Read an Extract of LIVID
After three days in the Atlantic Ocean during a heat wave, April Tupelo wasn’t recognizable to her family.
What the cops call a floater, the former beauty queen was marbled green and bloated by gases from decomposition. The outer layer of her skin and her long blond hair had sloughed off. Her eyes, ears, lips and other delicate body parts were gone, the images displayed inside the crowded courtroom like something from the movie Jaws.
I wasn’t working in Virginia when her remains washed ashore on Wallops Island twenty-one months ago. I didn’t go to the scene or perform the autopsy. The forensic pathologist who did isn’t alive to amend his egregious errors. By the time I got involved, April Tupe- lo’s fiancé had been indicted for first-degree murder and mutilating a dead body.
He was in jail awaiting trial, held in isolation without bail, the story headline news internationally. The prosecution was a dog with a bone. It didn’t matter what I said.
“Again, let me emphasize how much I regret the necessity of dis- playing these painful images.” Alexandria’s Commonwealth’s Attor- ney Bose Flagler carries on in his lyrical drawl, and had this case been mine from the start, we wouldn’t be here now. “Seeing things like this can wound one’s very soul and psyche, isn’t that true, ma’am?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking,” I reply.
He continues repositioning himself in front of the witness stand, doing what he can to block my view of the jury. A master of chore- ography, Flagler is mindful of his every move, never straying far from the fixed cameras filming live for Court TV.
“No matter how difficult, we have to look unflinchingly. Would you agree with that, ma’am? That we owe it to April Tupelo to see the full extent of what was done to her at the end of her very short life?” Flagler slowly paces back and forth in front of me. “It’s our moral obligation to do so, isn’t it, ma’am?”
His incessantly calling me ma’am is anything but polite. He’s dismissing me as a silly armchair sleuth guided by hormones and intuition. I’ve been in court with him a number of times since I was appointed chief medical examiner last year. He’s always been obsequi- ously polite, at times flirty. Until this case I wasn’t the enemy.
“I’m not sure of the question,” I say yet again, and I can tell that the jurors are intrigued by him.
They always are. Charismatic and clever, the thirty-four-year- old bachelor brings to mind Michelangelo’s sculpture of David or Giuliano de’ Medici. But with clothes on, expensive ones. Dipping his hand into a pocket, he slides out the small touchscreen tablet that controls the grotesque slideshow around us.
“I regret the necessity of subjecting everyone to these graphic images,” Flagler says disingenuously as they fill the courtroom moni- tors in vivid color.
He clicks through multiple photographs of the victim’s body face- down on an autopsy table in the Norfolk morgue. Close-ups of her flayed back and buttocks show four long deep gashes spaced close together, yawning widely and blackish red.
“You’ve seen these photos before, correct?” Flagler asks me. “Those and many others.”
“And what we’re looking at are the victim’s decomposing remains, and the savage knife cuts to her back from when the defendant tried to turn her into fish bait—”
“What this time, Mister Gallo?” Judge Annie Chilton asks from her black leather chair flanked by the state and U.S. flags, the bronze seal of Virginia behind her.
“The photos are inflammatory and prejudicial. He’s testifying, Your Honor! Again!”
“Overruled. Again. Please rephrase, and let’s move on.”
In her early fifties, with a compelling face and short dark hair, Annie is tall and lanky, more handsome than pretty. Based on her demeanor toward me as I’ve been testifying this afternoon, you’d never guess we’ve known each other since our law school days at Georgetown. You wouldn’t suppose we were roommates at the time or that she encouraged my return to Virginia last year.
In fact, she was the deciding factor, influencing Governor Roxane Dare to appoint me. All was fine until last month when Annie started avoiding me for no apparent reason.
“Thank you, Your Honor. Let me try a different way,” Flagler says in his compelling baritone while people around us mutter angrily and sob. “What we’re seeing is severe damage inflicted postmortem. In other words, after death, correct, ma’am?”
“That’s correct,” I answer.
“This is what April Tupelo looked like on the Saturday morning of October seventeenth, two-thousand-twenty, after three days in the ocean?” he asks to more upset sounds around us.
“In these photographs the body has been cleaned up, as you can see,” I reply. “And decomposition is continuing at a rapid rate. So, she’s not going to look exactly as she did when she was first found—”
“Ma’am, would you agree that most of what you experience as a matter of routine would be traumatizing for a normal person?”
