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A Death in the Desert

Deep into the research part of Deadly Sanctuary, I needed to know more about what happens after someone dies in the desert.  That prompted my first call to the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's office.  When the medical examiner came on the line I told him I was a writer doing research for a murder mystery.  He was super cooperative and answered all of my questions with clipped professionalism.

A few of the questions I posed were, " If all that remains are a few bones, how do you identify the body as male or female?  How long does it take for a body to decompose? How do you determine the cause of death?"  He answered that the condition of the body when discovered was the most important factor for identification, although sometimes even bodies in relatively good condition remain as John and Jane Does forever.  I was shocked to learn that a body can completely decompose in the Arizona summer heat in only THREE days!  

Additional problems arise when animals scatter the remains for miles around.  I remember him saying that he was always thrilled if he could find a pelvic or femur bone which would help identify the sex of the victim.  He said the best scenario was to find an intact skull.  Careful preservation of the crime scene allows the authorities to gather vital clues that can help them determine if the cause of death is natural or suspicious. I asked dozens more questions and then thanked him for his help.

A Shocking Coincidence

What makes this story really bizarre is that a mere TWO days after my phone call to the Yavapai County Medical Examiner, I picked up the morning newspaper and read a shocking story.  Two cowboys driving cattle up a ravine near Prescott had been horrified when they discovered the body of a burned baby. I was moved to tears by the tragic story and then a disturbing thought struck me.  Oh my!  I had been grilling the medical examiner about finding bodies in the desert.  What if he thought I was somehow involved in this gruesome murder?  What if he thought I'd been quesitoning him so I could use the information he'd given me to cover my tracks?  It really bothered me, so I grabbed the phone and called him back that second to assure him that my questions pertained only to the novel I was writing and that the timing was nothing more than a bizarre coincidence.  He said he appreciated me calling him back and remarked that he had never suspected that I had anything to do with the case. What a great relief that was. He did agree that the timing was odd and understood my reasons for calling him.

A Real Murder

How many of you have actually ever had the experience of finding a body in the desert?  One of the scenes in Deadly Sanctuary has Kendall discovering the body of a third teenage girl. To put myself into Kendall's shoes, all I had to do was conjure up the horrifying real life experience that is seared into my memory forever.  When we first moved to Arizona, we lived in the "then" tiny community of Cave Creek.  I attended high school at Paraidse Valley High whiich is still located at 40th Street & Bell and was a rather long drive on a lonesome two lane road at the time.  

My brothers and I often rode the bus to school and one mild October morning as we stared out the windows into the empty desert east of Scottsdale Road, the boy next to me suddenly shouted, "Hey, there's two people lying out there!"  The driver screeched to a stop, backed up, then ordered us all to stay calm and stay seated.  He ran across the road and after viewing "the bodies" he returned, white-faced to the bus. Those were the days before cell phones so we waited quite a while until a vehicle approached from the south and he waved it down.

Together he and the driver of the white pickup again walked out to where we could see two people lying just a few feet from a white car with the door open and only 100 yards or so from the road.  The driver of the pickup, also pale as a ghost, raced to his truck and roared away to summon the sheriff.  It was getting hot by then and we all sat there in the stuffy little bus still in shock, talking in hushed tones until the authorities arrived. We were all questioned and finally able to leave the scene.  It was mid-morning before we got to class and needless to say it was the talk of the school and shook the entire community.

I've often wondered over the years if the other kids on that bus ever thought about that October day so long ago and if it haunted them the way it did me.  It was one of the more distressing events of my life, but I was able to use the experience of that awful day to get inside the head of my character and I hope it made the scene more realistic.  The mystery of the two young people murdered in the desert remained unsolved for 49 years.