Laura Fulginiti can read carnage like you’re reading this newspaper.
Here’s what she knows about an unidentified, partially mummified corpse dubbed “Chavez”: He was in his 30s, a Hispanic who lived most if not all his adult life in the U.S.
She knows basics, like his height and approximate weight. She knows trickier things, such as Chavez kept bad company and that he died on his knees, arms raised against the bullet that went through his brain pan.
She even knows he had a disease. The middle meningeal artery groove inside his skull reveals nutrients leached from his bones.
“He was probably fatigued all the time and didn’t know why,” says Fulginiti, known as “Fulgi” to homicide detectives across Arizona and, increasingly, across the nation.
Fulginiti is a forensic anthropologist, one of two in the state and only 74 board-certified in the U.S. and Canada.
Forensic anthropologists are not to be confused with pathologists, who perform standard autopsies. Only when an unidentified body — or part thereof — shows up do police turn to the 43-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills woman for answers. And after 12 years of graduate studies, a doctorate and more than a decade of fieldwork, Fulginiti has established a reputation for proficiency at putting together the jigsaw puzzle of lost humanity.
For several years, she has been part of a federal response team for mass fatalities. So when airplanes crash, terrorists strike or hurricanes devastate, Fulginiti is there, picking through the human debris. Her job is to provide “biological profiles” that will lead to names and, when applicable, culprits.
Whether decomposed, skeletonized, scattered, even cremated, bodies talk to her.
’LIKE BETTY CROCKER GONE BAD’
“That skull that’s sitting on the side next to the sink? Yesterday that was a face,” Fulginiti says inside her lab in a basement corner of the Maricopa County Forensic Center in downtown Phoenix.
There’s always something cooking on the stove in Fulginiti’s musty-smelling concrete lab rimmed with stainless cabinets. Usually, it’s somebody’s head. Before she can examine a skull, the flesh has to be boiled away. It’s part of the job, just as it is to search landfills for corpses, saw off body parts for lab work and, yes, even scavenge the occasional roadkill (she keeps a “library” of animal skeletons as a reference for the miscellaneous bones brought in as possible human cases).
Most days, she does the work without a second thought. Only occasionally does her professional disconnect lapse, when she sees the boiling pots through someone else’s eyes.
“It’s like Betty Crocker gone bad,” laughs the woman who on most days car pools to work with her husband, Dan Martin, a state administrative law judge, and who, on weekends, blends in happily and innocuously with other soccer moms, cheering her son from the sidelines.
In contrast to the austere work space and a daily job description that ranges from grim to truly horrible, Fulginiti is a lively, even bubbly personality — laughing often, giving homicide detectives a hard time and filling her office with items that poke fun at her profession (for instance, a bumper sticker with the slogan “I Dig Dead Things”).
However, she is solemn and focused when the bodies are wheeled in or when the small talk is over. It is, she says, a work ethic that’s more about compulsion than paycheck.
Her payoff is primarily intrinsic, not financial: On average, her salary is about $35,000.
“People need to know this is not a glamour job,” Fulginiti says. “And it doesn’t get any better. You are in a position where if you do everything right, you’re not going to increase your salary and you are not going to march up through the ranks.
“There’s an intimacy between you and the remains by the nature of what you are doing. . . . It’s almost like there’s a silent communication back and forth — figuring out their age, figuring out their height, figuring out their ancestry, figuring out individual things about them, that person, that will help you put a name with them,” she says.
“And you have this moment where in your head you can see the entire sequence of events leading up to the death. That’s what I call the ‘aha! moment.’ And it will give you goose bumps, and you’ll just know that that’s what happened.”
GLAMOUR WEARS OFF WITH ONE WHIFF
As grim as the visuals of her day-to-day job can be, it isn’t the sights that quickly dissuade would-be forensic students — it’s the smell.
For several years now, Fulginiti has caught a steady stream of inquiries about her work and people wanting to watch her at it, all propagated by popular television shows, documentaries and novels that depict her side of crime fighting.
Typically, all it takes is one whiff of her regular “casework” to establish her job’s actual glamour quotient, Fulginiti says. She and her graduate student assistant, Kristen Hartnett, get a surge of subversive glee watching reality hit — as acquaintances who go on and on about how “cool” their job is finally experience odors that are like nothing else on the planet.
The trick, says Fulginiti, is to have an “off” switch when it comes to olfactory nerves — not a lack of sensitivity to smell, which can be a real attribute in what she does, but in the gorge-rising response.
“The smell doesn’t bother me anymore. That whole thing where they put the Vicks under their nose? Yeah, real forensics don’t do that. Not if they don’t want to be laughed at, ” she says.
“There’s a big part of me that has the I-will-not-give-in kind of attitude. It’s almost a superiority complex that comes from being raised with boys (three brothers),” she says. “When the detectives are here and they are saying, ‘Oh, God, this is horrible, this is horrible,’ it just makes me want to gross them out more. So, there’s a certain aspect of that where you just embrace what you do and you refuse to let it get to you.”
