Working With Death: Forensic Chemist

Michelle O’Neal is a Senior Forensic Chemist at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. With twenty-five years’ experience in drug chemistry she also assists with the recovery of buried and/or skeletal remains and the collection of trace evidence from suspected homicide victims. She is a member of several professional organizations, a current board member and a past President of the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists.

In the area of community service Michelle sat for two years as the Board President for The Samaritan House/Samaritan Villages housing project which provides homes for persons living with HIV/AIDS in Fort Worth and she was the 2014 Education Director for the non-profit DFW Writers’ Workshop Conference.

Through the experience gained as a drug analyst and ten years as a crime scene investigator, Ms. O’Neal shares her adventures with a twisted sense of fiction in her novel SHAMBLES

DW: Tell me about your job.

MO:  My daily duties now are mostly confined to the drug chemistry lab. I analyze substances ranging from marijuana to methamphetamine utilizing analytical instrumentation such as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS) and Fourier Transform infrared spectrophotometry (FTIR).

I’m on the buried and/or skeletal remains recovery team and the trace evidence recovery team. If our forensic anthropologist receives and call on possible buried remains or skeletal remains, I assist with everything from packing gear to photography to uncovering human remains by meticulously brushing away soil.

In the morgue at the request of one of our pathologist, I search suspected homicide victims and collect any trace evidence such as hairs, fibers or blood that may help solve the crime.

DW:  When was the first time you encountered a dead person?

MO:  Honestly in my career, I really don’t remember. The very first was my grandfather. I was eight years old and we were at the funeral home where they’d laid him out on a bed. My grandmother and father kept putting his glasses on and taking them off, trying to decide which looked better. It seemed ridiculous to me and I think I blurted out something like “He’s dead he doesn’t need glasses.” My mother labeled me precocious at a very young age.

DW:  How was that?

MO:  Well it sure gave me a healthy view of death. Because of that experience I never felt the body was the person. The body resembled my grandfather but it wasn’t my grandfather. Even when he slept on the couch he snored loudly. My family was so matter of fact, when I stated the obvious my grandmother shrugged and put his glasses in her purse.

DW:  Does seeing a dead body bother you?

MO:  A lifeless body can be creepy, but it can be peaceful too. It depends on the age and condition of the body. It’s hard to curtail feelings of anger when the body is that of a child who died a violent death. Or not be repulsed by the stench of a decomposed body.

The most memorable child case I worked was the crime scene of a slain eleven year old girl. Whose mother did nothing when the little girl informed her that the mom’s boyfriend had sexually assaulted her repeatedly. With the news helicopters flapping overhead I held a lock of her blonde hair and made a promise.

From the beginning I made promises to the dead. I still stand close by and promise to do the best job possible so whoever took them from their friends and family will be held responsible. It helps me look at it as a job. A job that has to be done, a job I am well trained to do.

Two of the most difficult crimes scenes I worked were not homicides. One was an elderly man that lived with his mentally challenged son. He lay dead of natural causes in the house they shared for weeks. When the detective asked why he didn’t call someone, the son replied because I will miss my Dad. We made eye contact as I passed on one of many trips in and out of the foul-smelling house. The look of loss in his eyes still haunts me. The other was the suicide of a fifteen year old, the same age as my own son at the time. His parents were in the house. As I trekked through carrying my gear to his location in the back yard I could hear his mother’s visceral wailing. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child for any reason.

And I’ve had family members thank me. In the mist of their grief they take the time to say Thank You. As horrible as someone has been to their loved one(s) they still find it in their heart to be kind. I’m always amazed by how people treat each other from one extreme to the other.

DW:  What got you interested in this line of work?

MO:  Well, being the precocious child that I was, I began reading true crime around the age of twelve. I read KIDNAP The Story of the Lindbergh Case by George Waller and I was fascinated by the way they matched the wood in Bruno Hauptman’s attic to the wood used to build the ladder found at the Lindbergh home. (The science behind this is now questioned) Then at thirteen or fourteen I read Helter Skelter, The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi. Tex Watson was convicted on the testimony of a housekeeper. He claimed his fingerprints were on a doorknob in the house because he had attended a party in the Tate home some months prior to the murders. The housekeeper testified Sharon Tate had an obsession for clean doorknobs, so she cleaned them weekly. I knew at an early age this was the career for me.

DW:  In your personal life have you had any experience with death?

MO:  Yes I have, three times.  Several years ago a friend of mine was alone at the hospital while her father struggled with a slow death from emphysema. She had no other family so I stayed with her in his room. Before he dozed off as they increased his morphine drip he shooed her away and reached for me. He clasped my hand in his, gave me a look of knowing and closed his eyes. His last few breaths were peaceful. Oddly enough, within a week I witnessed the birth of a neighbors’ baby.

In late 2010 I was diagnosed with an atypical very fast growing, neuroendocrine cancer. I had twenty metastasized tumors in my liver. With chemotherapy they gave me six to eight months to live. I work at the medical examiners’ office, people die every day. Why should I be any different? I vowed to continue with chemo even after the first three (horrible) rounds of cisplatin did no good. I found myself comforting my friends and family I wanted them to accept my upcoming departure. Not one complied with my wishes. In the thirteen months that followed I had twelve rounds of chemotherapy and liver resection surgery. Thanks to a man that survived full blown AIDS and refused to let me die, many very special people, positive vibes into the universe, candle lighting prayers and great doctors I’m cancer free today.

My mother’s death six months ago, we removed her from life support. We said our goodbyes and once she slipped from consciousness I was the only one in family okay with it, because I knew she was ready. But when her heart stopped beating I fell apart. I miss her terribly some days, but at least she’s not in pain anymore.

DW:  Any words of advice concerning death?

MO:  No but I have some concerning life.  Do what makes you happy today don’t plan for happiness in the future. You may not have one.