The Cop and The Coroner: Part One
September 20, 1985. I stepped into our master bedroom closet, dodged the wicker laundry basket, a pile of clothes and stack of shoeboxes. My brain buzzed with one question. What would I wear to a meeting between LAPD Detective John “Jigsaw” St. John and Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, Danny Dambacher? A cop who chased and arrested LA’s most dangerous killers and his “partner-in-crime” who examined corpses and determined cause of death.
For a brief second, I felt like Alice-in-Wonderland on the precipice of falling into a rabbit hole. How did I get to such a nutty place in my life where I’d be thinking about what to wear to such an odd meeting? What was a wannabe writer, doctor’s wife, snack-bar mom doing rummaging through tennis outfits, dog walking get-ups and hiking attire to find just the right “look” for a cop/coroner lunch? Then again, what the hell difference did it make? I could probably wear gardening clothes and neither man would know the difference.
In the almost three years St. John and I had been working together, he’d seen me in everything from silk dresses and sling backs to t-shirts and jeans. But in my forty years on planet earth, I never imagined I’d ever spend more than two seconds selecting a frock for a lunch date between two important, male, law enforcement professionals. But I had a good reason for wanting to impress Dambacher. It had something to do with collaborating on a book.
St. John had arranged this meeting because Dambacher was interested in chronicling his vast experience in the “death business.” I’d met Danny two years earlier when John insisted I attend an autopsy as part of my research for writing the Freeway Killer investigation story. I dug in my heels. What the heck did seeing an autopsy have to do with writing this book? “You handle the autopsies. I’ll handle the writing,” I told him.
As always happened when we disagreed, John won. I saw the autopsy and met Danny Dambacher–a jovial imp dressed in a tweed-jacket and khaki-slacks who seemed the kind of agreeable chap that always bought the first round of drinks at the bar.
I had to be the one to write this book about an extraordinary relationship that went back to the days John worked as a rookie cop and Dambacher worked as a mortuary aid. The hook was set when John described his friend as “the best dead body man in town” The story sunk its claws into my imagination. It had technicolor images, rapid-fire dialogue and heart-stopping scenes.
I met St. John at my reserved parking spot in the Parker Center garage. He didn’t wear his usual “I’m a cop” outfit – tan sports coat, baggy pants, gun on one side, pocket loaded with nickels and dimes on the other, all of it topped with one of the ugliest ties I’d ever seen. Today, he was dressed for the Oscars in a new suit and blue tie. I told him he looked mighty spiffy.
“Looking pretty sharp there, John,” I said, with an admiring glance. “From what you gave me last week, I wrote an opening I’d like to read on our way to the restaurant. I think it’s pretty good for a first draft but of course I’m open to whatever you say.”
He gave me a quick hug, told me I was fifteen minutes late and said he’d listen to my draft.
“We’re going to one of our favorite joints, Philippe’s,” he said. “Feels like a French Dip afternoon. I’ll get a back booth where there’s more privacy. Danny will be a little late.”
I climbed into my seat next to John feeling right at home and excited about the interview.