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Amid 21 years of death, medical examiner found life in Tampa

TAMPA — Vernard Adams has the physique of a man who walks 3 miles a day, lifts weights and regularly dances the tango. He lunches on nutrient-rich sardines and broccoli. He's 59 and healthy, with a father who is 90.

But he does autopsies for a living, and so, yes, he has considered how he might prefer to go.

"A cardiac arrhythmia," he said. "It's instant death. The heart stops. Ten seconds later, you're unconscious." He pauses. Wry smile. "But on a water hazard at the golf course."

He doesn't golf. He just likes the idea of leaving a challenge for fellow forensic pathologists.

Hillsborough County's chief medical examiner will retire from his post next month, after 21 years of solving the district's puzzles. He has accepted a university position out of state.

His 3,922 autopsy reports, the bulk of a career total near 5,500, will linger in color-coded files: red for homicide, yellow for suicide and black for traffic crashes. The plain manila ones, deaths from natural diseases, interested him the most, though television cameras came for the others.

His first autopsy was a lung cancer patient at Tufts University School of Medicine. His most recent: a possible drug overdose.

Over the years, as he watched, death changed its robes.

Drug abusers started arriving obese, with bad backs and oxycodone habits, eclipsing gaunt images of crack addicts.

Tattoos multiplied.

He saw the effects of safer cars and medical advances: fewer fatalities from chest and abdominal injuries.

People lived longer. They made it to old age but died in falls, with broken hips and head trauma.

Some things didn't change. He is no longer surprised at the tragedies that befall children.

A father and a grandfather, he learned to keep emotion away from science and the courtroom, knowing that his credibility as a witness was paramount.

"You have to separate your private life from the work," he said.

That may explain why he knew us better than we knew him.

• • •

If it is Wednesday night, he is dancing with his wife of 37 years.

They especially like the tango.

For nearly two decades, he and Alice Sandra, who goes by Sandy and calls him Vern, have taken weekly lessons at Librero's on Davis Islands. They often return on Fridays for dance parties.

She likes his frame, 6 feet, 180 pounds, and the way he effortlessly leads her across the floor. His parents met this way, ballroom dancing as teens.

"It just makes him happy," she said.

They met in their native Bangor, at summer jobs in a hospital laboratory before he started college at the University of Maine.

His father was a professional forester; his mother, a registered nurse. Sandy's parents were doctors. She earned a degree in zoology.

They married the day he earned his chemistry degree. He started medical school at Tufts and in a few years, babies arrived, a boy and then two girls.

Diaper money found an odd route home: A county coroner died while Adams was a pathology resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Adams did the coroner's autopsy, and then started moonlighting as deputy coroner, investigating death scenes.

He took a fellowship at the medical examiner office in Miami to decide, once and for all, if he liked the profession.

In a series of moves, he rose to become deputy medical examiner in New York City.

The work didn't bother his wife. It was the era of Quincy, a television show about a medical examiner who solved homicides.

"It isn't so much the autopsies themselves," she said. "It's the whole story, the idea of fitting together pieces of a puzzle and figuring out what happened."

In 1991, Adams chose Tampa, in part, for its size. Commutes were cutting into fatherhood.

No matter the city, his job made him aware of his family's vulnerability and the risk of injury.

His wife remembers how tense he would get on white water rafting trips. She could tell that the deaths of children affected him, took longer to shake off.

The community would see him only from afar, sometimes on TV giving news conferences or testifying in court. He has a dry, matter-of-fact way of speaking.

He tried to avoid smiling at crime scenes, even if he saw a familiar detective, because he didn't want to appear jocular with cameras around.

"He has a public persona, and a private persona many people don't see," his wife said.

"People don't see how deeply he truly cares."

• • •

In 2006, Gina Jones, who now goes by Gina Williams, was a mother looking for answers.

Her son, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, had died a day after collapsing in a Panama City boot camp. Surveillance video showed guards roughing him up.

The first medical examiner, Charles Siebert, attributed the death to a rare genetic blood disorder, sickle cell trait. The family and supporters cried coverup.

Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an independent investigation, headed by Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober.

Adams did the second autopsy and delved further into the evidence. NASA clarified the original surveillance video and added a clock. Detectives painstakingly chronicled each frame.

"There was great pressure from outside sources for him to make a quick decision," Ober said, "but he took his time and did a really tremendous job."

Adams, like Siebert, found sickle cell trait. But he also concluded from study of the video that Martin had suffocated when guards covered his mouth and forced him to breathe ammonia capsules, which Adams said triggered vocal cord spasms.

In the aftermath, Florida shut down its juvenile boot camps. The state and Bay County paid Martin's family $7.4 million. Ober's office charged seven guards and a boot camp nurse with manslaughter.