As for olfactory fine-tuning, only a handful of forensic anthropologists could stand in the middle of a rank garbage heap and, on the basis of smell, point toward the dead human. Fulginiti is one. Walter Birkby, a dean of modern forensic anthropology and a one-time mentor to Fulginiti, is another.
In the course of his career, Birkby has taken on only a dozen or so protégés. Fulginiti, he says, was one of the best: Smart, driven, detail-oriented and better than most at fitting in with police.
“When you can talk to them in their own language, fun around, go out for beers and things like that, then you are one of the guys. And that means a lot,” Birkby says. “Maybe that’s why she’s so good.”
KEEPING LIFE AND WORK SEPARATE
For the most part, Fulginiti doesn’t take her work home. She keeps her professional and private lives separate — she’s “Laura” among the soccer mom crowd, “Fulgi” among the dead body crowd.
“I think you have to be slightly schizophrenic,” she says.
She’s happier when nonprofessional acquaintances don’t know what she does because, she says, they tend to either look at her differently and withdraw or treat her like “what I call the dog-and-pony freak show,” with a barrage of questions focused solely on the grossness factor of her work.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone in the middle who’s saying, ‘Tell me about the science of it,’ or ‘How does it affect you?’ There’s nobody in the middle ground,” she says.
As for her family, her husband doesn’t pester her with questions about what happens in her lab. “He kind of made up his mind that this is what I want to do and that he’s going to do whatever he has to do to let me do what I do,” she says. “And my son Daniel” — now 14 — is “interested only so that he can tell all his friends that I’m cool.”
’WHERE CAN I GO TO DO THIS FOR MY LIFE?’
A Time/Life book called “Early Man” hooked Fulginiti on anthropology as a child. “I thought I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” she says.
Later, though, she hated her primatology courses in college and loved skeletal biology and anatomy — the whole logical way humans fit together. So she switched to biological anthropology at archaeological sites, which was fun and interesting, but lacked relevance to the everyday world. It wasn’t until a professor asked her to look at the skeleton of an unidentified woman that had been churned up by farm equipment that everything clicked.
At the time, one of her brothers had just died, and, even though she knew he was dead, she still kept looking for him, doing double takes, seeing him in the bike rider on the street.
“I realized how important it was for families to know that that person is dead. . . . I thought there has got to be such a disconnect for people who are constantly searching when they don’t know if their loved one is gone or still around.
“So, it was that moment when I turned to (her professor) and said, ‘Where can I go to do this for my life?’ ”
There have been significant impacts. For one, she had only one child because of her career choice, in which she saw so many deaths for so many reasons. “I just loved him so much I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him in any sense of the word — but to lose him by random chance, in a car accident, a bike accident, a drowning, a shooting? I wouldn’t want to go on,” Fulginiti says.
REAL LIFE VS. ‘CSI’
Several of the stainless steel cabinets in her office hold remains that didn’t get a name or an “aha moment.” Last year, one of the skeletons “graduated” out of its cabinet when Scottsdale police confirmed the identity and solved the woman’s 1984 murder. Fulginiti describes it as a joyous event.
“I’m not a real spiritual person, but I don’t like to carry people in my head,” she says. “And if I don’t get it right, they are with me, always. I am constantly revisiting it.”
With all the television shows such as “CSI,” public expectations have changed about when cases should be solved and what kinds of evidence should be available. The problem, says Fulginiti, is that so much of the technology depicted in those shows is either nonexistent or so rare and expensive as to be nonexistent.
“People believe what they see on TV,” she says. “They think it’s real and want to know why you didn’t do it in your lab. . . . And there’s no way to explain to them.”
Time frame is another thing fudged on crime shows. “I would love to tell you that in every case I could give you an answer in half an hour or less. Sometimes I can, but more often than not it requires painstaking hours of work and thinking and reading and trying to sort it out before you can come up with an answer,” she says. “Sometimes you never get an answer.”
Every so often she gets a letter from a family member, thanking her for finding a lost loved one. “It’s not very common,” she says. “Most of the time they don’t know I’ve been involved in a case. I had a case of a guy in the Grand Canyon who fell or was pushed. And I had some correspondence from his significant other. She was just very grateful that somebody could tell her what happened. He had been missing for several years, so for her, there was a lot of closure involved.”
’I DON’T KNOW HOW YOU DO THAT’
She never knows which cases will get to her. People assume it’s the children, but that’s not how it works. Sometimes it’s the transient who died of thirst.
“To say that I’ve never cried in the shower would be a lie,” she says. “Sometimes it has to do with feeling like you are the only person who cares about what happened to this person.”
It is, inarguably, a tough job — not just for the subject matter, the baggage and the sensory assaults, but also in dealing with the public perception and response.
“There are times when I step outside myself and I think, ‘How the hell did you get here?’ To end up Jeffrey Dahmer-style rinsing people’s heads in your sink? That’s gross. To anybody. Any ‘human’ would look at that and think, ‘I don’t know how you do that.’ Well, I don’t know. I just do it. It’s what I do. It’s my job.”