The motive for Stephen Paddock’s shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 58 people and sent nearly 500 to hospitals last Sunday might be found in the Las Vegas Coroner’s Offices autopsy and toxicological investigations. Did Paddock have any brain abnormalities or life-threatening illness that caused him to become a mass murderer and commit suicide?
An autopsy found that mass murderer Charles Whitman, who killed his wife and mother and then shot and killed 14 people at the University of Texas in 1966 before police killed him, had a malignant brain tumor. Whitman, who used a rifle to shoot at random from observation deck of the 27-story university clock tower, also wounded 31 people.
In a note written the day before he killed his victims, Whitman discussed his hatred for his family and plans to kill them, adding: “After my death, I wish an autopsy on me to be performed to see if there’s any mental disorders.”
In addition to examining Paddock’s brain, an autopsy on his body will show if he had the scars of a prior suicide attempt. What clues can be found for why decided to use the guns he loved to end his life and the lives of so many others?
Toxicological analysis will show whether there were any illegal or prescription drugs in Paddock’s blood when he died. Analysis of his hair will show what drugs he had taken during the weeks or months before he died.
For the Las Vegas Coroner’s Office, the task of investigating so many deaths at once in a high-profile national tragedy is an enormous one.
Based on my over 50 years of experience examining more than 20,000 bodies to determine the cause of death and investigating many mass disasters – hurricanes, fires, airplane crashes and more – its clear that the Coroner’s Office right now must be a place of organized chaos.
Families want the bodies of their loved ones to be immediately released, while the bodies are still being studied by teams of pathologists, police, FBI agents, dentists and radiologists. The investigators are trying to reconstruct what happened and whether there are any clues as how to prevent future such deaths.
Here is an explanation of the work facing the Las Vegas Coroner’s Office:
First, the Coroner’s Office has the responsibility to properly identify each person who died and then to determine the cause of each death. Did everyone die from bullet wounds? Or did anyone die of a heart attack, a fall or from being trampled?
Then pathologists must remove bullets from the bodies of the shooting victims for ballistics examination. This is necessary to determine if there is a bullet taken from one of the deceased that does not match the weapons at the scene. That would indicate it had come from a second shooter.
Also, the coroner must confirm after an autopsy that Paddock did in fact shoot himself.
There are also certain procedures that coroners or medical examiners must employ in all mass disasters where many lives are tragically lost.
The Clark County coroner had to make sure there was enough cold storage space at his office to prevent decomposition of bodies and would have obtained additional refrigeration trucks if necessary.
The coroner also had to make sure that there are sufficient personnel available to professionally respond to all families making inquiries, whether in person, by telephone or email. In addition, the coroner needs staff to obtain descriptive information from family members regarding tattoos, birthmarks, scars and medical and dental information of those who died.
Family members may also be asked to provide photographs or DNA, if necessary.
Each body will be photographed and fingerprinted and may be X-rayed and autopsied as necessary. Examination of clothing, jewelry, rings and watches may assist in identification and will be returned to the families.
The Coroner’s Office must work closely with families to assure them that the bodies of their loved ones will be released as soon as they are definitely identified. Identification documents that may be with each body may have to be confirmed by direct visualization or photographs.
Sadly, we can’t turn back the clock on this mass murder. The nation mourns the senseless loss of life. All we can do is investigate each death to help us better understand this tragedy and perhaps get some idea of what led Paddock to commit such a terrible crime.
Dr. Michael Baden is the former chief medical examiner of New York City and the former chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police.