Undetermined Manner of Death

I just saw that federal prosecutors are dropping charges against Stephen Beal, the business partner and former boyfriend of bombing-murder victim Ildiko Krajnyak. This turn of events is in keeping with the “Nigel Effect.” It often occurs when a woman dies in a mysterious or suspicious way, and the person most likely to be responsible for her death is her husband or boyfriend — and yet, just as mysteriously and suspiciously, law enforcement fails to make a case against the guy. Usually, this only happens when the responsible person is NIGEL, the NIcest Guy who Ever Lived — just ask his neighbors! Nigel would never intentionally harm anyone! Spousal death investigations have a tendency to evaporate around Nigel.

Earlier, I wrote that the “mysterious” death of Christine Beal, Stephen Beal’s first wife, sounded like another case in which Long Beach homicide detectives shrugged and punted to the coroner. The manner of Christine Beal’s death has remained “undetermined” for the past ten years. I see this a law-enforcement failure.

However, reporter Beatriz E. Valenzuela was kind enough to reply to my post via e-mail. She wrote: “Thank you but to clarify, it’s the coroner who determines the cause of death and depending on that determination, that triggers the homicide investigation. Since her death was not determined to be a homicide, the process didn’t kick in and the case stayed with the coroner. However, you are not the first person to express frustration and concern over how that death was handled.”

Yes, but mostly no. The medical examiner in Christine Beal’s case did in fact identify causes of death. According the coroner’s website, her death was caused by pancreatitis, electrolyte imbalance and other undetermined factors, in addition to chronic lead intoxication. It is the manner of her death that has remained undetermined. An “undetermined” manner of death means that the medical examiner requires more information about the circumstances surrounding the death to determine whether the death was natural, accident, suicide, or homicide.

How might the medical examiner learn more about the circumstances of Christine Beal’s death? From the local police.

The assumption that homicide detectives don’t — or can’t — concern themselves with a case until a medical examiner calls it a homicide is just not accurate. As a matter of hospital policy — at all hospitals everywhere, probably — cases of suspected homicide are reported first to local law enforcement, and then to the coroner. Suspicion or evidence of toxic poisoning, such as chronic lead intoxication, would probably prompt a hospital to call the police. If no one called the police in Christine Beal’s case, I’d call that an institutional failure.

Some news reports have said that Christine Beal sustained a head injury in an alleged accident while moving furniture with her husband at home sometime before her death. On the basis of this fact alone, hers was a suspicious death, and the police should have been involved concurrent with the coroner. If the Long Beach police weren’t notified — again, that’s a failure. If they were notified yet failed to investigate, that’s a more serious, alarming failure.