This may come as a shock to some, but I have always found the topic of death fascinating. I find it so because how we leave here often explains how we lived when we were alive. I am sure we have all asked the same question upon hearing of someone’s death: what was the cause? To determine the cause, care and faith is entrusted to the talents of forensic pathologists who become masters at unraveling the mysteries behind the final moments in the lives of humans. In the City of Los Angeles, pathologists have often faced heavy workloads in a city has seen its share of violent crime. For many years, Dr. Thomas Noguchi was the lead coroner in the County of Los Angeles and was tasked with performing some of the most important autopsies in history. In this short but highly engaging account of the cases that stand out, he explains what he found as he examined the bodies of larger-than-life figures Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY), actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and several other Hollywood stars. And though there are no “smoking guns”, Noguchi does a masterful job of explaining the forensic approach and how mysteries are sometimes simpler than they appear.
The book opens with the case of Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who drowned while on a pleasure boat with film stars Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner. The circumstances surrounding Wood’s death have given rise to numerous theories including murder. But Noguchi is not prone to conspiracy theories and searches for the facts. He does give his opinion for her death and the explanation is certainly plausible. However, his position caused a stir at the time and even today the official explanation for her death is viewed by some with skepticism. As I read through his account of the process to determine how she died, I took notice of his approach which is as detailed as one could ask for. Wood’s tragic death remains one of Hollywood’s darkest moments, but Noguchi is not done. In fact, the book becomes even more fascinating as the cases keep coming in.
In between discussing each high-profile case, Noguchi recalls his personal life starting with his father’s career as a physician and Noguchi’s decisions to leave Japan for the United States. His journey exemplifies the saying by President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) that America is “a nation of immigrants”. As a Japanese immigrant there were hurdles to be faced but Noguchi was determined and eventually landed a position with the County of Los Angeles. But he could not have known that he would find himself the center of attention despite the deaths of major stars. But it is the nature of the beast in the City of Angels. His skill and fame would catapult him into in the public spotlight and give others reason to engineer his downfall. Noguchi’s fight to remain in his position is also discussed and it is unbelievable to learn just how far some were willing to go to remove him from his post.
As we move on from Natalie Wood, Noguchi shifts his focus to the life and death of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962). To this day, questions surrounding her death persist and the official cause of suicide is often disputed. But was there a sinister plot to murder Monroe? Noguchi takes on the case and explores all possibilities and what he discovered does answer some questions regarding her death. But for those who are searching for a conspiracy, his words may not prove to be persuasive. To be fair, Noguchi does acknowledge that initially some aspects of the scene did not make sense and raised more questions. However, after considering the evidence before him, he makes his final analysis and if there is more to what happened that night, the truth may be lost to history. Readers interested in Monroe’s story might enjoy Donald Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe which I believe will satisfy the curiosity of most.
Of all the cases in the book, perhaps none is as high profile as that of Robert F. Kennedy. His assassination on June 5, 1968, sent shockwaves through the world and we will never know if he would have become president. After learning of Kennedy’s shooting, Noguchi steadies himself to conduct an autopsy that would prove to be the most controversial of his career. And the reason why is sure to have some readers scratching their heads. Thoughts of “not another Dallas” reverberated throughout America as investigator pieced together the Senator’s final moments in the pantry area of the now demolished Ambassador Hotel. The question that has haunted many is did Sirhan act alone? There is reason to believe that he did but there is also reason to believe that he did not. The coroner is on the job and the facts are laid out for all to see. Noguchi is not a conspiracy theorist but what he finds combined with the testimony of witnesses at the scene does give rise to more disturbing questions about Kennedy’s murder. However, the focus here is on the forensics and Noguchi delivers the goods.
After concluding the discussion on Kennedy, the book moves into darker territory with the murders of actress Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and several friends by followers of Charles M. Manson (1934-2017). This is by far the most graphic part of the book and the descriptions of the victims may be a bit much for some readers. Discretion is advised. As the lead coroner, Noguchi was responsible for examining the victims and putting together the puzzle of what happened that night. His account is haunting, and I cannot imagine the scene waiting for police officers as they arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive. It must have been disturbing enough for many of them to wonder how one human being could do these things to another. Manson and his followers were eventually tried and convicted. Their heinous crimes at the Tate residence and the LaBianca home remain some of the most macabre crimes in American history. Noguchi explains how he was able to uncover which weapons were used and show the full savagery of the crime from the wounds alone. I think it is safe to say that forensic science is an invaluable tool.
The author is still far from done after the Manson family crime spree and moves on to other cases such as that of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (“SLA”) and the deaths of stars Janis Joplin (1943-1970), John Belushi (1949-1982) and William Holden (1918-1981). All of the cases are gripping but the Hearst file is surreal. Noguchi’s recollections of the final standoff and its aftermath feel as if they are straight out of Hollywood but they did happen in real life. And with regards to Belushi’s final moments, Noguchi performs what could only be called a one man show as he leaves officers shocked to discover that their original assumptions about the actor’s death were wrong. But as Noguchi puts it himself:
“It is a system of observation at the scene which I’ve tried to teach young investigators over the years. Don’t worry about the body; the body will stay there. (If it gets up, that’s another story.) First, examine the room in a systematic, preplanned way, beginning with the ceiling. Clues may be up there: bullet holes, bloodstains, chipped plaster.”
The book was completed in 1983 and Noguchi has been retired for many years. At the age of 94, he is still going strong and carries with him a wealth of knowledge about forensic science. Here he takes us behind the scenes allowing us to witness a master technician at work as he reveals what really killed some of the biggest names in history.
ASIN : B00L5M8U68