We sat down with Moraga’s John Bateson to discuss his new book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, an account of cases handled by Marin County coroner Ken Holmes.
MM: Your works center largely on death and its aftermath. What draws you to this topic?
JB: As executive director of a nationally certified crisis center for 16 years, I learned a lot about death, about some people’s desire to die, and about grief and loss. When I started writing in earnest, it was natural to write about what I knew. My first book, Building Hope, chronicled some of my experiences at the center. Several families in our grief counseling program had loved ones who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and that was how I met [Marin County coroner] Ken Holmes.
MM: What’s one of the best stories you heard from Holmes?
JB: My favorite story is about a well-dressed young man whose body was found on land underneath the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge. He didn’t have any ID on him, no one reported him missing, his fingerprints weren’t in any federal database and all of the labels had been torn out of his clothing. The only clue was a business card for a limousine company that Holmes found in one of the man’s pockets. That led him on a 20-year chase involving masseuses, high-end restaurants, foreign embassies and Interpol.
MM: What do you think readers who aren’t necessarily drawn to the macabre can glean from this book?
JB: I don’t consider the subject to be macabre. What most readers will glean from the book, I think, is how much coroners need to know. In addition to medicine and forensics, they have to know about all kinds of firearms and be able to identify the caliber of empty casings found at a death scene. They have to be familiar with a variety of drugs, prescription and illegal. They need to be well versed in psychology, too, because they do most death notifications, and always in person if they can.
MM: What’s one of the most interesting things you learned from your time with Holmes?
JB: While Holmes handled many high-profile cases during his long career — the death of rock legend Jerry Garcia, a homicide involving rapper Tupac Shakur, the shooting of porn king Artie Mitchell by his brother Jim and a series of murders on Mount Tamalpais committed by the infamous Trailside Killer — it was the deaths of people who weren’t well known that are, in many respects, the most fascinating.