“Again, I’m not sure what—”
“My point is, you’re accustomed to these sorts of nightmares. The dreadful images we’ve been looking at since you took the stand are part of your routine, your bread and butter. It’s what you’re paid to do, isn’t that true?”
“I don’t think you ever get accustomed to—”
“One dead body after the next. Yet another stiff on the slab. Day after day, it never stops, if we’re honest. Let’s just call things what they are. Death is darn ugly. There’s nothing pretty about it. What was that nursery rhyme? The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out . . . ?”
“Objection!” Sal Gallo is on his feet.
“. . . They play pinochle on your snout . . . ? Or something like that, ma’am?” Flagler continues stereotyping me as antisocial and morbidly peculiar while hardly letting me get in a word. “I realize that empa- thizing isn’t what you’re paid to do—”
“Your Honor, I’m just going to keep objecting to the common- wealth’s attorney badgering the witness!” Gallo is red-faced in his rumpled blue seersucker suit and crooked bow tie. “The only reason for his ranting and harassing is to prejudice the jury.”
“I’d like my continuing objection noted on the record.” “So noted.”
“Again, I request a mistrial.” Gallo sits back down, disgusted. “Denied.”
. . .
It’s obvious what Bose Flagler is doing. His strategies have been clev- erly and carefully planned from the start. His intention is for me to
make the worst impression imaginable on the jurors. That’s why he’s saved me as his last witness before resting his case.
The only reason he’s called me to the stand at all is for that singular purpose. To dismantle me. To impeach my credibility and integrity, leaving negative impressions foremost in the jurors’ minds. If Flagler doesn’t cause reasonable doubt about my testimony, he can’t win.
“Your Honor?” he offers politely, unflappably. “I think it only fair for the jury to know what services the witness receives compensation for as the chief medical examiner of our fine Commonwealth. You know, what’s in her job description that entitles her to be paid a hand- some six-figure salary funded by our tax dollars?”
“Objection! Here we go again, Your Honor!” Gallo erupts. “And I believe Mister Flagler is handsomely compensated by these same taxpayers!”
“Not all that handsomely,” he fires back, some people laughing. “Mister Gallo, your objection is overruled.”
The restless noise inside the crowded courtroom is getting louder as Flagler carries on with his outrageous antics while assassinating my character. Annie continues to allow it. I’ve been in her courtroom before, and don’t expect special treatment because we’re friends. But she won’t make eye contact, and is barely respectful. Something’s wrong, and has been for weeks.
“My point?” Flagler resumes. “We want to know what’s expected of the witness in this most unusual profession she’s chosen. One that very few people know much about, I might add. Or want to, for that matter?” “Your Honor!” Gallo’s voice is getting hoarse. “The common- wealth’s attorney is doing everything he can to impeach Doctor Scar- petta’s credibility. That’s the only reason he has her on the stand. He’s trying mightily to make the jury distrust her because he doesn’t have a case! He knows that what he’s orchestrated is a witch hunt!”
“That’s enough,” Annie decides. “And I’m asking the jury to disre- gard defense counsel’s comment about this proceeding being a witch hunt. Let’s refrain from any further asides.” She sternly peers down from her lofty perch. “What’s your objection, Mister Gallo?”
“The prosecution is preaching a sermon and testifying!” he says as Flagler continues ignoring him, loudly flipping pages, skimming his notes. “Not to mention going after Doctor Scarpetta nonstop, and insulting her.” Gallo is so angry his voice shakes. “She can’t even fin- ish a sentence!”
The prominent defense attorney has been sticking up for me with great flourishes of chivalry because what I have to say is helpful to him for once. That will change soon enough when my findings don’t suit him in some other case.
“Your objection has been noted, Mister Gallo.” Annie dismisses him yet again. “Mister Flagler, you may continue.”
“If I could have just a few seconds, Your Honor.” He smiles apol- ogetically. “Unlike the witness, I don’t have the memory of a com- puter. I actually have to check my paperwork, making certain I don’t misspeak.”
Leaning against the witness stand, he shuffles through his notes, cutting quite a figure in his vanilla suit and blue suede shoes. He’s close enough that I detect the verbena eau de parfum he has cus- tom made in a Paris shop on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I can make out the heraldic crest engraved on his Super Bowl–size gold sig- net ring.
