Author Question: Police Death Notification

In my writing life, I’ve met some fantastic police officers. My own brother is a county sheriff close to where I live so I use him a lot for questions. I’ve also gotten to meet many other great police officers and one was very helpful in giving me a detailed SWAT scenario for my most release, Peril.

Darcie sent me some police type questions and I passed them along to Seargent S. Tarr and he provided the following insight.

Darcie asks:

What I learned so far is that if my Main character (Kelley)’s parents’ bodies were found along a hiking trail near Glenwood Springs, the Denver Police would visit her house to break the news since Kelley lives in the Denver area.
Sergeant Tarr: Yes, if a person is found to be deceased the next of kin is notified by the jurisdiction that the person’s family is located. They would usually send a marked patrol unit and a victim advocate. We call it a death notification. Sometime the coroner will also go if it’s in the same jurisdiction. 
Darcie: That leaves me now with, since at first this appears to be a hiking accident, where would the bodies be? Coroner? 
Sergeant Tarr: It doesn’t matter if it appears to be an accident or not. The coroner would handle the investigation into the cause of death and police in the manner (like a homicide, scene traffic accident, suicide etc..) So it would be a joint investigation regardless. The only time the coroner and law enforcement don’t do an investigation is if it happens in a hospital or in the care of medical staff. So the coroner would take the body and most likely perform an autopsy. Would be very uncommon for them not to. The coroner would then rule on the cause of death ie: natural, suicide, accidental, etc.. 
Darcie: Would there be an autopsy? 

Sergeant Tarr: An autopsy would be performed by the jurisdiction that the death happened. The pathologist could be from Denver. I know for example that the pathologist from Fort Collins comes down to Denver to conduct autopsies. The Arapahoe examiner has also traveled to other coroner’s offices to assist. 

Darcie: Would Kelley have to go ID them even though they had drivers licenses etc on them?

Sergeant Tarr: This depends on if a positive ID can be made with the id or not. Like if their face was ripped off, sorry to sound crude. They can also put their fingerprints through AFIS to see if they can get an ID that way also. Sometimes the family has to ID the body if no positive ID can be made. It is usually the last thing done. Once the coroner releases the bodies it would be picked up by a funeral service. They would transport the bodies back to Denver for the funeral arrangements.

Author Question: Condition of Body in Two Views

Angela Asks:

I am an Australian writer of crime fiction novels set in SE Asia, specifically Thailand. You can read more about me and my books here:

In my current novel, The Dying Beach, a body washes up in the shallows of a cave by a beach. I’ve done a bit of research on forensics and how you distinguish drowning from accidental death. What I hope you can help me with is the following.
The body is that of a young Thai woman. Would the skin of the corpse whiten if it had been in the water for say, 12 hours, or would the skin still appear olive?
The body is found by a war surgeon on vacation, floating face down. When the body is rolled over, would you expect to find the eyes open? Would they be clear or cloudy?
Is there anything else I should know about a corpse found in this state? 
FYI the corpse is found in shallow, tepid water.
Any advice you can give would be much appreciated.

Jordyn Says
I actually ran this question by two sources: a physician coworker and a forensic investigator. Here are their responses.
As far as the skin pigmentation– she said a person will retain the pigment. They might look gray but won’t be “whiter”. And you’ll have to consider how blood settles when someone dies.
As far as the eyes being open or closed– she thinks partly open because it takes muscles to keep your eyes closed and if you’re dead– these aren’t functioning anymore.
As far as the eyes looking cloudy– I know when I’ve taken care of patients that have died, the color in their irises– this is the colored part of your eye– definitely look like the color leaches out. Almost looking gray. So, no clear answer here– you could probably have a little creative license.
1)  A person’s skin pigmentation would not change unless the person has been dead for at least several weeks. Then the body would turn green and eventually black due to the decomposition. But this would take weeks into months depending on the environment the body is in (hot, cold, dry, humid, etc.).

