Not the Usual Unattended Death

By Detective (Retired) Marty Swirko, Manchester NH Police Dept.

We have two cats. My wife wants another one, but I am reluctant to add a third. It’s not that I don’t like cats. My wife was a cat lover from the time I met her, so that means I became a cat lover. Of sorts. Despite this, I just can’t persuade myself to go along with the idea of inviting a third cat into the house. I have this fear, and I agree it may be unreasonable, that after I’m gone, my wife will turn into one of those cat ladies with 10 or more cats running around and pooping all over the house. Also, just to show you how perverse my mind has become after all these years of police work, I’m afraid when my wife passes away (long after I’m gone, hopefully) the surviving cats will start to eat her after a day or so. And, yes, I have seen that happen. Both cats and dogs, but please understand that it’s not entirely my fault that those images are embossed in the back of my mind. 

One cat, the youngest, is a huge pain in the ass. He has convinced me to never again allow a male cat into or near my home. He spends his time roaming the house, trying to climb anything and everything and then knocking down and breaking whatever he can reach, whenever he can. He enjoys tormenting our other cat, and still hasn’t got the message that the other, older lady cat doesn’t dig it when he makes a running tackle then starts to chew on her neck. I keep threatening to take him on a one way ride to the Blue Hills, which does not amuse my wife, but it is still a secret fantasy of mine. Sometimes, late at night when I’m sitting in my recliner and reading, he likes to climb up onto my chest and plop his oversized head onto my shoulder and stay there. All he accomplishes by doing this is preventing me from turning or swiping to the next page (depending on whether I am reading my Kindle or an actual book) and continue reading. 

Our other cat, is about 14 years old. She is a little thing, very dainty, all black and soft and furry. She has these big brown, round eyes, and because she looked a bit spooky and mysterious to me when she stared at me, I named her Morticia, you know, after Morticia Addams. This cat is very attached to me. Which of course means I have become very attached to her. Mary acquired her just after I got home from Iraq. Over the next couple of years as I tried to adjust to life without someone trying to kill me on a daily basis or being among so much death and destruction in Iraq, she would follow me around, room to room. If I laid down for a nap after work, she’d climb up onto the bed or couch, lick the back of my hand a few times and then lay down, back up against me and purr and just hang out. She still does this. 

In recent times, my wife has expressed a bit of frustration to me regarding how I tend to dote on and at times fawn over Morticia, but I really don’t believe she’s actually jealous. Imagine being jealous of a cat! Actually, I think she’s happy when I leave the room, and Morticia prances along behind me up the stairs because when I return from my nap I usually find her watching Grey’s Anatomy reruns or some Cary Grant movie. Mary that is. Not Morticia. I think it’s all just an act to get me to leave her a lone for a bit so she can get some “by herself time.” 

Several years ago, when my PTSD was taking a toll on me and my family, I came to jokingly refer to Morticia as my service or comfort cat. I never actually tried to take her with me on an airline flight, but she actually did help me relax when I found myself in those sad places that can be so frequent with combat veterans, not to mention 28 years of police work. Earlier today, while I was looking at her, in a weird sort of way, I became inspired for the theme for this story. So, please put up with my musings for a few minutes while I guide you through the arduous and twisted roadmap which is my mind that took me from my kitty to the following story.

It started while I was looking at Morticia, the thought occurred to me that I probably should have just named her Patricia instead of trying to be a wise guy. Patricia always struck me as a  name that is a  gracious and somewhat classy name. Not that I’ve known very many Patricias during my life time. Maybe the reason why I think the name Patricia is so stylish and high class is precisely why I feel that way about the name. With very few exceptions, I haven’t met any Patricias who have caused me to feel otherwise. 

The first Patricia I came to know was in my Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes. Patricia always smiled at me, and she invited me to her birthday party in the big house where she lived on the corner of Adams Street and Pierce Avenue in Dorchester. Problem was, there was a girl named Kathleen who was friends with Patricia and sat behind her in school. Any time Kathleen looked at me, she made a nasty face and stuck her tongue out at me. I was a bit confused. After all, I never did anything to her. She even behaved like this at Patricia’s birthday party.

