Longform

Quincy He Ain't

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Doctors' conclusions aid police in solving homicides, inform public-health officials about the spread of disease, and notify families as to how their loved ones died.

Mittleman took over the office in 1996 following the retirement of Dr. Joseph Davis, a legend in the pathology field. During Davis's 40-year tenure, the county morgue earned a reputation as a first-class facility for the study of death. During Dade's cocaine-cowboy days in the 1980s, nearly a quarter of the bodies entered the morgue with drugs in their bloodstreams. County medical examiners were among the first to document how small amounts of the drug increase heart rate, blood pressure, and expose users to heart-attack risk.

Part of Davis's legacy is the $12 million ultramodern morgue, which he designed and which bears his name: the Dr. Joseph H. Davis Center for Forensic Pathology. The compact campus of three brown, angular, brick buildings opened in 1988 and is situated across the street from the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. It can store up to 350 bodies in four double-car-garage-size coolers and contains both an onsite laboratory and electronic air scrubbers that rid the building of unpleasant odors. Security cameras, tall fences, and doors with electronic locks guard the premises.

Mittleman runs the operation from a third-floor corner office decorated in natural wood. Dressed in a white, short-sleeve shirt with a bland tie and khaki slacks, the 51-year-old has receding salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache. Behind bifocals, he often squints as he leans forward to talk with the accent of his native Brooklyn. Shelves filled with medical books line the walls and his long, rectangular desk is covered with neatly stacked papers. Pictures of his wife dressed in a ballerina outfit, his three-year-old son, and his infant daughter flank his computer monitor.

To Mittleman pathology is the science of finding solutions to medical puzzles. "It's an intriguing aspect of medicine ... using science to figure out what happened to an individual," he comments. "It's the type of field where one works alone to a considerable degree."

Despite Mittleman's shy and professorial mien, controversy over his leadership arose soon after he took the post. When ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Everglades in 1996, just four months after Davis's retirement, the morgue was flooded with unrecognizable body parts that had been culled from the wreckage. Doctors worked round-the-clock, but results and details of their work were slow to reach the public, which was starving for information. Eventually the department identified 70 of the 110 passengers. Mittleman shied from the television cameras and the details of the coroner's work weren't divulged. "I felt it was most important I be in the morgue," he says. "This department did a terrific job. I think it was this office's shining hour."

Mittleman moved to Coral Gables as a ten-year-old boy with his family in 1958. When Roger wasn't helping run the family business, Jahn's Ice Cream on Miracle Mile, he was playing with an Erector set. He remembers watching his father Jonas serve malts and chat with University of Miami students, who made the soda shop their hangout. So after graduating from Miami High and Miami-Dade Community College, he enrolled in the University of Miami in 1968. After earning his bachelor's degree, he studied at UM's medical school and graduated in 1974 with a medical degree and specialization in pathology.

In 1975 Mittleman completed a one-year internship at a Boston hospital, then finished a three-year residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1978 before landing his first job as the general pathologist at the Coral Reef General Hospital (now Deering Hospital) in South Miami-Dade. He held similar positions at three other South Florida hospitals before arriving at the medical examiner department in 1979.

Mittleman's curriculum vitae is twelve pages long. It lists eleven memberships in local and national pathology associations, his post as a clinical associate professor of pathology at UM's school of medicine, and 67 articles and books he has written. Titles range from the dramatic, "Homicide by Heart Attack," to the clinical, "Pulmonary Teflon Granulomas Following Periurethral Teflon Injection for Urinary Incontinence."

"I'm a visual person. I like to see things, I like to discover things. I like to put things together," says Mittleman, whose hands have been inside nearly 6000 corpses.

With such impressive credentials, it is easy to see why Mittleman was selected to replace Davis on February 1, 1996.

Elinor "Bunny" Lieberman is Mittleman's most outspoken critic. The tall redhead worked with Davis for a decade, gained his trust, and rose to a top administrative position that paid $67,589.86 per year. Then, she says, her tendency to speak her mind caused her to clash with Mittleman, whom she describes as an unethical liar. Lieberman claims the medical examiner harassed her in an attempt to force her to resign, then used budget cuts as an excuse to get rid of her. Presently she is an administrator at the county parks and recreation department. Her annual salary is $49,664.94.

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Jose Luis Jiménez