2) When the body is rolled over the eyes may or may not be closed. There is no rhyme or reason for it. I would expect the eyes to be clear. Typically the eyes would become cloudy after the decedent has been dead for at least several days/weeks.
3) There really is not a whole lot more information. The hands would show sign of wrinkling, referred to as “washer woman hands”. This can make fingerprinting for identification difficult. Sometimes marine life will start to eat the body. This typically occurs about the face, eyes, and genitals. This of course would typically not occur within 12 hours of death. Another thing is when a body has been in the water for day(s) and is removed, decomposition will tend to accelerate. The bacteria has had no oxygen source as the body has been in water. Once the body is removed and the bacteria has a oxygen source, they really go to work to make up for lost time.

Forensic Friday: What Happened to Kenny? Part 2

In the first part of this series on an actual death investigation, Kenny, a male corpse in various stages of decomposition, was discovered dumped in a wooded area near a Canadian west coast city on a hot summer day.
There was no immediate identification, no apparent time of death, no location where he might have died, and certainly no obvious cause of death. Even without these basics, the corpse and the scene still crawled with information. On the surface, thousands of things were going to help in narrowing down the length of time that Kenny had been there.
Entomology is a long accepted forensic science in determining the progression of nature’s recycling program. It relies on the study of the insect life cycle; egg, larva, pupa, adult, and back to egg. Each species has a specific time frame and a collection of specimens from the scene is critical. By determining which insects were present and what stages of development they were in, you can simply count the days of production. Fortunately, two factors were in favor this day.
One is that the conditions were perfect for insect proliferation; early summer, hot and dry weather, being in a semi-shaded rural area, and having a huge supply of rotting flesh. The second was having a world renowned lady entomologist residing a phone call away at the University of British Columbia – the ‘Bug Bitch’ as she’s affectionately known in the forensic world.
The scene was held until the entomologist arrived and took samples of the insect life and surrounding vegetation. A forensic pathologist was consulted by phone but declined to attend. Contrary to popular police shows, pathologists rarely examine a body on site as there’s little they can do that the coroner and police forensic officers can’t. A common misconception is that time of death can be readily determined by a pathologist taking rectal temperature or pulling some rabbit from their hat. Absolutely not so.
A must-do was a manual search of the corpse for any identifiers; wallet with ID, jewelry, pocket contents – anything – and in Kenny’s case nothing was found. There were some apparent things for follow-up. His mummified left arm showed numerous tattoos and his teeth, very visible in the skeletonized skull, showed a large gap between the top incisors. Without a doubt, in life, Kenny would have been very recognizable when he smiled.
A scene search had been methodically conducted by a small army of police officers and two service dogs. This was done in a strict grid pattern and anything of interest was recorded on a GPS data point, then collected, catalogued as evidence, and mapped out in a computerized reconstruction. This sounds easy, but the thick woods and step terrain made the search a logistical hassle.
Compounding the challenge was that the site had been used as an unauthorized waste dump. For years, careless people had chucked stuff over this bank and it was strewn with plastics and papers, tires and tools, boards and bags and boxes. Determining what was current, what was historic, and what was relevant, was a judgment call however something of interest could be seen trapped under the body.
Remains removal is usually a matter of physically lifting the corpse and placing it in a body bag, then carrying it to a van and transporting to the morgue. In Kenny’s case – not so easy. His state of decomp was to the point of disarticulation; in other words coming apart at the joints. Now this is not the first time a rotting corpse had been transferred and a trick of the trade is to use large, plastic snow scrapers to effectively ‘team shovel’ the cadaver in one piece into a bag. Again, sounds simple, till you consider this was on an incline and the first disturbance caused a swarm flies and a reek of gassing off.
With Kenny now on his way to the morgue, a better look was taken at what had been underneath him. A white plastic bag was recovered which contained the usual garbage; 7-11 wrappers, Big Gulp cups, napkins, pop cans… and a receipt with a time and date.
This obviously had been down the bank before Kenny landed on top of it, but did it come with him? It’d eventually proved corroborative in determining Kenny’s time of death, but who was he? How’d he get here? And what or who the hell killed him?
There was a lot of science ahead. And some good ‘ol detective work.
Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website:

Forensic Fridays: All About Autopsies

Most living people never visit the morgue.

