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Death investigations vary, but end goal constant: find answers

It doesn't matter if it's a homicide, suicide, overdose, accident or of natural causes--local police investigate every death. "Generally, we treat each death scene as a potential homicide and make no assumptions," Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Joh...

It doesn't matter if it's a homicide, suicide, overdose, accident or of natural causes-local police investigate every death.

"Generally, we treat each death scene as a potential homicide and make no assumptions," Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Johnson said.

And police go from there. Where they end up can differ every time since there's no real "typical" death investigation, he said.

But no matter the case, once responders determined someone has died, they call Mary Ann Sens, the Grand Forks County coroner.

"Technically, according to state law, the body is mine and the scene is theirs," said Sens, who's been the county's coroner since 2003. "But we tend to work together very well."


And that's because their primary concern is the same: finding answers.

UND Police Lt. Danny Weigel said when he arrives on a death scene, his first step is "securing that scene and making sure it's safe for first responders and for investigators."

While officers could be part of the investigation, uniform patrol tends to monitor the perimeter while investigators and the coroner investigate the body.

Investigators go through training to make sure they handle a scene properly.

"If you mess up at the scene, you may not find the answers," Sens said.

How the person died

Investigators talk to witnesses and suspects or family members to try to understand what happened.

Some cases may require a closer inspection at the morgue, but investigators try to determine an initial picture of how a person died while still at the scene, Weigel said.


"You're going to look for any physical signs of trauma," Weigel said. "There may be evidence around the body that could indicate something like a drug overdose."

It's important to have this training because first responders never know what they'll encounter, Sens said. For example, if a person died of carbon monoxide, Sens and other first responders are equipped with detectors to make sure they also aren't affected as they respond.

Once they leave the scene and go back to their departments, each side has its own focus. In the most general sense, the coroner is focused on the body while investigators focus on the related information.

There may be similarities, but it all depends on the situation. How they proceed with a man found dead in March at the Flying J truck stop is different from the man who was found unresponsive in January in a car on UND's campus, and that's different from how police would investigate the suspected suicides of area high schools students recently.

In Sens' eyes, it's not so much about the potential crime.

"I don't care if there was a crime committed. I don't care who committed it," Sens said. "I'm only interested in how a person died."

Examining the body

Not every dead body is taken to the morgue, Sens said. Some are taken to a funeral home and families take care of arrangements. But she may need to take a closer look at the body for a potential criminal case or if the person isn't identified right away.


She also must determine if a person died of health reasons that may also impact other blood relatives.

First, Sens goes through all of the information she collected from the scene, which could include referring to police and medical reports.

"We would then examine the clothing and the body from the outside," Sens said.

That includes conducting a physical examination, looking for trauma or ordering an X-ray.

If she needs to, she performs an internal examination, looking at the organs and running a toxicology report. This could help in several cases, such as determining if a person died of a drug overdose.

A typical autopsy report takes four to six weeks to complete, but it could take longer or shorter depending on what tests need to be performed at the state lab, she said.

If there's a suspected crime related to the death, Sens will submit the autopsy report to police and the state's attorney. But autopsy reports are medical records, meaning they're confidential. If there's an ongoing criminal case, she can't actually give the report to the deceased's family, though she could fill them in on the results.

Reviewing evidence


Meanwhile, investigators review evidence and talk to witnesses. Sometimes they need to conduct polygraph tests or look at the past activities of a victim or potential suspects, Johnson said.

Like Sens, the investigators will compile a case file, and if there could be charges, it'll be sent to the state's attorney, Weigel said.

But even then, an investigation might not be in order. The prosecution may ask investigators to review at some pieces to help with their decision.

There are these general steps to take in investigating deaths, but it always depends on the situation. Every situation could be different, Johnson said, and they have to be prepared.

"You never know immediately what you have until you start looking into it a little bit deeper," Johnson said.

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