The plots of Forensic Files, the CSI franchise, Endeavour, The Fall—and all these other popular TV shows and miniseries in the past few years—revolve around the work of police forensic investigators. Amy Haben got to know one member of this tribe—her roommate, Jennifer Patino. She and Jennifer spoke about this grisly, but vital, profession for PKM.
If you have ever watched the show Forensic Files, you would know that a single cat hair or carpet fiber found on the deceased can be traced back to the particular psychopath responsible. An attention to detail, good instincts, and a fascination with the criminal mind make for an effective forensic investigator. While the job may be grueling at times, the drive to bring justice to the deceased and their family motivates these investigators to push on through all of the evidence, no matter how ghastly or grisly or sad.
People, especially Americans, are afraid of death. Most of us don’t know many people who would choose to work with the dead. Unfortunately, cadavers are associated with horror movies and ghost encounters on television, even though they were once beloved family members, co-workers, friends, and productive members of society. When a person is brutally murdered, their loved ones deserve to know how they died and hold the person who caused their death accountable.
In the film Seven (1995), when Morgan Freeman’s character calls in forensics while investigating the bloated body of the morbidly obese corpse sitting face down in a bowl of pasta, you wonder who would actually want to put themselves in that horrid position. The victim had been sitting in his own feces for days, a bucket of vomit near his body. Yes, it’s a scene from a movie, but real-life crime scenes can be far worse than that scenario. I’m thankful for the people involved in the psychologically and physically taxing work of processing murders. One of these people is my roommate, Jennifer Patino.
Jennifer, a devout Roman Catholic, is sweet and quiet. Her list of favorite things include: The Golden Girls, a good cup of herbal tea, scented candles, her cozy robe, and human bones. I walked into her clinically tidy room recently to hand off a portable heater. When I looked up, I noticed that her computer screen read, “Seven bodies found in several stages of decompensation,” and a grotesque photo of a discolored, rotting foot was on display. I had to laugh. Her image, lifestyle, and career do not match at all. She moved from sunny Florida this year to tackle the mean streets of the gritty New York underworld.
PKM: Tell me about what attracted you to this career?
Jennifer: Clarice Starling. Ever since I saw The Silence Of The Lambs, I wanted to be just like her.
We had a serial killer in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, where I’m from. He used a tree to hang girls from, which was called the Devil’s Tree. This started in the ‘70s. He was a sheriff’s deputy from our county. He would hang them from a rope and they would have their hands tied behind their back while standing on their tippy toes. He would masturbate to them. They would die by either getting tired of standing on their tippy toes or by losing their balance. He would climax when they died. Then he would have sex with the dead bodies. I grew up hanging out at the Devil’s Tree. It’s haunted.
Right now in the 21st century, the most dangerous place is the internet. You don’t know who is on the other end.
PKM: Tell me about the time you worked in the funeral home?
Jennifer: I had to grab the hand of a 17-year-old female corpse that didn’t look like herself due to a major car crash and show her tattoo to the family after they claimed it wasn’t her. It was one of the most shocking things that I was presented with. They didn’t tell her grandparents until the funeral and I had to hear that horrible scream. Once you hear the scream, you never forget it.
PKM: Do you feel comfortable being alone with a corpse?
Jennifer: Yes. They just look like they’re sleeping. Their skin tends to get a yellowish tone. Marbling is when the skin turns bright red or purple where the blood settles. They all urinate on themselves unless they fell from a building. That’s just a splatter.
PKM: Tell me about the sounds they make.
Jennifer: Deceased people make a snoring sound about an hour after they die, which is from the gas being released. They bloat a lot. A very thin person will look 300 pounds. The eyes bulge out and the tongue hangs out. A few days or weeks later the purification happens where we embalm them. A person can survive more than three days without food or water. People in hospice often die without anything inside of them to expel.
You get numb to everything. It just becomes a job. There are things you can’t unsee. We had to dive into the dark web. I stumbled onto a fetish website where a dead woman was lying there and the doctor called her, “Dying beauty.” He took the eyeball out and put it in her mouth. People in the comment section were laughing and some were crying. There was a video of it too. It was someone who worked in a morgue. You have to know about the dark web for this job. The Red Rooms…
PKM: What are the Red Rooms?
Jennifer: These are snuff films. A man brings either a little girl, or an elderly person or an animal, anyone really, to a room with a camera. It mainly happens in Russia, Thailand, India, and the Philippines. When someone opens a Red Room, everyone around the world is invited. These sick people are mainly the very rich. They pay to see torture. So they will send money electronically and the person gets tortured. Everything is done through Bitcoin, because it’s untraceable. Say someone contributes $50 to see acid injected into the veins. Another to see someone beat up. One room will have a person being force fed to death. They are usually hackers that start the rooms. The viewers also have to pay a hefty entrance fee to be there.
PKM: Wow. Very much like the movie Hostel.
Jennifer: Yes. Right now in the 21st century, the most dangerous place is the internet. You don’t know who is on the other end.
PKM: Especially with all the prostitution going on during this pandemic. It’s scary to know what may be happening to people.
Jennifer: My professor wanted me to be an advocate for sexual violence victims. I said no. You have to be there writing a report while a nurse performs a rape kit on the victim. Sometimes it will be a four-year-old girl. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.
PKM: What kind of people get into forensics?
Jennifer: About 75% of criminal investigators are women. It was mostly women in my classes.
PKM: Tell me about the labs.
Jennifer: We had a house in the classroom and we had to collect DNA. The scenario was a person was masturbating to a woman getting undressed. We had to take photos of the house and the victim. We took DNA by wetting with club seltzer and throwing it in a bag labeling and sending it to the lab. We have to process the windows and door. We have to wear booties to not disturb the evidence. The whole house. Many serial killers will linger after they kill a person. They are very stupid. One killer ate a Snickers bar and left the wrapper there. Cigarettes are often found at the crime scene.
PKM: You must know how these killers think..
Jennifer: Yes. The perfect murder would be a random person who isn’t connected to you. Protecting your vehicle and using a lot of plastic to get messy on. So plastic all over your car and the kill site. Full PPE. You would need to wear a mask, a hair net, and a biohazard suit…The best disposal of the body would be to be chopped into small pieces and dispose of everything in chemicals in separate locations.
Apparently, humans are very similar to pigs in decomposition and taste. Decomposition is slower or faster depending on the different climates as well. In California, for example, a body mummifies much faster. Making flesh burgers is another brilliant way to dispose of a body.
PKM: Oh yeah. I remember a guy in Texas gave away free BBQ to his neighbors who loved it and couldn’t get enough. Turns out the secret ingredient were the multiple people he had murdered.
Jennifer: Yes, I have studied that case. Another brilliant murder was a guy who killed his wife and dug a hole large enough to drive his whole car into it with his wife in the trunk. They would’ve never found the evidence if he hadn’t confessed. Some serial killers will dissolve their own fingerprints in acid to make them blank.
PKM: I’m very curious about how you are able to know what a person may look like from a skeleton.
Jennifer: You can tell so much by the bones. Male or female. The race of the person. Asians have oval-shaped eye sockets, Native Americans and caucasians have square-shaped eye sockets, and African Americans have round eye sockets. It’s getting harder to tell the ethnicity these days due to race mixing. You can tell if someone was stabbed or shot. If the person fell. If you stab someone, it hits the bone. The teeth of the knife make an indent into the bone. This is how you can tell which kind of knife it was. Skeletal abnormalities can determine past trauma such as prior broken bones and disease as well which can help identify a victim.