But in October 2007 a North Florida jury acquitted all eight, accepting the defense's claim of a death caused by sickle cell trait.

Adams stands by his finding.

The file in Tampa is still coded red, for homicide.

The boy's mother hasn't forgotten Adams.

The jury did not give her guilty verdicts, but Adams gave her an answer she could believe.

"I only met him once, but I think about him all the time," she said. "I'm very thankful for what he did."

• • •

Away from the courts and cameras, he cracks people up.

Maine humor prevails, though with a medical examiner spin.

Example No. 1: the floor scale in the morgue. "This machine has two purposes," he said. "You can weigh dead bodies on it. Or you can tell the sex of living people." (Women walk around it.)

Example No. 2: his aversion to blood pudding. "It reminded me of the epidural hematomas that you get as an artifact of heat. My theory is that I'll eat anything that I was introduced to before I became a pathologist."

Example No. 3: motorcycles. "I tell people I'm going to buy one as soon as my children are dead."

His wife calls him "wicked awesome smart," and colleagues, while not using the exact words, characterize him the same way.

Facts stick in his brain.

He has been interested, since age 9, in genealogy, an understandable passion given that he can walk through Boston's Colonial cemeteries and see graves of ancestors. But he also can report that genealogy, as a tool, became popular when the 14th century Black Death erupted in Europe and left inheritance questions.

He uses words that send people to dictionaries, in a manner more precise than showy.

He's known for marking up the reports of new examiners, insisting on specificity. Detailed reports enable police, attorneys, car manufacturers, highway designers and emergency room physicians to better do their jobs.

"If you were trying to build a safer car, you'd want to know what was killing people," said Robert Pfalzgraf, who learned from Adams in Tampa.

Pfalzgraf, 53, is now deputy chief medical examiner in a district that includes Fort Myers.

Adams encouraged him to drill down on the cause of deaths in traffic cases instead of using the common fallback, "multiple injuries," on death certificates.

He sent Pfalzgraf to hospital quality assurance meetings to share findings with trauma doctors who had lost patients.

Russell Vega, district medical examiner in Sarasota, said he would not be in the profession without Adams, who recruited him as a resident at the University of South Florida.

Jacqueline Lee met Adams in Worcester, Mass., when she was a pathology resident and he was a medical examiner. She's now a consultant to the Coroners Court in Melbourne, Australia.

She admires his mental clarity. He taught her to remain agile in her thinking as she sought answers and to never assume that a case is routine.

New York City chief medical examiner Charles S. Hirsch, in the profession for 45 years, ranks Adams "in the top echelon," citing his expertise and integrity.

Adams, like Hirsch before him, disseminates a philosophy ascribed to the great teachers of forensic pathology.

It boils down to this:

"We work on dead people," Pfalzgraf said, "but it's to help the living."

• • •

It has been so long that most people forget. Adams was hired to fix things at the morgue.

His predecessor, the late Peter L. Lardizabal, had lost the confidence of prosecutors in 1990, when he retired amid complaints of inaccurate reports.

When Adams arrived to the cramped, outdated office on Morgan Street, the stench of decomposing bodies greeted visitors and the building sat in a hurricane evacuation zone.

Those problems went away under his watch.

He oversaw a move to a state-of-the-art, three-building complex near USF, built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane and equipped with a backup generator and dual-wired electrical system. Fresh air constantly blows through the autopsy building.

Adams strengthened bonds with USF Health, developing a forensic pathology program that provides an energetic stream of trainees.

And he earned credibility among prosecutors who rely on his work in court.

"I have tremendous respect for him," State Attorney Ober said. "I can share that on behalf of my entire office."

Adams' son, Charles, recently joined Ober's office as a new attorney in county court. He prosecutes less serious offenses than those his father sees. Had the day come when their jobs posed a conflict of interest, Adams would have stepped down as chief medical examiner, he said.

His successor has not been named. There are five other doctors on a staff of 29 full-time and six part-time employees.

His operations manager, Dick Bailey, is sorry to see him leave. Bailey started not long after Adams did, hired as his consigliere. "I always thought we'd ride off into the sunset together," said Bailey, 63.

In Adams' new role, a teaching position, he will direct and expand the autopsy service at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, based in Morgantown. He looks forward to collegial discussions with clinicians about cases.

Adams says he's ready for the change.

Sometimes that phrase is uttered euphemistically in workplaces. But he is known for saying what he means.

"Everything's going well," he said. "There's a lot of depth in the department. There aren't that many fires to put out. The office has been built. It's more of a caretaking operation.

"It's good to leave a party while the party's still fresh."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at or (813) 226-3382.

Amid 21 years of death, medical examiner found life in Tampa 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 9:35pm]
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