'Some Days, I Feel Like the Grim Reaper'

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005

Panning his flashlight inside the darkened Northeast Washington rowhouse, D.C. police detective Chris MacWilliams examines knee-high heaps of newspapers and magazines on the floor. Some are from the 1970s. He pokes through a stack of unopened bills.

The investigator turns to the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. The shelves are empty. The house lights don't work, and dust floats like snowflakes in the flashlight's beam. Flies, hundreds of them, are buzzing and bouncing off window shades. That's why MacWilliams is here: Neighbors called about the flies.

He creaks up the stairs, and when he reaches the bedroom he finds what he expected: a corpse. The dead man is half-resting on a bare mattress; his skin looks like leather. The detective digs through some drawers and finds ear plugs, ear wax remover and hundreds of cotton swabs. "He was probably hearing voices," MacWilliams surmises.

This is the kind of police investigation that the public rarely hears about and that few inside the force are eager to conduct. Tracking down the bodies of people who die naturally or take their own lives can be emotionally draining, physically uncomfortable, lonely.

"We just drive around the city, and nobody knows who we are," says MacWilliams, a plainclothes officer who travels in an unmarked car. "Some days, I feel like the Grim Reaper."

MacWilliams is one of four detectives on the D.C. police department's natural death squad, a unit that sees more bodies than any other on the 3,800-member force.

Assigned to investigate deaths that are not suspected homicides, the squad handled more than 800 of the city's nearly 4,000 deaths reported to the D.C. medical examiner last year: cases involving strokes, heart attacks, industrial accidents, drownings and suicides.

Disbanded in the mid-1990s, the unit was reestablished two years ago. Police officials hoped it would streamline death investigations and give homicide detectives, who had been handling such cases, more time to work on killings.

MacWilliams and his partners, all former homicide detectives, had grown tired of murder, fatigued by uncooperative witnesses and long hours. The natural death squad promised more regular shifts and more time with their families. Still, they have found that the work is harder than they imagined. They talk about how the stink of death clings to their skin, hair and clothes, how it sometimes lingers in their nostrils for days.

"It's like they don't want you to forget them," says MacWilliams of the departed. "You can't really explain it."

It's like death's film "just latches onto you and won't let go," he says.

Most of the city's deaths occur in hospitals or under a doctor's care and do not require autopsies or investigations. Even homicide detectives can go months without seeing a corpse because, unlike in the television dramas, by the time they arrive at the crime scene, an ambulance crew often has removed the body.

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