Published September 7, 2014 by Florida Today
ROCKLEDGE – Thousands of dead have passed through a small brown brick building tucked away off a quiet street and anyone could end up there. Many have passed through the hands of Corey Johnson, a 28-year-old son of the neighborhood, who didn’t know the building was there until he started working at the Brevard County Medical Examiner Facility.
It’s not visible from the street, other government offices are in the way. Some people still wander into the reception area asking for a physical or an eye exam. They don’t know the purpose of the building and its staff: receiving the bodies of anyone who doesn’t die from apparent natural causes or under a doctor’s care. Last year, 763 people were examined, and of those 509 were autopsied. Last year, two doctors, three investigators and three technicians handled about 12 percent of the 6,481 deaths in the county.
The doctors perform autopsies with the help of technicians. Johnson tried to keep count of how many he cut — he lost track around 200 or 300 and estimates the total is now more than a thousand. He’s seen just about every kind of death except for an animal attack. Suicide by train, plane crashes, pill overdoses. He’s seen some people he knew.
But he has no bad dreams. In just five years he learned more about anatomy than school could ever teach him.
The staff meet in a conference room each morning to discuss the cases of the day. On one side, there’s a collection of guns from the first medical examiner to take office in 1972, Laudie E. McHenry. There’s an UZI, an M-16, a Thompson SMG, an assortment of revolvers, many decorated with gold accents. On the other side of the room, there’s a shelf with antique medical equipment, books like “The Etiology of Childbed Fever,” and an assortment of shotgun shells, rifle and pistol cartridges.
Johnson’s small office is nearby. There’s a desk, a shelf, no windows. A metallic lion head silently roars on one wall because Johnson is a Leo. He has a reconstruction of his own head that he did as part of “restorative art” class in mortuary school. The bust shares Johnson’s mustache, goatee and signature dreadlocks.
Johnson was born in Rockledge, raised by both his parents, and spent much of his childhood at his grandparent’s home in housing projects on Loquat Street in Cocoa. There was crime in the area, there were drugs. In middle school, some kids were in gangs. It wasn’t the worst of the worst, but it wasn’t far away.
“I wanted my children to be diverse,” his mother Carmen said. She wanted him to make friends with children whose parents couldn’t provide as much. She wanted him to be more appreciative.
“And you know what, it worked.”
His parents got him a miniature basketball hoop when he was a toddler, sparking a lifelong love of the game. He watched his father coach his older brother. His uncle, James Brown, coached him in middle school. He later played for Rockledge High School, and family came to watch his games.
His uncle Leroy Johnson encouraged him to hog the ball.
“Shoot the ball, don’t pass,” he would tell Corey.
After he graduated from high school in 2004, and he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Johnson and a childhood friend attended Faith Temple Christian Center. Kenneth Moore was five years older and worked as a mortician at Buggs Funeral Home. He brought Johnson to work to see what it was like.
Seventeen-year-old Johnson watched Moore embalm a body — replacing blood with formaldehyde, setting tranquil facial expressions, applying makeup. Moore was excellent at the art of making the dead look lively.
“It was a weird feeling, but for some reason, I was not afraid,” Johnson said. Moore made him comfortable.
Johnson got a job with Buggs. He would help at a cemetery with a burial or set up a tent for a viewing. After a funeral, he and Moore would go with Bruce Buggs and his family to Mama Nem’s, a soul food restaurant in Orlando.
In 2007, he decided to go to Florida Community College in Jacksonville to study mortuary science.
He and Moore remained close, like brothers. They’d go to church together, Moore was a drummer there. They rode motorcycles together. One time they were in a crash together. Sometimes, they would go to the funeral home at midnight to get a person ready for a funeral in the morning.
They talked about opening a funeral home of their own. While many funeral homes cater mostly to either black or white clients, they wanted to build a multicultural brand. Moore was more social, so he could lead prayers, while Johnson could work behind-the-scenes.
That all fell apart on the evening news. Johnson saw shots of a neighborhood, video of a house, and knew his friend was dead.
Moore was murdered during a home invasion in July 2009.
“I had never heard Corey say he had a best friend until he started hanging with Kent,” his mother said. “And I haven’t heard him say the words ‘best friend since Kent’s passing.”
Johnson was in shock. It was the first time he felt death hit that close.
“I don’t think I cried until the actual funeral,” Johnson said.
Moore underwent an autopsy at the little brown building in Rockledge. Buggs Funeral Home prepared their employee for the grave. Faith Temple maintains a college scholarship in his honor.
Johnson went back to school, but he lost his motivation to be a funeral director.
“I think it affected him in a way that most of us will never know,” Bruce Buggs said. “He’s not a person that shows a whole lot of emotion. I think he was hurt more on the inside than would show up on the outside.”
He applied to be a technician with the medical examiner’s office, and got the job. He cut on his first day, helping a doctor with an autopsy. The TV show CSI doesn’t compare to the real thing.
For three years, he received the dead at the back of the little brown building. They come into an area like a garage, with a ramp on one side. They’re placed on a steel gurney that slants down from head to toe, with a drain at their feet. They stay in a cooler under sheets as they await a doctor’s ruling.
There’s a mini-morgue for extra space and organ donations, but nearly every autopsy in Brevard is performed in the main room that’s about the size of half a basketball court. It’s tidy, but not sterile. It doesn’t have to be. It’s filled with bright light and the tang of cleaning chemicals. Signs on the wall insist on silence.
There are common surgical scrubs, booties, gloves, hair caps, aprons. There are bowls and scales. There is a variety surgical knives and saws. There are also kitchen utensils like a ladle and measuring cup, a long filet knife, a ChefsChoice sharpener.
