KINGSTON, R.I. — If you die early or unexpectedly, or any time before you’re supposed to die, there’s a very good chance that David DeTora will know about it.
Never was that more apparent than a few years ago in Bristol, when a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran succumbed to septic shock. But had it not been for the bullet in his back from a firefight during the war, it’s highly likely that the man would still be living a normal life.
Ultimately, thanks to DeTora’s dogged work, the man’s death was determined to be a wartime homicide decades after the conflict concluded, as the gunshot wound led to the veteran’s paralysis, which eventually led to his sepsis and death.
DeTora is the lead investigator with the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s Office, where he’s investigated approximately 7,500 deaths. Digital forensics, autopsies and DNA were just a few of the topics that were discussed on the campus of the University of Rhode Island on Friday afternoon, and will continue to be over the course of the fall semester, as part of URI’s fall forensic science series, which began Friday with a presentation from the state’s supervising medical examiner.
DeTora’s discussion, titled “Medicolegal Death Investigation,” drew on his experience in the Medical Examiner’s Office and his time as a detective with the Johnston Police Department and commander of its Bureau of Criminal Identification unit.
Almost immediately from the start of Friday’s presentation, DeTora quickly dismissed what he calls the “CSI effect,” which is the public’s perception that death investigations are often frenetic, fast-paced, and exciting aspects of the field. This phrase stems from the wildly-popular television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which debuted on CBS in 2000.
In actuality, the field can often be “so boring,” DeTora said, noting that prior to the series’ debut, “If you mentioned you were BCI, it was like you were an insurance salesman trying to sell insurance.”
“People expect so much done so quickly … ‘CSI’ made it so glamorous,” he said. “Where the hell are they getting this equipment? … Every BCI guy cursed ‘CSI.’”
Truth be told, DeTora said, his field is more similar to the late-1970s mystery-drama “Quincy, M.E.,” which followed the fictional account of a Los Angeles County medical examiner.
DeTora’s job is to determine the cause and manner of death, saying people can die in five unique manners: homicide, suicide, accident, natural, and undetermined.
Additionally, DeTora’s office assumes jurisdiction over deaths related to infectious disease, bio-terrorism, emerging infections, and mass casualty events, to name a few.
Last year in Rhode Island, 10,420 deaths were reported with 8,513 reported to the State Medical Examiner’s Office.
DeTora’s presentation at URI on Friday was part of the annual series, which is now entering its 21st year, bringing together leaders in the field of forensic science.
One of the guest speakers will be Pawtucket Police Detective Susan Cormier, who will address an audience at URI on Nov. 1 alongside Murdoch University School of Law professor of criminology David Keatley. The duo will cover newer, novel methods of raising awareness and creating new leads in cold cases as well as some of the methods used in cold case research.
The founder of the Rhode Island Cold Case Task Force, Cormier was the lead detective whose tireless work led to the arrest of Joao B. Monteiro, who is alleged to have killed a 10-year-old Pawtucket girl in 1988.
Christine Cole was last seen on Jan. 6, 1988 – two days after turning 10 years old. She left her home on West Avenue that day to walk to the store to purchase seafood and milk, stopping at a friend’s house nearby to play with dolls for about an hour. Her last stop was at Saints Market, where she purchased milk and left the store. She was not seen again until 54 days later on Feb. 28, 1988, when her body washed ashore at Conimicut Point Beach in Warwick.
Cormier has previously explained how Pawtucket Police last year started a cold case unit most notably including a statewide initiative where a deck of 52 playing cards were released. The Cole case was re-opened last August and after working on that case for about a year – including meeting with the state Medical Examiner’s Office and Rhode Island Department of Health and conducting several interviews – police were able to make an arrest in the Cole case earlier this summer.
“I was very honored to be asked to be a part of the Fall Forensic Series and to be included with such a wonderful and knowledgeable group of speakers,” Cormier said on Friday. “I am hoping that the attendees will gain some insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes of a cold case homicide investigation and will find it interesting to learn about the collaboration of police work and academics as it is with the work I do with Dr. David Keatley. We both bring a different perspective to these investigations that is proving to work very well for us.”
In addition to Cormier, those who’ll speak at lectures over the coming weeks includes:
- Sept. 20: Ann Burgess, professor of nursing at the Boston College Connell School of Nursing, who is portrayed as forensic psychologist Wendy Carr in the Netflix series “Mindhunter.” Burgess’ specialty is psychiatric nursing and the impact of trauma on very young victims.
- Sept. 27: Walter Williams, a criminalist with the Warwick Police Department who has specialized in bloodstain spatter, and finger and palm print analysis.
- Oct. 4: Carl Selavka, president of Northeastern Bioscience Associates, LLC. As the chief forensic scientist, Selavka has decades of experience specializing in esoteric toxicology, explosives, and arson.
- Oct. 11: Anita Zannin, owner and principal with AZ Forensic Associates, LLC. An expert in bloodstain pattern analysis with more than 15 years’ experience, Zannin trained under Herbert MacDonell, who is widely recognized as one of the fathers of bloodstain pattern analysis.
- Oct. 18: Timothy Chadronet, Bryan Volpe and Sgt. Jack Foster, investigators with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Their presentation will include a discussion of what is fueling the opioid problem nationally as well as steps being taken to mitigate casualties.
- Oct. 25: Christine Zozula, associate professor of sociology at URI, will present “Marketing Justice: How Community Courts Cultivate Legitimacy,” based on her research into how community courts may actually be criminalizing and punishing incivility.
- Nov. 8: Mystery author Claremary Sweeney will discuss where she gets the ideas for her works, the research that goes into preparing to write, and what goes into publishing a mystery novel.
- Nov. 16: Assistant Medical Examiner Priya Banerjee will cover the role of the Rhode Island Office of the State Medical Examiner, including its role in public health and criminal justice through the performance of autopsies.
- Nov. 22: Victor Fay-Wolfe, a professor of computer science at URI, will give a discussion on “Digital Forensics and Cyber Security,” including an overview of the university’s academic programs in digital forensics.
- Dec. 6: Robin Fortunati, chief of the State of Rhode Island Center for Forensic Sciences, will provide an overview of her work overseeing controlled substances identification, forensic biology, drug chemistry, DNA and breath analysis, and interaction with the FBI’s DNA database to assist in criminal investigations.