Autopsy

Since Dr. Joe retired as Harris Countys chief medical examiner, the morgue itself has been undergoing a critical examination. Whats been uncovered botched postmortems, illegal tissue-harvesting, double-dipping pathologists reveals a county office thats op

On August 4, 1986, an ambulance was dispatched to 9109 Laura Koppe in northeast Houston, where emergency medical workers found an unconscious 17-month-old named Joshua Kibble. The toddler's 14-year-old mother, Claudette Kibble, explained that he was an epileptic who had suffered a seizure while she was bathing him. Seventeen hours later, Joshua Kibble was pronounced dead at Hermann Hospital's pediatric intensive care unit. By 8 a.m. the following day, his small body was on a stainless steel gurney at the Joseph A. Jachimczyk Forensic Center, his now-rigid features starkly illuminated by the skylights in one of the morgue's four autopsy rooms.

Dr. Eduardo Bellas, a forensic pathologist with the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office, began his autopsy on the 21-pound corpse by making the usual Y-shaped incision across the front of the abdomen. After removing the child's heart and placing it in one of the two overhead scales, Bellas noted that the organ weighed 35 grams. There were no thrombi, or indications of clotting, in any of the organ's four chambers, and the valves were intact. Bellas found nothing unusual about the pancreas -- it had the usual hammer-shaped configuration and size. The child's liver, spleen and kidneys were "smooth and glistening," the pathologist wrote.

Bellas also made incisions along the boy's back and lower extremities that revealed no evidence of contusions or hemorrhages. An examination of the head, which was 19 inches in circumference, did turn up a bit of subgaleal hemorrhaging in the vicinity of the occipital bone, which forms the bottom part of the skull. Removal of the back portion of the dead child's cranium also uncovered evidence of a slight herniation of the cerebellar tonsils and congested brain tissue. But those findings were not sufficient to raise suspicion -- at least by Bellas -- that there was something more to Joshua Kibble's death than what his mother had related. In signing the autopsy report, Bellas ruled that the boy had died of natural causes "as a result of epilepsy." The investigation into the child's death was closed.

In the next four years, the bodies of two more of Claudette Kibble's children would be taken to the morgue to be autopsied. Kibble would tell investigators that those two infant boys, like Joshua, died after suffering seizures that only she had witnessed. On the face of it, that explanation begged belief -- each of the three was born of a different father, greatly reducing the likelihood that they shared some genetic defect that would have contributed to their deaths. Nonetheless, the medical examiner ruled that the demise of the second child, like the first, was due to natural causes. The cause of the third death was listed as "undetermined."

Despite the suspicious circumstances, and in the face of pressure by the Harris County District Attorney's Office and other agencies, the Medical Examiner's Office steadfastly refused to change its rulings. It was not until last September, after Claudette Kibble allegedly had confessed to her own mother and murder charges were filed against the 23-year-old woman, that the M.E.'s Office finally ruled that the three boys were homicide victims.

Kibble's arrest and indictment came less than a month after the retirement of Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk as the county's chief medical examiner. For the previous 35 years, the imperious "Dr. Joe" had run the morgue almost as if it were his personal fiefdom, with little oversight from Commissioners Court.

Jachimczyk's departure occasioned a flood of tributes from inside and outside of county government. It also, for the first time in memory, opened the M.E.'s Office itself to a critical examination, from inside and outside of county government. As it turns out, the autopsies of Claudette Kibble's dead children weren't the only questionable postmortems performed in recent years. And other recent revelations -- of improper tissue-harvesting [See "Bitter Harvest," page 14] and double-dipping pathologists -- are casting a new and harsher light on Jachimczyk's operation of the office.

"Jachimczyk's retirement is recognized as an opportunity to make the Medical Examiner's Office more accountable," says a member of the 13-person committee searching for his replacement. "We're trying to get away from that cult of personality that contributed to that lack of accountability."

Few public servants have a building named after them; fewer still are so honored before they die, or at least retire. But in 1984, Commissioners Court paid homage to the county's longtime chief medical examiner by dedicating the Joseph A. Jachimczyk Forensic Center. The red-brick facility sits on Old Spanish Trail, not far south of the old Ben Taub Hospital, whose crowded, un-air-conditioned basement had formerly served as the county morgue.

Having the building in which he worked named after him is just one of many honors bestowed upon Jachimczyk (pronounced ya-HIM-check) over the years. He had arrived in Houston in 1957, after earning degrees in law and medicine and completing a teaching fellowship in legal medicine at Harvard. Three years later, he was appointed the county's chief medical examiner. Armed with his expertise in dual disciplines, Jachimczyk was considered to be on the cutting edge nationally in the field of forensic pathology. At his retirement, he was making $150,000 a year -- the highest salary in county government. His flamboyant character, and the sensational murder investigations in which he participated, would establish him as a local icon.

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