His wealthy Virginia family traces back to the Norman Conquest. Also the Mayflower and Ellis Island, I’ve heard him boast, depend- ing on whose vote he wants. He’s been given every advantage while groomed for greatness, and I catch whiffs of his citrusy scent as he
moves about. He’s dragging things out, making sure he’s the focus of attention, something he’s perfected to an art.
“Ma’am?” Flagler retrieves the touchscreen tablet from his pocket again. “If you’d please direct your attention to what’s displayed on the monitors? Have you seen these?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Please take a moment to refresh your memory.” He directs my attention to images that scarcely look human.
Displayed on monitors around the room are photographs of April Tupelo’s putrefying remains spangled with starfish and scuttling with crabs. I can well imagine the stench, the static of flies buzzing. Hor- rors like this don’t happen in the cloistered part of the world where she and the defendant were born and raised, some two hundred miles south of here on a spit of land surrounded by water.
The six-square-mile barrier island’s population is fewer than five hundred, and there’s only one road that will get you there from Virginia’s mainland. Otherwise you need an aircraft or a boat. The location is ideal for those who make a living on the water catching and selling seafood, and operating tourist inns and diners. Wallops Island’s remoteness also makes it ideal for a spaceport.
Home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the NASA-Wallops facility has four pads, with more under construction. Those living and working in the area are accustomed to the mighty roar of rockets blasting off. They light up the skies over the Atlantic Ocean like gigantic Roman candles, the launches so frequent that the locals barely notice.
The typical payload is space probes and other scientific instru- ments for NASA and private aerospace industries. Often it’s research experiments, and supplies bound for the International Space Station.
In photographs of April Tupelo’s body washed up on the rocky beach, I can make out the launchpads on higher ground in the distance. Starkly etched against the horizon are lightning suppression masts, water towers and generic concrete block buildings.
A rocket juts up from its pad like a colossal stick of white chalk with a sharpened tip, a satellite concealed inside the nose cone. Before taking over the Tupelo case, I had a pretty good idea of the work that goes on at NASA-Wallops. In recent months I’ve learned more, and some of the details are surprising. I wouldn’t have guessed that often it’s the locals who do the fetching when experiments touch down in the water.
It could be anything. The prototype of a crew capsule carrying crash-test mannikins. A flying car with pop-out floats. An amphibious drone that looks like a dolphin. A robotic bird that flies while it spies. The boat pilots who retrieve such curiosities rarely have any idea what they’re carrying or towing back to shore. Most of them aren’t interested, don’t care, and the defendant was hired routinely for such missions.
At the time of April Tupelo’s death, Gilbert Hooke was the twenty-five-year-old owner and operator of a forty-foot charter trawler named Captain Hooke, as one might expect. He and April kept busy working pleasure cruises, fishing trips and other excursions, including official ones for the federal government. On the day she died, they’d retrieved a weather balloon that had been launched 120,000 feet to the edge of space.
Malfunctioning, it hurtled back through the atmosphere, splash- ing down off the Virginia coast late that morning. Indirectly, this single event may have been a factor in what happened that night. Dis- played on a monitor directly across from the witness stand is an image of a uniformed NASA Protective Services special agent who’s young and extremely nice to look at.
He and Hooke are using gaff poles to snag a deflated bright sil- ver balloon hundreds of feet long. Its mysterious gondola brings to mind a shiny metal satellite bobbing in the water on inflatable floats. Juxtaposed to this image is one of April Tupelo’s decomposing body tangled in seaweed and rotted netting on a rocky shore strewn with plastic bottles, a faded boat cushion and other marine detritus.
Hooke admits to getting upset with April. They’d been arguing right before she died. He wrote in his police statement that the NASA special agent paid too much attention to her, and she got off on it. She encouraged it. The couple’s exchanges got angrier as the evening wore on, and based on psychological reports and other confidential materi- als I’ve reviewed, their relationship was volatile.
They fought often and violently. It would seem she had a habit of encouraging attention from other men, and in general creat- ing drama. It’s Bose Flagler’s contention that the night of her death, Hooke was in a jealous fury. While he and April argued as they sat on the boat drinking beer in the heat, he plotted how to get away with the perfect murder.
Most important was how to dispose of her body, Flagler explains in the cadence of an evangelist. The defendant had to make sure it wouldn’t be found.
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