Longform

Quincy He Ain't

The struggle of living with HIV overwhelmed Miguel Pacheco on April 4, 1999. About 9:00 that evening, he called his sister Margarita Welling to announce his intention to commit suicide. Welling, worried because Pacheco had attempted twice before to kill himself, raced from her South Miami-Dade home near Metrozoo to her brother's Miami Beach apartment.

Welling's son James, who accompanied her, kicked in the locked front door. The pair entered to find Pacheco's limp body slumped in a chair with his legs and arms extended. The floor was littered with pill bottles. They called paramedics but it was too late. Pacheco, 51 years old, was declared dead at 11:30 p.m.

Two nights later, about 7:00, Welling walked into the Garcia Funeral Home in Miami to prepare for her brother's viewing. Teary-eyed relatives and friends were expected at 8:00 to pay their final respects. As is customary in such situations, the funeral director asked Welling to look into the casket to make sure everything was in order. To her horror it wasn't. Instead of her handsome, five-foot six-inch, brown-skinned brother, she found Robert Drummond, a white man five inches taller and seven years older than Pacheco.

"I never thought this could happen. The emotional aspect of it was so much, I am seeing a psychologist," says Welling, who declined to discuss the incident further on the advice of her attorney.

Pachecho and Drummond both died on April 4 within 30 minutes of each other in Miami Beach apartments located fifteen blocks apart. Their bodies then were taken to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department so a doctor could perform autopsies. After the corpses entered the morgue minutes apart about 4:00 a.m., a technician confused their names in the paperwork. That mistake sent Drummond's body to Pacheco's viewing. The department only learned about the mixup when the funeral home called to complain.

Three times this year, the morgue has sent the wrong body to a funeral home. In a highly publicized incident this past February, the corpses of Ralph and Rafael Rodriguez were switched because the men had similar names. (The two were unrelated.) The third mixup occurred in March when Esteban Madan and Dulce Abasalo were switched because of an error by county workers. That mistake was corrected before the families realized it.

Body mixups are but one of the myriad problems that have plagued the department during the three-year tenure of chief medical examiner Roger Mittleman. Employees complain that Mittleman has exhibited poor judgment in high-profile cases, inconsistently enforced department rules, and allowed lofty reporting standards to sag. Mittleman's critics say murder defendants and lawyers could use the screwups in court to impeach the department's credibility. They grumble that morale is at an all-time low.

Moreover several associate medical examiners have taken their complaints in recent months to the State Attorney's Office (SAO) and Assistant County Manager Paul Philip, the government's public-ethics tsar. A half-dozen employees contacted by New Times declined to discuss their complaints on the record, but privately blamed Mittleman for lowering the quality of work at the once-world-renowned office. They say the chief medical examiner is more interested in peering at slides than managing.

SAO sources and Philip downplay the problem, saying the doctors' concerns are hearsay and there has been no decline in the quality of the morgue's performance. The SAO sources, who asked to remain anonymous, attribute complaints to office politics. A recent report by the county personnel department recommends only minor changes.

Mittleman explains the switched bodies as "human errors." The department designed a computerized bar code system in 1995 to inventory incoming corpses, but it was shut down in October owing to computer problems. Over 3000 corpses pass through the morgue each year, making it one of the busiest in the nation.

Mittleman chalks up the other complaints to employees' stress caused by the leadership change. He acknowledges he has insufficiently communicated with his staff. The chief says he is trying to increase dialogue and more changes are in store. "I was not aware that there was this quote, unquote problem, if there ever was a major problem," says Mittleman. "I don't think there ever was because nobody has been complaining from the outside."

With 57 employees and a yearly budget of $6.2 million, the medical examiner department is a tiny part of Miami-Dade County's four-billion-dollar-per-year bureaucracy. But it serves a vital public-safety function. Roughly 85 percent of the corpses that enter the morgue are autopsied. After an external examination, doctors saw open the rib cage, and inspect each internal organ, noting size, weight, and any abnormalities. Blood and tissue samples are taken from the lifeless body and examined for foreign substances that may have contributed to the death. When the inspection is completed, the corpse is reassembled.