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Coroner Maps a Diverse Landscape of Death

Mortality: A man killed by the house he was towing, suicides by stabbing. 'We see it all,' a spokesman says.

September 05, 2000|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Death came to Krista Lynn Graham at 100 mph on the Artesia Freeway--in the form of a runaway tire that jumped a freeway divider near Cerritos and crashed into the front seat of her mother's Jeep Cherokee.

It found 6-year-old Edgar Medina at the Paramount Swap Meet, when a truck ran over him as he hid inside a cardboard box. And it dragged Oswaldo Cruz, 20, to the ocean floor after a wave swept him off the breakwater at Cabrillo Beach.

Such tragedies are not exactly cocktail-hour conversation. Except, perhaps, at the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Investigations of a fifth of the roughly 60,000 deaths in Los Angeles County each year are processed in the drab stone building next to County-USC Medical Center in Lincoln Heights.

Clerks and coroner's investigators gossip and joke to pass the day as they pore over some of Los Angeles' grimmest tales, unraveling death's disguises: a bullet, a knife, a weak ladder rung or a runaway tire.

In 1998, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, most of the deaths in Los Angeles County were from natural causes: heart disease, stroke, cancer and pneumonia. It is always the largest category, making up roughly 77% of deaths in the county, according to a recently released report on Los Angeles mortality.

The remaining deaths--about 13,800--are ranked, in order, as accidents, murders, suicides and AIDS-related deaths. The county does not include AIDS-related deaths--552 in 1998--in its natural causes category.

Coroner's office statisticians break the numbers down in even more detail, drawing one of the most diverse death landscapes in the country.

"You're talking about an area that is 5,000 square miles," said coroner spokesman Scott Carrier. In 1998, his office investigated 8,963 deaths that occurred under suspicious or unknown circumstances, making them part of the public record.

"L.A. County is multicultural, where practically every race in the world is represented," Carrier said. "We go from Malibu to Wrightwood, near the San Bernardino County line. We see it all."

Of the roughly 2,500 accidental deaths investigated in 1998, there were 967 drug overdoses and 711 vehicle accidents. Drug overdoses and highway wrecks usually are neck and neck at year's end in the category of accidental deaths. One year, wrecks are on top, the next year, overdoses.

Altogether, the coroner's office lists 35 accident sub-categories, including 49 people who fell from high places.

Other accident tallies from 1998 included three deaths from sexual asphyxia--a practice that involves briefly restricting the flow of oxygen to one's brain to enhance pleasure. Four people were killed by falling objects and nine were crushed between objects.

The last category covers the case of Enrique Gilbert Lester. The 43-year-old moving company driver from Pasadena was killed by the house he was towing. After Lester apparently miscalculated a curve on Walnut Avenue, he was crushed between the house and his tow bar while trying to free his cargo from some roadside trees.

The accident devastated Lester's family.

"He always took care of himself," said his 17-year-old daughter Ericka Lester, one of three children in the family. "He ate very healthy. You would think he would die of cancer or something, not something this tragic."

Accidents Claim Many Babies

The same horror was experienced by the family of Andrew Okamoto, a 9-month-old baby--also of Pasadena--who was found choked to death between a bed and a desktop.

Awakened by Andrew's crying one morning, Nicole Okamoto moved the baby from his crib to a bed in another room, so the noise would not wake Andrew's 2-year-old brother. She surrounded her baby boy with a U-shaped fortress of pillows to guard against his falling, placing him as far away from an adjacent desk as possible.

When she checked in on Andrew two hours later, he was lodged between the bed and the desk. Andrew was among 80 or so children in the county younger than 2 who die in accidents every year.

Nicole Okamoto, 36, is a communications director for AIDS Project L.A., an organization that helps patients and their families through AIDS-related illness and death.

She is tortured with guilt over moving her son from his crib that morning, and can't help but wonder whether "people think I'm a bad mother."

Experts say that is a typical response to tragic accidents.

In addition, "there is always this feeling that this makes no sense," said Gerald Larue, a USC professor emeritus of religion who specializes in bereavement.

In 1998, 837 people took their own lives.

Suicide often leaves family members forever wondering whether they should have noticed warning signs that seem maddeningly clear in retrospect, Larue said. "You have family members blaming themselves for not acting properly."

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