, singer whitney houston has died. >> but every passing be it notorious or anonymous is a mystery to be solved. that's what captivated marlene navarro. >> the moment i knew you could have this job, that was the job i wanted. i love the places i go. the people i meet, the stories, the families tell me, just seeing little portions of this person's life even though i'm dealing with their death. >> 30-year-old marlene was born and raised in the los angeles suburbs. he's got a boyfriend that's a
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cop and a dog named bubba. both support her career choice. two years ago, she landed her dream job, an investigator on the graveyard shift at the last county coroner. have you always been comfortable with blood and guts and things like that? >> yeah, ever since i can remember. i'm not comfortable with a person screaming in pain, but seeing it after the fact, it's fine. my first dead body ever was a decomposed body. >> you didn't freak out? >> no. i didn't. it's so just surreal to see what our bodies do once we're dead. sometimes people might get a little weirded out about my enthusiasm when i talk about what i do but i think you should like your job. i like brightness. i like positivity and happiness.
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i just like to be able to see the other side of it. >> night settles in over l.a. >> we're going to put some of these on. they slip on over your shoes. >> and marlene starts her ten-hour shift to gather dna samples for an open case. for her, it's just another night on the job. but not for me. >> hi. >> hey. >> oh my god. oh. >> did you just bring that baby in? >> yes. >> can you tell us what happened? >> it was born about six days ago and just found unresponsive, rushed to the e.r. >> oh my god. a little girl.
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>> now we're going to go this way. >> at the coroner's office, tragedy comes with the territory. marlene must move on to collect evidence for a homicide investigation. but i can't take my mind off what i just saw. this is just the craziest job. there's no time even to express any sensitivity because it's just you have to be on and you have to be prepared for the next one and the next one. unbelievable.
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>> the moment passes, the hour slips by and the night shift settles in. waiting on death to call investigators like marlene into the field. >> investigations, can i help you? all right, thank you. marlene, i got a field call for you. okay, we're going to panorama city. we have approximately
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49-year-old male found deceased in his residence. neighbors claimed of a foul odor. we don't have any family at this time for him. last seen according to the neighbors was about friday. >> okay. >> marlene's assignment is taking us to a gritty suburb north of the city. at ten minutes to midnight, we venture out unsure of what we'll find. how do you feel right now? is your adrenaline going? >> i think i always feel a little bit nervous. i'm going somewhere i've never been. i don't know what it's like. i don't know who is around or who's going to be watching us. i don't carry a gun if something, you know, unexpected happens. that's scary. >> there's the building right there. that's the apartment? >> yeah.
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hi, i'm investigator navarro. tell me who found him, why somebody was checking on him. >> the manager walked by the apartment earlier in the evening and noticed a foul odor coming from the apartment so that's when he called 911. >> he's last known alive when? >> friday morning when he walks his dog. >> i don't smell anything right now, but if the man has been dead for a number of days, is there a chance he could be decomposing, so not sure what i'm about to see.
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20 minutes north of downtown l.a., a 49-year-old man has been found dead in his apartment. without permission to enter, our cameras must wait outside. while investigator marlene
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navarro goes on the hunt for evidence. >> snooping has a negative connotation to it but that's my job to snoop, to be inquisitive, to find out how they lived their life and what actually killed them. >> the police officer inside said that the man was struggling to find some pills, but he died in his bed, that when he was found, he had a little dog sitting next to him and really sad. he had a nice little apartment, has some family pictures around and this is obviously where he breathes his last breath. what's with these bags? >> his personal property i'm taking back with me. >> what are you taking? >> cell phone for phone numbers, the ipad in case there is something, couple pictures, his driver's license and then the small bag is all the medication we found.
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>> by the time the investigation is over, it's 1:30 a.m. but there is still more work to be done tonight. the body is loaded onto the van and marlene and i make our way back to headquarters. i can't believe you do this every day. are there nights when the case is so intense you just can't go to sleep right away? >> no, i mean, honestly, you don't want to be stuck on something like that. it's bad enough to have to like see somebody else go through something that maybe you're in fear of happening to you or your family, i don't want to think about it. i just want to let it go. >> being willing to touch the dead and stay impervious to the horror of it, it's a job
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requirement for mike who transports bodies from death scenes to the coroner. >> all the bodies get logged in on the trip sheet and they get weighed, measured, tag them, put them in the computer system. >> mike is one of the department's 19-person transport staff. no one handles more bodies than they do. you're the ones sent out to actually move the body. >> yeah, we're 24/7 operation, so, you know, we're moving all the time. >> there are days when you're putting like several in the back of the van at once and it may come back here and get a third call, another one while your out there. >> do you have unique things you do to decompress or unwind? >> crack jokes on each other. >> you can't take every case seriously or you'll go crazy. >> did any of you always want to do this kind of work? >> yeah. >> yeah, kind of. >> it's definitely a very
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physical job, that's what kind of appeals to me. >> beats working at an office. >> in this room, who has the most bodies like -- >> me. >> mike. >> how many do you think you've collected? >> between 11 and 13,000. >> wow. >> yeah. >> but even for employees as seasoned as mike, some cases still stand out. are there cases that haunt you? >> sometimes. i went to a call once, it was a little boy that ran into the street and he got hit by a car so he's laying there and there's a little hispanic kid, little boy the same age. this is years ago, and i could see my son there, and i looked over across the street and i saw the parents and they could be me and my wife and it really affected me.
