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Faces of Death
Forensic investigators pull back the curtain on life’s grisliest ends.

The photos may be graphic, but Brian Peterson thinks the ends justify the means.
Photo by Sara Stathas

 Lowanda Smith spent three years wondering what had become of her brother.

He was last seen driving his girlfriend’s car Feb. 8, 2008. He’d just been accused of molesting her daughter, according to police reports. He’d told family members he wouldn’t go back to prison, and they thought he might flee the state. They couldn’t know, with his history of drug use, what he’d do, but suicide was a possibility.

Smith got her answer earlier this year when she visited a new website set up by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, first clicking through two screens warning “Viewer discretion is advised” and “Some of these images and information on deceased individuals may be disturbing to some people.”

On the other side, she found grotesque photos of partially decomposed bodies. About 10 adults and eight infants, all unidentified. Some had been without names for decades. The face of one woman found in the Milwaukee River in 1983 was badly distended, and her eyes were swollen shut. In another picture, something caught Smith’s eye. Actually, three things: a pair of glasses, a watch and a necklace holding a black ring. They looked like her brother’s.

Later, she learned they were discovered in March. A USDA employee spraying for goose eggs at McGovern Park found a corpse in a lagoon. A man apparently fell through ice covering the pond and drowned, but investigators couldn’t pinpoint an exact cause of death. The body was little more than a skeleton – with her brother’s jewelry – when it was found.

This laid the case of Jeffrey M. Avery to rest. Milwaukee County’s chief medical examiner, Brian Peterson, hopes to close several more amid the surge of traffic the new “Unidentified People” site has gotten since it launched in January. “It melted the county servers the first day because of national interest,” he says.

Was anyone offended? No one’s complained yet, according to County Executive Chris Abele, who says Peterson is “the sort of person who is always looking for answers. … Because he’s a medical examiner, those answers are sometimes interesting to read about.”

Even so, some might say the site is in bad taste.

“We realize most people don’t deal with this every day,” Peterson says. “But when you’ve tried everything else and still have an unknown person, you have to do something. These days, with what’s on the Internet, come on. What sets our stuff apart is it’s real.”

Peterson’s tenure follows that of the ironically named Dr. Christopher Happy, who resigned in 2010 and moved back to his native California amid reports of turmoil in the department.

Its employees are charged with investigating each case of sudden, unexpected or unusual death in Milwaukee County and performs autopsies for several other counties in southeastern Wisconsin as well. Based in a diminutive building on West Highland Avenue, Milwaukee’s medical examiners performed a total of 1,157 autopsies in 2011 and will have done about 1,200 by the end of 2012, Peterson estimates. Some days, there are none; others, there are a dozen. The record is 13.

Peterson spent the first third of his career as a medical examiner in the U.S. Navy and still carries himself as a military man. But today, with the little bit of hair he has left gone gray, he resembles someone who might sell you life insurance, not perform more than 200 autopsies a year. And it’s easy to overlook the anatomy books on the shelf in his office – until he pulls out the ham slicer.

“To me, high technology is a Henckels 10-inch ham slicer,” he says, taking the long carving knife out of a locked case. “My wife gave me my first one when I finished my residency. It’s a great knife, takes an edge nice, and I don’t own any stock in the company.”

Normally a cooking implement, the German-made blade becomes a useful autopsy tool in Peterson’s hands. It’s another reminder that he and his colleagues deal with parts of life that most folks would rather forget.

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