Most never speak of the morgue, except during shows like CSI, Bones, or Hawaii 5-0. The popularity of forensic TV series, however, is social proof that there’s hidden interest in finding out just what goes on behind the autopsy suite’s closed door.
The word autopsymeans ‘to examine for yourself’. It’s a medical procedure that sounds simple in principle – taking a look at the outside and inside of a cadaver to establish cause of death. In practice, a post mortem (PM) examination can be highly complicated and time consuming; employing leading-edge scientific expertise.

There are three types of PM’s. A hospital autopsy is a non-legal process where the cause of death is known, but the caring physician wants to confirm a specific issue – such as a cancer tumor. A routine autopsy is conducted when the cause of death is not known, but foul play is not suspected. Then there’s a forensic autopsy – the one that’s going to be torn apart in a murder trial.

All autopsies follow a standard protocol. It’s the nature of the investigation that determines just how in-depth the procedure gets. The deceased arrives at the morgue and is catalogued with personal details and a registration number. Yes, they really do use toe-tags. The body is then placed in a refrigeration unit and waits its turn for examination. In a busy morgue this can take several days.
Usually two people conduct the autopsy. The pathologist, or medical doctor who is trained in the study of death and disease, is assisted by the deiner (German word for helper). Often there’s observers present; police officers, students, or technicians who come and go. The length of time varies – fifteen minutes to confirm a tumor, two hours routinely, and up to eight for a complicated forensic ordeal.
External observation can take a good portion. The body is removed from its shipping shroud, stripped, photographed, X-Rayed, weighed, measured, and identifiers such as race, age, hair and eye color, markings, abnormalities, as well as evidence of trauma or medical intervention is recorded. In homicide cases, the bulk of the evidence can be recovered in the external exam – clothing perforations, gunshot residue, lacerations, abrasions, hair, fiber, DNA, chemical contamination, or foreign objects. The observations are recorded on notes, diagrams, photos, and verbal dictations.
The corpse is placed supine, on its back, on the examining table which is an angled stainless steel tray draining fluids to a disposal sink. A plastic block is placed under the back to elevate the chest and recline the head and arms, making internal operations practical. A Y-incision is sliced from the tip of each shoulder, horizontally to the center of the chest, then vertically down to the pubic area. The skin is scalpeled back in a butterfly pattern accessing the thorax and abdomen, then the ribcage is removed exposing the upper and lower organs.
The major ones are removed, weighed, and cross-sectioned – lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, and intestines. Tissue sections are exscinded and fluids are extracted – blood, urine, vitreous humor, and digestive contents. These can be of immediate visual interest, or may tell later tales in toxicology and microscopic processing.
Cranial examination is the part that most newbies find difficult. The neck is now propped to elevate the head and the scalp is cut from ear to ear, peeled over the face and down the neck, then the skull cap is severed with a vibrating saw. The brain extracts easily and is often preserved in formalin to gel for later sectioning.
Completion involves returning the organs to the central cavity and sewing the incisions before releasing the body to a funeral home. Tissue and liquids are retained for histology and toxicology. In forensic cases, exhibits such as bullets, trace evidence, DNA standards, and clothing are transferred to the crime lab.
Often the cause of death is conclusive at autopsy. Occasionally nothing is known until the lab results come in. And sometimes… it’s never determined just why the subject died.
Our scientific understanding of life and death is extensive, but it’s far from perfect.
Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website:

Do Do I Need a Coroner, Medical Examiner or Pathologist?

I’m so excited to have Garry Rodgers join my honored team of medical experts. To be honest, I’ve been looking for someone on the “other side of life” to offer their insights because I do see a fair number of forensic questions and this is not my area of expertise. I try to keep the living from crossing over.

Garry will be here on a regular basis doing Forensic Fridays and I’m so glad to have him. I hope you’ll check out his novel, No Witnesses to Nothing.