One day, I told my father about Kathleen. My dad, in what was probably his first lecture to his first born son regarding the idiosyncrasies of the sexes (it was simpler back then because there were only two of them) patiently explained to me that the fact that Kathleen acted like this, meant, without a doubt she liked me. I was a bit dumbfounded by this explanation, but, if my dad said so, I believed him. So, I tried to be a bit more friendly towards Kathleen at school, but her behavior towards me got worse. She would still stick her tongue out at me, but then she developed a most annoying habit by placing the most distasteful expression on her face, then raising her chin high into the air and making a show of rotating her face away from me and letting me and others around me know how much distain she had for me. If my dad was right about her really liking me, which I came to doubt, Kathleen put an awful lot of effort and theatrics into demonstrating otherwise.  

Eventually, I got the message she worked so hard to convey to me during those couple of years I went to school with her. Eventually, unlike the many stalkers I’d arrested during my police career, I avoided even looking in her direction. Each time she did this, she knocked me one rung lower on the proverbial ladder of self worth that some of us carry on our backs with whatever other baggage lashed onto it. Not surprisingly, this was not the last time I was publicly snubbed by girls I liked as I grew older. As for my father’s explanation about her really liking me, well, unlike isosceles triangles and the like, I just never did get to proof out or disprove his theorem. 

Which brings me back to the name Patricia. I never knew another girl that went by the name of Patricia. I did know a few Pattys. One I went to high school with and I speak to on Facebook from time to time. Another Patty runs the VFW I belong to. The only other Patty I knew was a neighbor of mine when I was in grade school in Quincy, who as it turns out has become one of the real life characters in the following story.  

Sometime, in the middle of 2nd grade, my parents uprooted us, pulled me away from what was at the time an idyllic childhood (Kathleen was just a bump in the road since I didn’t like girls all that much back then) and we moved across the Neponset River to Quincy, Massachusetts, and like the Jeffersons of TV land, we were “moving on up”. Three houses away from us, was a family, and the oldest child’s name was Patty. And thinking about all this (Is there any wonder why I suffer from insomnia?) while Morticia was curled up next to me earlier is really the thing that stimulated me to write about today’s anecdote. 

Patty had two younger brothers. Out of respect to the family, I won’t used their real names. Pat (Patrick) was my age, and Billy was a year younger. I don’t remember their father’s name, but their mother’s name was Anna, and since she came from Central America, she spoke with a Spanish accent.  

The boys and I became friends, and we often hung out and played together. Anna and my Mom became friendly and they sometimes visited each other for coffee and to chat and gossip during the day. Occasionally I was invited to join their family for lunch or dinner. 

A couple of years after moving into the house in Quincy, Patty, Pat, Billy, and the rest of the Lagrange family moved away. I never knew where they went or what happened to my friends, they just moved away. 

In the winter of 2004 or possibly early 2005, I was working day shift patrol. We were in the middle of an incredibly cold spell, not all that unusual around here, and that week the temperatures at night plunged below zero, and during the day if they got up into the teens that was high. I was sent to an unattended death late that morning. Unattended deaths were common calls, especially for those who work dayshift patrol, so I rogered the call, wrote down the time, address and headed over. It was a code two call, meaning urgent but no blue lights or siren. After all, there wasn’t much any of us could to for the unfortunate victim. 

The location I was sent to was in a back alley that ran parallel to downtown. There was an Arthur Murray Dance studio there, and an auto parts store next to it. Since this was late Saturday morning, the dance studio was closed and the auto store had just opened. Also, backed up against the alley, across from the studio and auto store were several large tenement type, four story apartment buildings.

What happened was that a father and his young son went to the parts store. The son waited outside and while he was outside he spotted a car parked in front of the dance studio. Inside the car was an elderly lady who appeared to be asleep. When dad came out, his son took him to the car and found that the woman was probably deceased and called 911. She was deceased and I got to the scene just as the fire department was ready to leave. They briefed me, then took off. The poor woman was still in the driver’s seat and the paramedics hadn’t disturbed her, other than to confirm she was deceased. So now she was my responsibility and I went to work. 