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i don't think about it most of the time. we got to do it. it's our job. >> as mike's shift winds down, and the body of the man we brought in tonight takes his place in the crypt, marlene completes the final phase of her investigation. >> hello, my name is investigator navarro and i'm calling from los angeles county. >> using the deceased man's cell phone, she's managed to track down his next of kin. >> i'm so sorry to have to tell you over the phone but he passed away. do you think that his mood was so down that he would want to commit suicide? okay. do you know of any drug history?
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what about alcoholism? okay. >> the answers to these painful questions are essential to marlene's investigation. those closest to the deceased can best shed light on the circumstances of their death. >> i didn't see any trama to his body, so in my opinion it looked maybe like a natural death, i'm not sure but our doctors will definitely run toxicology on him just to double check what was in his system. >> must have heard a lot of tears throughout your two years here. >> yeah, sometimes there's no answers to the questions that they are asking but i think just being honest with them and telling them like i don't have an answer for that, i can tell that they are comforted by that. i get to bring closure to the families.
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>> so at 3:15 in the morning it seems that marlene's job is done. she has found a relative but the body is still here and it's now the job of pathologist to find out how he died. tonight's investigation went smoothly. the deceased was recovered and identified and the family found in a matter of hours. but the coroner has one final task to complete in this man's case, solving the riddle of how he died.
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♪ it's thursday afternoon at the l.a. county coroner's office and forensic technician ted morris is suiting up. >> my role in the autopsy is to be that second pair of eye and ears for the pathologist. when someone dies, family is in the dark, and we try so
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desperately to give them answers for closure. >> today ted is assisting the pathologist on call, dr. kevin young. their subject is the body marlene recovered two days earlier. i've been allowed to observe. autopsies happen every day here. an average of 12 to 30 every day. the autopsy is a key part of the process in determining how and why this person died. not every corpse is autopsied by when the cause of death is uncertain, it's an essential diagnostic tool. over the course of an hour, ted and dr. young inspect the body, weigh the organs and sample the
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blood looking for signs of disease or trama. soon, they recognize a likely culprit. >> got cirrhosis of the liver which could be the cause of death. >> it will take further testing to confirm this diagnosis, but for now ted replaces the man's organs and sews up his incisions. >> are there ever moments where you are working on someone and you just stop and go whoa? >> of course. i mean, we're only human. >> are you afraid of death? >> no. i'm a religious man and i hear it in religious sermons about death and how it comes knocking. we can't avoid it. it's just something that we have to prepare for.
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>> this man's body will wait in the crypt until his family recovers him. but what about those whose next of kin never come calling? >> well, i'm sorry to say this is the los angeles county coroner's office. the police discovered her unresponsive. >> for every death, field teams have 24 hours to track down relatives. >> i'm looking for her family. >> when they can't do it, the case falls to investigator joyce catto. >> i'll immediately try and tap into their prior addresses, arrest history, dmv, vehicle registration, missing persons to locate the families. >> when you do have those cases where you're unable to find family members, what does that feel like? >> well, it's very frustrating. we like to say our success rate is very high, but there's some
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cases where i have gone back and forth with every resource i possibly can think of, you know, and unfortunately, i've been unsuccessful and have a whole pile of cases i'm working on simultaneously. we're just hoping we can find their family for them. >> each year, more than 1,000 bodies go unclaimed in l.a. many broke ties with family while still alive. others are abandoned by kin who can't afford to bury them. a very few are john and jane does. people whose names the coroner can't verify. one such case has confounded joyce for months. >> according to the investigator's report, he was found hanging in a tree in a wooded area. no notes were found.
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no abandoned vehicles were found and no missing person's report was found. he had absolutely no papers on him. >> is there even a photograph of him other than the photographs that the investigators have taken? >> no. >> nothing? >> no. no driver's license found under his name. he was kind of man of mystery. >> here is what investigators eventually learned about this man for the sake of privacy we'll call john doe. using his fingerprints, the corner uncovered an arrest record from 2007. which revealed that he was a 59-year-old sushi chef that immigrated here from china but his name was written down inaccurately and a search for family came up empty. >> you can only assume his situation.
