05 March, 2012

My Exorcism, Chapter 11, Part I ~ "Creatures Running Underground"

"He was quiet... kept to himself."
"I never really knew her, but she gave me a weird feeling."

How many of us really know our neighbors?  Personal observation and experience, along with anecdotal accounts tell me that the closer our quarters, the less likely we may be to know the people surrounding us.  In a quiet suburban neighborhood, the homes are spaced apart by yards, fences, and trees, yet connections, shared activities, and friendships frequently exist.  I grew up in a rural setting, and what few "neighbors" my family had, we knew quite well, even when distanced by many acres.  Yet, look at apartment living:  dwellings in which walls are shared, and where one person's floor is another's ceiling.  Who are these people below, above, and next to us?  Who really knows all of these neighbors well?

If you have been following these stories sequentially, you know that when I was well into my fourth year at the Delaware County Medical Examiner's Office, a new pathologist was hired to oversee the office. Dr. Fredric Hellman began his position as the Delaware County Medical Examiner in April of 2000.

No time was wasted indoctrinating him into this new position.  On the afternoon of April 4, 2000, the investigator's line rang.  I answered and took a report of a male reported dead in his home in Upper Darby.  His death appeared to be a homicide.

As with many death reports received by our office, detail was initially lacking.  In this instance, it was enough to know basic information about location and probable manner of death.  Dr. Hellman and one of our college interns (who became and still is a dear friend) accompanied me to the scene.

The area of Upper Darby in which the death occurred is, in many ways, a typical urban, east-coast blue collar neighborhood.  The row homes are generally well maintained with small, neat front yards and well-kept fences.  Off-street parking is nonexistent.  When we arrived, the street was blocked by parked cars and emergency vehicles. We were not able to park our transport vehicle anywhere close, but we found a suitable place nearby, carried our gear toward the scene, and connected with the police and paramedics to begin the fact-finding part of the investigation.  As we spoke to Upper Darby detectives, we learned that the decedent was a 22 year old male who lived in the house with his family.  His mother last saw him alive when she left the residence for work early that morning. When she returned home that afternoon, she found the house in a state of disarray and her son deceased in an upstairs room.

It took awhile before we were able to enter the scene, as is customary with cases where police must carefully gather evidence and document surroundings.  Tension was running high among us all; so many unknown factors were present.  No one waiting outside knew what to expect to find inside.  No one really knew what to expect from our brand new and somewhat youthful Medical Examiner.  I imagine he did not know what to expect from any of us, either.

We waited.   The temperature was mildly chilly with some intermittent spring drizzle, but it was not unpleasant.  We continued to wait.  Family, friends, and curious observers lingered around the perimeter of the house.  Neighbors came and went.  Eventually, Dr. Hellman expressed the need for bladder relief, so he knocked on the next-door neighbors' door.  He wasn't gone long, and when he returned, he reported that they seemed like a nice family, graciously allowing him the use of their facilites.  They had an infant who he played with briefly.  The doctor clearly missed his family, who had not yet moved from Georgia to Pennsylvania.

Eventually, we were able to enter the premises of the crime scene, which was the house where the decedent, Constantine Polites, lived. To me, the house appeared neat, save for some rather obvious messes that instantly struck me as contrived.  So many things I saw made no sense, even during a cursory scan.  But my focus - my obligation - was primarily to observe, document, and preserve the integrity of the decedent in his current state, then to collaborate with colleagues and detectives to investigate the circumstances surrounding all of these factors.

Although the young, deceased man on the floor of an upstairs bedroom was certainly quiet, his injuries screamed out to us.  He was bound with cords, and had a pillow secured over his face.  He had been shot.  He had been stabbed repeatedly, and had a rather redundant incised wound to the neck.  In a word, it was overkill.  And my gut instantly wrenched up in the way that it only does when an act or event feels deeply personal.

There is no need for scene minutia to be described here.  It did not take long for Upper Darby detectives to assemble the facts and suspicions in this case, and to conclude who perpetrated the act.  And it did not take long for our brand new pathologist to feel the chill of having been unsuspectingly inside the home of those who participated in the murder he was investigating.

I refrain from disclosing any private details discussed with a decedent's loved ones, but I feel compelled to mention that Constantine Polites's family members were among the kindest, most genuine people I have ever talked to under such sorrowful circumstances.   I truly felt their grief, and I hope they are doing well in life, despite such a tragic loss.  And I hope that somehow they are able to process not only the loss, but the betrayal and horror that two of the three perpetrators who killed Constantine were teens who lived next door.

How well do you know your neighbors?

The Murder of Constantine Polites. (link)

The Conviction. (link)