Welcome, Garry!

Hi. I’m Garry Rodgers and I’m delighted to be a guest on Redwood’s Medical Edge.

For over three decades I’ve been involved in the death business. I’ve been a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective, served as a sniper on Emergency Response Teams, and finished up my forensic career as a Coroner. So I’ve seen my fair share of bodies.

Everyone knows what a homicide cop does, and most would rather not be in the sights of a sniper, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of a Coroner as opposed to a Medical Examiner (ME) and to a pathologist. A bit of a history here.

All civilized jurisdictions have a judge of the dead whose duty is to find fact. Not fault. The facts to be determined are the Who, When, Where, How, and By What Means that the deceased expired. Once these facts are determined, the death must be classified into one of five categories; Natural, Accidental, Suicide, Homicide, or Undetermined. This method of fact-finding and classification is universal, whereas the structure of appointing the judge is not.

The office of the coroner dates back to 10th century England when the Crowner of the King (hence the word coroner) investigated any number of matters, including sudden and unexplained human deaths. This evolved into an inquisitional role where the coroner would conduct simple inquiries, or in cases of public interest, would hold inquests and compel witnesses to testify. Coroner appointments generally went to upstanding citizens of the community, not necessarily to those of a medical, legal, or investigative background.

As science progressed, it became prudent to retain the expertise of medical professionals, particularly in the clinical areas of autopsy and toxicology. This coincided with the massing of population in urban areas. Out of practicality and economics, the cities would employ full time medical doctors as examiners who’d delegate field investigations to lesser qualified persons. The rural areas, having a lower caseload, adopted the reverse where they’d contract out the specialties.

A pathologist, on the other hand, is a medical examiner who’s been specifically trained in the study of death and disease. The term pathologist dates back to ancient Greece; pathos meaning suffering, and logos meaning writing. Taking it a step further, a forensic pathologist signifies a specially-trained medical doctor who’s qualified to testify in court.

I can’t say the Coroner system is any better or worse than the Medical Examiner system. The professionals may have inverse roles, but all are exceptionally well trained. Both speak to the deceased’s interests and that’s what’s important. Death investigations have become more complex as science advances and, regardless of the administrative issues, having the right people doing the right jobs is key to determining the proper cause and classification of death.

Just a note on the personal qualities required to investigate deaths. First you need an inquisitive mind. Often things aren’t what they seem on the surface, and it’s through attention to detail that the facts rise. Second – empathy. You deal with those in the world which the deceased suddenly left; families, friends, co-workers, and to them it’s not just another case. Last, you need a strong constitution. Some of the death scenes can be exceptionally unpleasant.

In an upcoming sequence of posts, I’ll take you deeper into the world of a coroner. We’ll follow a true case which I investigated that employed the spectrum of forensic techniques. I was able to correctly classify the death, but I’ll assure you… it wasn’t what it seemed on the surface.
So stick around. I promise to be interesting!


Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website:

Author Question: Post-Mortem Injuries

Giacomo asks: I’m writing a scene where the killer cuts off the victims’ lips while they are alive. how would the M.E. know if the vic was alive or not by looking at the corpse?
Jordyn says:
Sometimes, the best thing for me to do is offer an author several resources to delve through to find the answer they’re looking for. Here’s the list of resources I sent to Giacomo:
1. What Crime Scene Insects Reveal About the Victim’s Wounds:
2. Antemortem vs. Postmortem Injuries. Which means injuries before and after death.
3. Twenty-seven differences between antemortem and postmortem wounds:
4. Medico-legal significance of a bruise:

Does anyone else have any resources that might help with Giacomo’s question?***********************************************************************Giacomo grew up in a large Italian family in the Northeast. No one had money, so for entertainment he and his family played board games and told stories. He loved the city—the noise, the people—but it was the storytelling most of all that stuck with him. Now Giacomo and his wife live in Texas, where they run an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.” Sometimes he misses the early days, but not much. Now he enjoys the solitude and the noise of the animals.


