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In Los Angeles, the ‘Coroner to the Stars’ Has the Last Word

In most places, it is a trade of little glamour. Transporting bodies, performing autopsies — the role of a coroner’s office tends to be dismissed as a macabre necessity.

But this is Los Angeles, where the list of those who have died unexpectedly is iconic: Marilyn Monroe. The Notorious B.I.G. Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson.

In late October, it was the actor Matthew Perry — beloved for playing Chandler Bing on the sitcom “Friends” — who suddenly departed, stunning legions of fans around the world. The 54-year-old, who struggled with addiction, was found unresponsive in a hot tub.

It is the latest celebrity mystery for the office often referred to as “the coroner to the stars” but formally called the County of Los Angeles Department of Medical Examiner. Its workload and unique terrain are unparalleled, spanning 88 cities across 4,000 square miles in the nation’s most populous county. The office must deal with the same tragic notes as any area — traffic accidents, homicides, drug overdoses, suicides — but also earthquakes, wildfires and riots.

The body of Marilyn Monroe at the coroner’s office in August 1962. Credit…Bettman, via Getty Images

And celebrities.

In a region still defined by its Hollywood culture, employees have long been accustomed to satellite trucks parked outside. Now, prying eyes are everywhere, as the proliferation of social media and entertainment sites has only intensified the demand for instant answers and the spotlight on high-profile deaths.

When news leaked that Mr. Perry had died at his home in the affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood, fans and media bombarded the medical examiner’s office with phone calls and emails throughout the night. News outlets were glued to its website, keenly aware when Mr. Perry’s name was added to its online database, then quickly taken down. When the office finally posted a statement, it was terse but reported with significance worldwide.

It was the usual frenzy that comes with the death of a star. The tabloid site TMZ was the first to break the news, in the same way it had been with the deaths of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. The site follows an atypical practice of paying for information and has a history of sparking a media rumpus.

“You get hammered by the press so violently,” said Bob Dambacher, a former investigator in the office over decades when Robert F. Kennedy, William Holden, John Belushi and Janis Joplin died in Los Angeles County.

Even before the internet, the coroner’s office held mystique. In 1962, Mr. Dambacher and another investigator went to the west side of Los Angeles to retrieve Marilyn Monroe’s body. When he emerged with the covered actress on a gurney, his photo was snapped, soon to be splashed on newspapers around the world.

“Oh, my goodness, I was just married, and it was a nightmare with people calling me,” he recalled. “I even got fan letters, believe it or not. People wanting to know who I was. It was crazy.”

Some in the office did not shy away from the limelight. Thomas Noguchi, a former chief medical examiner with a colorful personality, wrote two books about investigating the deaths of stars like Natalie Wood and had a penchant for calling news conferences. Ed Winter, a deputy coroner, was known well by reporters who could often reach him by phone or get him to speak on camera. When Mr. Winter died this year at age 73, many outlets treated him as a local celebrity in his own right.

For many years, the medical examiner’s office had a gift shop known as Skeletons in the Closet.Credit…Nick Ut/Associated Press

Located on a busy thoroughfare not far from downtown, the office is unlike others in the industry. In 2011, the actor Lindsay Lohan was sent there to mop floors as part of her court-ordered community service for shoplifting. Former investigators have gone on to advise television shows like “CSI.” One now rents out morgue equipment to entertainment studios and owns a postmortem business with a catchy name: 1-800-AUTOPSY.

For many years, the agency operated a small gift shop known as Skeletons in the Closet, a testament to the unique draw of the Los Angeles coroner’s office. Among its collection were beach towels imprinted with a chalk outline and mugs with the words “bodily fluids.”

The gift shop also was a pit stop for travelers, particularly those interested in true crime, said Scott Michaels, who runs Dearly Departed Tours, which focuses on celebrity deaths.

Mr. Michaels visited the medical examiner’s office dozens of times and was friendly with employees. He once even rented out a room at the facility for an event to raise money for an unmarked grave. About 100 people came to hear the chief of investigations speak and give a tour. (“It was a scientific tour done with great respect,” Mr. Michaels said.)

Actors have taken their own tours to research their roles. Brad Pitt arrived one day. As did Hilary Swank. Emily Deschanel, too. Employees grew used to the visits, said Dan Anderson, a toxicologist who worked for the medical examiner’s office for 25 years.

Mr. Anderson, who worked on the cases of the actors River Phoenix and Phil Hartman, said that being star-struck on the job was generally not a thing. “We work just as hard on a John Doe as we do Brittany Murphy,” he said.

High-profile cases do come with a different kind of pressure. A vast audience is sure to request and pore over the autopsy reports. And any legal proceedings only heighten the scrutiny, as was the case with the Manson family murders, the killing of Nicole Simpson, and the criminal trials of Robert Durst and Phil Spector.

“You know the world is watching,” said Mr. Anderson, who testified at the criminal trial in which Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson.

Thomas Noguchi, a medical examiner with a colorful personality, stands in 1982 in front of a mural of Hollywood stars who died. He wrote two books about investigating the deaths of the famous.Credit…Paul Harris/Getty Images

Supervisors, in fact, have often been stressed by the huge disruption to daily operations that come with a celebrity death, said Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the office who retired in 2002.

Mr. Carrier said in order to return things to normal and focus on other cases, a high-profile name might get expedited. “Simply because they want it out of the office, because it shuts down the whole department with people bugging them, and the media — and the world wants to know,” he said.

It can be a difficult balance to explain. Families have accused the office of giving more courtesy to A-listers in the past.

“They don’t care necessarily that Michael Jackson has died,” said Craig Harvey, who worked at the office for three decades before retiring as the chief of investigations in 2015. “They care that their son, daughter, mom is dead. They want answers and they want them right away.”

It does not help that the agency of 260 employees has a history of being overburdened and understaffed. Each year, its staff responds to more than 13,000 cases. (Around 60,000 to 80,000 people die each year across Los Angeles County, which has nearly 10 million residents, but the medical examiner typically gets involved only when a death is deemed sudden or suspicious.)

By comparison, the New York City medical examiner’s office has more than twice as many employees — about 600 — to handle some 8,500 cases each year.

In 2016, after the chief medical examiner in Los Angeles resigned less than three years into the job, a civil grand jury concluded that county leaders had provided the office with inadequate resources. The minimum acceptable standard of 90 days to complete work on a case was often exceeded, the report said.

The office declined to speak to The Times for this story, citing a heavy caseload.

Currently, the medical examiner website notes that toxicology results can take from four to six months, because of thorough testing and a significant increase in drug-related deaths.

If the investigation of Mr. Perry’s death takes the same amount of time, as the office has suggested it could, the cause would not be released until early 2024. He was buried in early November in the Hollywood Hills, not far from the studio where he filmed his acclaimed series.

Despite the burden of added attention, many who worked at the coroner’s office insisted that overall it was a place that was less about show business and more about science.

“I’m going to sound rather callous, but a dead body is a dead body,” said Steven Dowell, a former research criminalist who worked at the office for 35 years. “It doesn’t matter what the public thinks. And you’re going to do your best to do the examination you’re asked to do.”

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