I looked over the scene to include the car, parking spaces nearby and finally the victim. I satisfied myself that nothing suspicious stood out before I touched or disturbed anything. The victim’s pocketbook was on the seat next to her undisturbed, so that help rule out any kind of a robbery attempt or foul play. Also, as I examined the victim closely, I did not note any type of visible injuries or bruises. The doors were unlocked, so I slid into the passenger seat next to the decedent. 

Nothing unusual caught my attention, aside of the fact that I was sitting next to and scrutinizing the appearance of this poor woman. She looked peaceful enough. Her face did not express any surprise or pain that sometimes accompanies death. I noted she had her car keys in her hand, but the car wasn’t running. It appeared that she was about to start her car when she suffered a medical event that caused her demise. I came to the opinion that death occurred quickly, and from the expression on her face rather painlessly. She apparently entered the car, closed the door behind her, had her keys in her hand and that was it. 

I had MPD contact the Medical Examiner’s Office, and was informed the assistant medical examiner on call was en-route to my location. I figured I’d get a head start on the death investigation and work on learning the identity of who this unfortunate victim was. If she had family, I would also have to co-ordinate an in person notification.  

I started to rummage around the interior of the car and found the registration. I saw that the car was registered to an Anna Lagrange. Naturally, that rang a bell in my head. Granted, it had been more than 40 years since I’d seen or heard anything of the Lagranges, but I studied the face of Anna carefully for a few minutes. Not feeling any shimmer or ray of recognition jump out at me, I decided that it was unlikely that the Anna here, assuming this was the owner of the car,   could actually be the Anna I knew back around 1964 or so. That was along time ago, in another state, in another time and life. The car was registered to a nearby suburb outside of Manchester so I put that idea aside and continued my grim, but unfortunately recurring task of death investigation. 

At about that time, the owner of the dance studio walked by to open the studio. I caught her attention and explained my reason for my presence and asked her if she knew anything about the deceased women parked in the studio spot. The owner became very upset because she immediately recognized Anna as one of her pupils and became immediately distraught. I gave her some time to regain her composure, and when she was ready, she gave me the following information: 

Her dance studio held socials and dances on Friday evenings. The dances were for students and friends who wanted to dance and practice what they had learned in a social environment. Anna was a student for some time and loved to dance. She often came to the Friday night socials. 

The owner went on to explain that Anna was at the studio the night before and when the dance ended at 10 PM, Anna left. That was the last time she saw or talked to Anna. This definitive time line she gave me was a huge help, because it would help establish her time of death, as well as what and where she was in the hours leading up to her passing. The owner stayed behind for about a half an hour or so, then locked up, went to her car and went home. 

One of the things that upset the owner was that she felt because she didn’t notice Anna or the car when she left, she was afraid she had left Anna behind to freeze to death and felt somewhat responsible for Anna’s passing. I talked to her for a while and explained it was likely Ann’s death was sudden and painless and occurred before the owner left the studio, therefore even if she had noticed Anna, she wouldn’t have been able to help her. 

Then the owner said something that really caught my attention. She told me that Anna loved to dance and she was from a certain country in Central America. I was floored. How many people had I met during my lifetime that had come from that country? Very few that I can recall. Now, I was back to believing that the deceased lady I had in the car might actually be the Anna Lagrange I had known in my childhood!  

I slid back into the front seat next to Anna again and went though her pocketbook. Inside I found a small address book. This was a great break because now I had a way to learn who her family, friends and maybe even her doctor was. 

As I perused the address book, I saw the names, addresses and phone numbers of Pat, Billy and Patty Lagrange. That cinched it for me. As hard as it was for me to believe, this had to be the Anna I knew when I was eight years old. The names in the book had to be the kids I once played with, so very long ago. And now, I found myself sitting in Mom’s car, with Mom! I saw that one of the kids were living in Southern New Hampshire while the other two still lived in Massachusetts. 