Forensic Issues: Determining Time of Death

Determining time of death is important for criminal prosecutions to narrow down the list of suspects. Some things that can aid narrowing down this window are forensic terms you may of heard of: Algor Mortis, Livor Mortis, and Rigor Mortis.

I was fortunate to hear a local coroner speak several months ago. And she reviewed these terms and what they meant.

How fast does a body cool? In a 70 degree room the body will cool 1 degree an hour if maintained at a steady temperature. Issue being, how often are the deceased found in a perfect, unchanging, 70 degree environment? They can be found in temperature extremes, exposed to the elements, or buried in differing depths. All these will effect determining time of death.

Algor Mortis: Reduction in body temperature after death. There is generally a steady decline until is matches the ambient temperature of the environment. Problem being if the body is found in a much hotter area like a house with little air conditioning in a hot, humid environment.

Livor Mortis: Dependent pooling of blood when a person dies. This can be helpful in determining the position of the body at death and if a body has been moved. For instance, let’s say a nude body was found face down, yet their buttocks, heels, shoulder blades and posterior scalp are purplish. This would indicate a change in the position of the body. It starts 30 seconds to two minutes and becomes fixed in 8-12 hours.

Rigor Mortis: Stiffening of the muscles. Starts in small muscle groups first. Begins 2-4 hours, fully developed in 6-12 hours and disappears in 36 hours.

Things that can speed up or slow down these time frames are: the environment, fever, and whether or not the body was buried. Considering the long time frames, an exact time of death is hard and the best hope is to narrow down the time frame.

Here’s a good overview and includes additional discussion of the process of putrefaction.

Have you written a scene using any of these concepts?

Medical Question: The Morgue

DV asks: I am writing a thriller right now and need a description of a large city hospital morgue. I haven’t tried to secure a tour yet (do they even allow that?) at a city nearby. All I need is to know how they’re set up. I’ve read they’re usually in the basement near a loading dock, and they’re usually unmarked and secure.
Do they use a wall of refrigerated drawers? If not, what does the room look like? How are the bodies marked? Do they still use toe tags or is it all done electronically? Do they include cause of death? I’m afraid the smaller town I live in wouldn’t have the same kind of morgue as a large city (the book takes place in LA). I’d like to have at least a semblance of reality.
Jordyn says:  DV, thanks for sending me your question.
I’m not familiar with a large city morgue either. Just a hospital morgue. I think you could probably call and set-up a tour. I’m sure you won’t be the first person to ask. Another thing I would recommend would be to take your local police department’s citizens’ police academy. I took one locally last year and it was a wealth of information. Sometimes, through a venue like this, you might get the chance to tour a morgue.
Considering your question as a medical person, this is how I would research it.
Do a Google search for known medical examiner’s buildings and get photos of the structure via the Internet for the outside look.
Next, go to You Tube and search for “morgue tour”.
I thought this one was actually pretty good and gave decent enough info to set up a scene.

You could view others as your heart desires. Any other suggestions for DV?


DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat.

Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes whenever she gets a chance. You’re welcome to email her at dvb@dvberkom or chat with her on Facebook or Twitter- she loves to hear from readers as well as other writers.

Visit with Colorado Coroner Chris Herndon

Most people imagine Sunday afternoons to be filled with football and family. Especially now that there will be a football season— and yes, I do hear the collective sigh of all men. But, if you’re a nurse and an author, you think there’s nothing better than to go to a talk given by the local coroner, Chris Herndon.

That’s what I did a few Sundays ago….

 As always, I’m always intrigued by medical things and myth busting. Here’s a few highlights that I thought were of particular interest for writers. One even busted a myth I had in my current ms. Guess I’ll be changing that.

Item One: Do coroners really wear Vick’s Vapor Rub under their nostrils to mask the smell? She says “no”– going on to explain that this ointment “opens up the nasal passages” and “why would I want to do that?” Much better to work with a bad cold to block out the smell. I will say though that I will often put on a mask or chew gum to help me. Chris mentioned she always has mints on hand.