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he probably immigrated here. he probably wasn't able to find the american dream and probably was homeless. sorry to say, we see these types of cases a lot. it's very sad. >> all that remains of john doe's life are the clothes he died in, and the few items he had in his possession now stored in the coroner's office. these envelopes we have in packages are properties not claimed by the families as of yet, wallets, keys, credit cards, cell phones, beepers, jewelry, whatever they had on them at the time of death. >> life is over for everyone whose belongings are in this room, but their possessions are still keeping time.
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>> it's so eerie these watches that are going off, these alarms and things like that. the property of the deceased is kept here until family members retrieve it. the coroner will ultimately destroy whatever goes unclaimed, including the possessions of john doe. >> this particular john doe had an open pack of cigarettes, okay? he also had keepsake money, which is a 50 cent piece and $8. >> so this is all that's left. >> all that's left. >> and this is the only thing to show for his life and now it's going to be disposed of. >> yes. >> when he passed away, john doe had almost nothing to his name. yet, he died in one of l.a.'s most affluent neighborhoods. his relationship to this place is unknown.
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so this is where john doe was found. apparently, a gardener discovered him hanging by this tree. when i heard this man was from china, my heart sank. i have so many relatives that have come from china, my own grandfather came to this country in the 1940s by himself. then i wonder if when he came here, this man was alone, yet, somewhere in the world there's probably someone who knows him. somewhere in the world there is probably someone who loves him, who would be really sad if they knew that he was gone. or not. ♪ >> like john doe, an estimated
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40,000 unclaimed dead languish in crypts nationwide. more often than not, they are the most vulnerable among us, drug addicted, homeless and mentally ill. what becomes of these forgotten people?
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the l.a. coroner has a strategy in place to handle every death. each case is handed off from investigators to porters from doctors to technicians until it's time for the body to leave the system. that day has come for john doe. ♪ the coroner has up to 30 days to locate next of kin.
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once all leads have been exhausted an unclaimed body must leave to make room for the next one. today, john doe is going to be cremated. we are going to be the last people to see his remains before he disappears forever. john doe's cremation is being presided over by phil white, a fifth generation funeral director who tends to l.a.'s unclaimed dead. how often are you cremating the remains from l.a. county? >> we will cremate on average 20 individuals every two to three weeks. it's sad for us to see so many individuals who don't have families to pay their final respects. however, we feel really honored to care for them.
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they deserve to be respected, as any human being does. >> phil heats the cremation chamber to 1500 degrees fahrenheit. then, he ushers in john doe. ♪ ♪ ♪
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>> john doe's body incinerates in just over an hour. ♪ all that remains are fragments of bone. ♪ ♪ from flesh to ash, his final transition. tomorrow, more bodies will arrive here to be cremated.
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and unless someone claims his remains, this is how john doe will be remembered. ♪ ♪
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at the los angeles county coroner, life and death go on. today, as many as 50 new cases could come through these doors. to be cared for by the men and women who work here. ♪ the body recovered by investigator marlene navarro has been claimed by his family. joyce cato continues to search for loved ones in the case of john doe. ♪ and across town in a far corner of l.a.'s evergreen cemetery, i'm attending a funeral unlike
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any i've ever seen. ♪ most people who die in l.a. county are claimed by loved ones. but every year there are over a thousand people who are either unclaimed or whose families don't want to take them. so every year the county holds a memorial service to honor those people. >> we invite you to just be still for a moment to know of the sacred place of the spirits and souls and persons that have been buried in this whole area to say that we as a society respect their lives. >> every year for the last century, los angeles has buried the ashes of its unclaimed dead. those who perished alone now share a common grave.
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and are honored in a multi-faith ceremony open to the public. >> i desire only the deliverance from grief for all those -- afflicted by misery. [ speaking foreign language ]. >> today, 1,489 men, women, and children are laid to rest. >> we remember the unclaimed. we honor their lives and their deaths. and entrust them into that embrace, whatever we call that which is after death. amen. >> amen. ♪ >> i felt really proud to be a resident of l.a. county today. the ceremony isn't something the county has to the. it's something it chooses to do. in a way it felt like we were claiming all those unclaimed people. they existed and i'm so glad we took the time to remember them
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whomever they were. whomever they were. ♪ -- captions by vitac -- . more meetings, more candidates. seeing the u.s. president-elect possibly fill top posts. we'll have the latest on donald trump's transition from fifth avenue in manhattan to pennsylvania avenue in washington. a scene of tragedy in northern india. a deadly train derailment has rescue cues rescuing those saving those still trapped. days of heavy air strikes left a city without a fully functioning hospital. a dire situation there. live from cnn world headquarters in atlanta. welcome to our viewers here in the u.s. i'm


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