At one point, the Medical Examiner arrived, and I went over everything I had learned. He decided that the death was of natural causes, and he took his photos and possession of Anna’s belongings. I called for a local funeral home to come and remove Anna, as well as a tow truck to take possession of and impound her car.

I mentioned how cold it was, and Anna had been in this cold for at least 13 hours, so we had a problem removing Anna from the car and laying her on a stretcher. Added to that, there was now a crowd of local kids around watching this macabre scene play out. Finally, Anna was taken to a nearby funeral home, and the M.E. graciously agreed to take care of the death notifications and try to locate Anna’s physician and contact her or him. Often, unless there is an autopsy, assistant medical examiners prefer not to sign off on death certificates, and if the victim’s doctor can be found, the doctor is usually willing to take care of that task if he or she was treating the victim for issues that may have led to the death. 

Meanwhile, the driver of the tow truck asked me for the keys to Anna’s car keys, telling me he couldn’t tow her car while the transmission was in park. Suddenly I realized Anna still had the keys in her hand. How could I have been so foolish? As a result, I had another cop come to sit with the car while I drove to the funeral home where Anna had been taken. 

I found Anna, and sure enough, she had her keys in her hand. Fortunately for me, the M.E. went to the funeral home before I got there and he offered to get the keys for me. After he removed them, I took them back to the tow truck driver. 

As the afternoon went on, I decided it was time to go into the station and start typing my reports. I stopped at the funeral home on the way, and the M.E. was working in the Funeral Director’s office. He explained that he had local police make notifications to the family. I told him my story about having known Anna and the Lagrange family in another lifetime in Quincy Mass. He was duly impressed. I asked him what he thought about me calling one of the family and expressing my condolences. He told me he thought it would be a classy thing to do. So, I sat down, got Anna’s address / phone book out and started to dial. 

As it worked out I was able to contact Billy, the younger son. I introduced myself and told him that I used to play with him and his brother when we all lived on Main St. in Quincy. I explained that his Mom and my Mom both knew each other. He told me that he didn’t remember me. That was too bad I thought to myself. So, I told him I was the officer who responded to and found his mother deceased. I gave him a general, not overly detailed description of what had happened and I finished by telling Billy that I took very good care of his mother while I was dealing with her, and tried to assure him that his mother probably died suddenly without suffering. I went on to say that his Mom had an enjoyable evening doing something she loved. I assured him that she was removed and handled with dignity and respect, especially since I once knew her. Billy was thankful. I asked him to say hello for me to the rest of his family and send along my condolences. 

I don’t know what I expected from the phone call, but after I hung up I felt a bit disappointed that Billy didn’t remember me. In any case, I hoped that reaching out to him may have helped him a bit. However, I never did hear from him or of any of the Lagrange family after that day. But, you can bet I thought about this encounter long and hard. 

What were the odds I asked myself…40 plus years later, in another state, that Anna dies on my beat, my sector, and out of a department of about 240 cops back then, that I was the cop sent to investigate her death. Furthermore, was there some mysterious force which I could not understand at work? 

Was there some greater purpose that my “catching” this particular unattended death served? I thought long and hard about that call that day. Eventually, I decided the answers to both questions were 1) My involvement was as random and likely as my hitting the Megabucks number, and, 2) No. There was no deeper meaning in my ending up with this call. At least I don’t think so.  

Nothing ever came out of my reaching out to and reintroducing myself to Billy that day. I had given him my personal and police information and told him if I could ever do anything for him or his family, please reach out to me. There were never any phone calls or reunions or talk about the good old days when we were young. I wished there had been. I came to believe that this was just one of those incredible experiences in life that a person sometimes experiences. Nothing to read between the lines here, I came to believe. 

Still though, as I reminisce and write about it, I can’t help wondering what an incredible coincidence this was. Was there some spiritual karma at work that brought Anna and I together? Probably not I think, yet still…

And now you have the behind the scenes information about how taking a nap with a Kitty named Morticia led me to dwell on this uncanny but factual memory. Somewhere in the digital archives of MPD is the report I wrote that day. But damn, life can be so arbitrary, mystifying and puzzling at times. 

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