The average autopsy takes 30 to 45 minutes. Homicides could take hours. Each injury in a traumatic car crash must be painstakingly documented.
They store samples of organs in each case they cut, in case something comes up, like a lawyer wanting an independent test. There are shelves filled with clear plastic containers. Most samples are kept for three years, homicide samples are kept permanently. Some date back decades to the genesis of the office.
They’re dealing with death first hand, no funeral home, no makeup. Some technicians and med student interns couldn’t handle the job.
“You have to be able to leave yourself at the door before you go in,” said Anita Roman, 29, who is the lead forensic technician and works part time as an investigator.
“You can’t have any emotions. You don’t want to be a cold person, but you can’t have any feelings toward any of the cases. Because you can have nightmares, you can just be haunted.”
She found that death doesn’t affect her — her first day, she saw a decomposing body on the office tour. She didn’t cry or throw up.
“You’re going to last a long time here,” the manager told her.
She said she’s been a part of at least 2,000 autopsies over the past five years. On a typical day, she’ll prepare bodies, take pictures, fingerprint them, fill out paperwork, document what they’re wearing. After an autopsy, she’ll sew them up, clean them and the morgue.
She found her fiancé through her job, he worked for a funeral home. They met when he came to pick up a body.
Some things have stuck with her. She can’t forget about a toddler who died maliciously. She has become more careful, having seen the aftermath of irresponsibility: deaths from speeding or not wearing a seat belt, innocent people killed by drunk or texting drivers. She knows they can’t talk back, but sometimes to cope with a case like a suicide, she’ll ask aloud: “Why did you do this to yourself? You had your whole life to live.”
She started a few weeks before Johnson and the two are good friends. One day, he invited her over to his house for lunch. Another time, they worked a hit-and-run crash near Patrick Air Force Base. He once helped her move.
“We’ve pretty much been through this ride together,” she said.
She said he’s confident, he asks questions and doesn’t assume. He helps his friends.
“He has a good heart,” she said.
Medical Examiner Sajid Qaiser saw Johnson took interest in investigations — examining the body and concluding the cause of death. He would send the doctor emails with news about forensic cases around the world.
When a death investigator position came open, Qaiser had Johnson in mind.
“Corey was my choice,” Qaiser said, adding that Johnson does an excellent job.
“He is my right hand.”
Johnson got the investigator job at age 25. He thinks he might be one of the youngest in the state. He works 24-hour shifts, waiting for calls to document the scene of a death, so doctors can later determine what happened. Only staff from the medical examiner’s office can move a body — police will leave a dead person face down until Johnson arrives. Around the office he might wear clean, trendy Nike sneakers.
“I’m a young guy doing an old man job — I try to keep it as hip as possible.”
But he has a pair of old Sketchers in his car for heading to messy scenes.
When he goes out, he explores the person’s background, takes photos, notes the position of the body. He looks for changes after death like stiffening and temperature. Gravity settles a person’s blood to one side after death — if it’s out of place, that could mean the body was moved.
He learns the motives for why people kill themselves — major depression, a pet dying, loneliness, an addiction. His religion says suicide is a sin. But is it wrong for an elderly man with a painful terminal illness to take his life?
There is no perfect person in the world, Johnson said.
“At the end of the day, I think your relationship with God is the most important,” he said. “You never know, I could be here today, gone tomorrow. I could be back here, my coworkers looking at me.”
He saw two of his uncles — Leroy and James — come through the office, though he didn’t work on their cases. He’s seen people he rode motorcycles with who died in crashes. He’s seen old classmates come through the office. Some surprised him. Some didn’t.
He had a daughter of his own in July. She was born a month and a half early, but she’s doing well. The hardest part of the job is dealing with children. One of the first cases he worked as an investigator was the Thomas family killings, in which a mother killed her four children and then herself.
“Of course I feel the pain, but I’m a very hard person,” he said. “I rarely cry.”
Outside the office, outside of his duties, feelings kick in. But he has a tough skin at work. Somebody has to do this job.
Johnson is now the same age his mentor was when he was killed.
“Every time I come to work, it’s his legacy,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for him, no telling what field I would be in.”
Outside work he still plays basketball, or goes fishing or to the gym. He rides a 750cc Suzuki GXSR, and has a sticker on his helmet of his mentor on a motorcycle. He’s social around town. He recently bought a home.
Johnson’s dreadlocks reach past the middle of his back, he’s had them since high school. He was turned down for some internships because of his hair. He has been profiled before. His mother recalled one time he was hassled in their driveway after driving home late one night. He arrived at their home in recently-developed Huntington Lakes and opened the garage with a garage door opener. An officer pulled in behind him and wanted to know if he lived there.
He keeps the hairstyle to show that someone with an urban appearance can be successful.
“People judge me for my long dreads, but that doesn’t mean I’m a thug.”
Some people like to give back to their community materially, Johnson likes to give knowledge. He has spoken at churches and schools. He has spoken to friends and strangers he saw going down the wrong path.
He was at a Waffle House one night, and he spoke to a woman who said she used pills. He told her about the aftermath of an overdose.
“You keep going on that path you’re going on, you’ll eventually be in our cooler.”
The next time she saw him, she thanked him, saying she quit the drugs.
People from his community look up to him because he is successful.
“Never let your past or where you come from predict your future.”
For now, Johnson is happy with his role. He might like to move up to lead investigator. And he still might try to open a funeral home some time after he retires from this job, as he and his childhood friend had dreamed.
His mother said not everyone can handle the dead. Johnson is good at his job because he has empathy for people during their time of loss.
“To do what Corey does,” she said, “you have to have a passion for the living.”