Item Two:  Six weeks for DNA testing unless done by a private lab.

Item Three: Victims who drown in flood waters are generally found nude as the water will rip off their clothing.

Item Four: Often times in suicide pacts, one person will not follow through.

Item Five: It really does not pay to drink then cut thyself.

Chris shared two stories that exhibited this.

The first was of a man who was drunk and high (double bad combo) and decided to harass an old girlfriend. He punched his hand through a window, cutting the underside of his arm and severed his brachial artery. After this, he staggered through the parking lot until he dropped dead. Upon police arrival, they follow the trail of blood to the broken window and ask this woman why she didn’t call police after he broke it. Sadly, she’d been harassed so often by this gentleman that she’d given up asking the police for assistance.

Second was of a man who was on Coumadin for atrial fibrillation. Coumadin is a blood thinner. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart beat. This gentleman decided to cook while drunk. He dropped a knife on his the top aspect of his foot and severed the dorsalis pedis artery. Well, he does realize he’s injured himself as there was evidence that he’d walked to the garage to get paper towel to wipe up the mess. He begins to not feel well, so he sits at his kitchen table and places on a home blood pressure cuff. Loss of blood will cause you to feel weak, lightheaded, and dizzy. This is where he’s found dead. At the kitchen table, sitting up with blood pressure cuff in place. A pool of blood by the injured foot.

His blood alcohol was over 0.350. That’s a professional drinker….

So people, please, no drinking with sharp implements! Really… no drinking in excess would be great for us ER professionals. Moral: Have at least one sober person that you haven’t relentlessly harassed present to call 911 for you.

What other morals do you see? Have you written any of these particulars in your ms?

Medical Question: 1950’s Coroner

April asks: For a grad assignment, I have to come up with murder mystery plot line.  I have the general plot line down, but I’m wondering how efficient an autopsy in the 1950s would be?
I need the victim to be poisoned, most likely by a relatively common plant–probably a daffodil, yew, or Wild Cherries (those are my top three choices at the moment).  However, I have no idea how much or what kind of poisons would have been detectable by a small-town, 1950’s coroner.
Jordyn says:  First thing, is a medical examiner and coroner are very different. A medical examiner is a trained physician (the one who does the autopsy) and the coroner is an elected official to decide how an investigation should proceed. For instance, if the coroner feels the cause of death does not involve a crime, there may not even be an autopsy.

Yew Plant

The second thing you need to determine is when tests for toxicology/poisons came about: “Screening tests, such as radio immunoassay, enzyme immunoassay and thin-layer chromatography are often very sensitive, but not very specific. Because they are very sensitive, they will very likely detect the chemical/poison if it is, indeed, present in the sample. Unfortunately, because they lack specificity, they are given to false-positives – mistaking a substance with a similar chemical make-up for the suspected poison. Unless the results of these screening tests are confirmed with a reliable testing methodology, such as gas-chromatography/mass-spectrometry, the results of these screening tests do not satisfy the evidentiary standards for admissibility.”

When I did a little searching, some of these tests were not developed until the 1950’s and 1960’s. So, for them to be widely used would take some years. If you want to be very specific in your ms, you need to research when each of these tests were developed for forensic use. For example, google “development of forensic radio immnoassay”. That will give you a timeline for when they may have been able to detect your chosen poisons on autopsy. I did link you to some forensic timelines below— there are a few of these tests mentioned.
I think the easiest route for you would be this: This small town has a coroner who doesn’t suspect anything criminal is going on. This is still very common today because a coroner may have absolutely little or no medical training and probably no forensic training. Then, maybe based on the victim’s symptoms before death, the very smart local doctor begins to think someone is poisoning these people. This sets up conflict which is always a must. I would research the symptoms people have when they ingest the items you have listed. Then, maybe this local doctor can push the coroner into having a fancy, big-town ME do an autopsy.
3. forensic toxicology (poisonings)
Hope this helps and gives you some direction.