Memories linger for longtime Ramsey County death investigatorPublished 5:45am Sunday, January 13, 2013
Mara H. Gottfriend
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL — One year after a woman’s baby died, she called the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office and talked with Don Gorrie, the chief investigator. The mother said she was looking for more information.
The medical examiner’s office had ruled her baby’s death as SIDS — Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
“We got to talking about it, and what she was really wondering was if there was anything she did or could have done to prevent it,” Gorrie said. “I told her there was nothing — nothing she hadn’t done or not done. It seemed like she was just processing it and wanted to talk.”
As grim as Gorrie’s job can be, he said he’s proud that in his three decades at the medical examiner’s office he and his staff have always worked to show “humanity and compassion” to the people left behind — the survivors of death.
Gorrie, who will retire this month, said he has seen changes at the medical examiner’s office, the most notable being the advent of DNA evidence.
“Because of the great scientific strides in laboratory analysis, processing the body prior to autopsy in criminal cases has become probably as important as the actual autopsy itself,” he said. “What’s found outside the body and on the body can help lead to identifying the perpetrator.” That evidence could include DNA, hair, fibers, blood and skin cells.
Over the years, a lot of cases have stuck with Gorrie, but the deaths of children and first-responders on duty, particularly police officers, have especially bothered him.
Gorrie was present for some of Cassie Hansen’s autopsy in 1981. The 6-year-old had been abducted from a St. Paul church, and her body was found the next day in a trash bin near Grand Avenue. Stuart Knowlton was convicted of the girl’s murder and died in prison of natural causes.
“I had a little girl at the time, and she was my firstborn,” Gorrie said. “It was just hard to not carry that case with me.” His daughter was then 2 years old. Gorrie, 61, and his wife of 36 years, Therese, also have two sons.
It’s rare for the medical examiner’s office to be unable to identify a body, but it happens. In February 1985, a man with no identification was found dead in an abandoned Lowertown warehouse.
The man had overdosed on phenobarbital, and his body was frozen in the building. He could have been a vagrant, but he didn’t seem to fit the bill — he was in his 20s or 30s and in good shape; wore nice, clean clothes; and had a neat appearance and good dental care.
Members of the medical examiner’s office tried everything they could think of to identify the man, yet never could. Gorrie and other staffers attended the nameless man’s funeral.
“It’s really frustrating because you want to be able to identify someone,” Gorrie said. “You think about your own family and you’d want to know. Just think about having a relative missing and not knowing what happened.”
If the medical examiner’s office ever gets information about the unidentified man in the warehouse, it could reopen the case, Gorrie said.
Gorrie was a security guard for two years at the Ramsey County courthouse in downtown St. Paul, but he longed to do investigative work, an interest piqued by his time as a military police officer. The medical examiner’s office hired him as an investigator in January 1980.
Gorrie took his share of kidding over his last name. After he’d just started as an investigator, an older police officer at a death scene asked his name and Gorrie told him.
“He looked at me over his reading glasses and he said, ‘Is that a stage name?’ “ Gorrie recalled. “It’s been over 30 years and I can still see the guy. It was hilarious.”
The main job of medical examiner’s offices is to determine cause and manner of death, Gorrie said. Their work is most often in the news for homicides. But the offices conduct investigations and autopsies for all manners of deaths — accidents, suicides and natural causes. Investigators go to death scenes and work with police and paramedics to gather information. They take photographs of the scene, interview relatives about the deceased’s medical and social history, and collect evidence, such as any prescription drugs the person was taking.
Ramsey County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee promoted Gorrie to chief investigator, the second-in-command at the office, in January 2004. Among the reasons he said he chose him: “He’s a good worker, very conscientious, and he’d been with the office for a long time (24 years then) — he understood the ins and outs of the office.”
The chief investigator supervises the staff of 14 county employees (of which 10 are investigators), manages the budget with McGee, and manages the building, which is tucked behind Regions Hospital. Gorrie oversees investigations. He’s always been proud of the investigative staff, who he said often doesn’t get the recognition they deserve.
Gorrie talks with families whose loved ones have died, especially when difficult calls come into the office. It’s not unusual for people to be angry — that’s part of grieving, he said.
Gorrie has a master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in counseling psychology. He said he does not counsel people but engages in “active listening” when talking with next of kin.
“You truly listen to what they’re saying, what they’re looking for,” he said. “It’s hearing people and not just telling them ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and trying to get rid of them. You look for the emotion.”
Tim Lynch, retired senior commander of the St. Paul police homicide unit, recalls Gorrie as professional but kindhearted.
“I thought I’d never seen anybody other than some of the homicide investigators who could do such a careful and compassionate job of working with family members after their loved one’s deaths,” Lynch said.
After the homicide of a young man, a large number of family members went to the medical examiner’s office, wailing and screaming, Lynch said. Some were talking about retaliation, and police “were worried that things could go bad at the medical examiner’s office,” Lynch said.
Gorrie took a few family members into the office to identify the victim’s body. “Don calmed everyone down, walked them through it, and we didn’t have any problems at all,” Lynch said.
Gorrie said he has handled the job with the help of his family, primarily his wife. “She’s a great one to be able to talk to and that helps a lot,” he said. “My faith, that helps, too.” He is Catholic.
In retirement, Gorrie plans to spend a lot of time with his two grandchildren, who are 1 1/2 and 4. Gorrie also enjoys fishing and reading — history and mysteries. He’d like to do volunteer work and travel with his wife.
After working in a career focused on death — and seeing its impact on the people left behind — Gorrie said he’s realized the importance of family.
“It’s made me want to be sure to be as close to my family as I can,” he said, “and to always let them know how I feel about them.”