Sunday, March 27, 2016

Helping You Write a Killer Plot - an Interview with a CSI and Death Investigator

Fiona - 
In this article, we will be visiting with Karen Sue Lind who is a certified CSI.  

Karen Sue, can you introduce yourself to us? I'm wondering what brought you to this career and what types of personalities would flourish doing CSI work.

Karen Sue - 
I grew up a mystery fan and read all the Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon books I could find. When I was 13, a good friend was kidnapped and killed by the serial killer William Bonin, known as the "Orange County Freeway Killer". The loss and quest to understand is what drove my interest in forensics.

I studied Crime Scene Investigation, and Crime Analysis at University of Riverside, California and am a certified Crime Scene Investigator.  

I also have extensive training in collecting and preserving entomology (go HERE for crime scene bug info) specimens having trained under Dr. Neil Haskell. 

I spent 3 years performing autopsies, x-rays, and fingerprint work before promoting to investigator. My official title was Deputy Coroner. It is a sworn and armed position with limited peace officer powers allowing me to protect myself and my crime scene when needed. I spent 8 years in that position, and was a training officer as well. I averaged about 300 cases a year, and that included all types of deaths.

It takes a special kind of person to do my job. The television shows do not, and probably could not, show what it actually does to the soul and the mind. Besides being very gross at times, it is very emotionally draining, and you cannot clear your mind of the things you see.

Fiona - 
Can you talk about that for a moment? On TV, in movies, in books even (where there's a better opportunity to show the dark and the light in a character), the CSI and others on scene are just doing their job; but as psychology advances, we know that there is an enormous price that an individual pays. What systems did you put in place to help you survive doing this very important job?

Karen Sue - 
To do this job, it takes someone with a strong sense of survival. It can be dangerous in the field, and you have to be street smart.

My husband is in his 29th year in law enforcement. I knew that I was not meant to be a cop, but he introduced me to the field of forensics at a civilian level and I went back to school when the kids were older. To survive as a cop's wife, you have to have a strong personality because they are not always available. There is a lot of worry when you have a spouse out there on the street and it makes you stronger.

For some reason my husband and I have known many friends and family who have died unexpectedly or tragically. That has also made me stronger. I have a strong will to survive. I also know what it is like to lose someone close and have so many questions about what happened. It is my desire to help others understand what has happened to their loved ones. That drove me to be the person who helps them find out.

This job is not for everyone. I have heard stories of people who hired onto the coroner's office and not even last past lunch. Some cannot take the gore of the job and others cannot take the emotional pain it inflicts.

Fiona - 
Did you have self-care routines in place? Yoga? Walks alone in the woods? -- Wait, that might spark some distress . . .

Karen Sue -
I am fortunate that my husband as well as several friends, and family members work in related fields so I can talk to them about bad cases and they can understand and support me without me having to go into detail. I also have a couple rescue dogs that are now registered as my emotional support dogs. When I would have a bad day and come home emotionally drained, just interacting with these loving, giving creatures would give me peace and comfort me because they need no details and no explanation.

In the beginning when I first started doing the job, I found myself drawn to watching birthing shows. My husband asked me what was causing me to watch all these shows about babies! I said I think somewhere in my head I am trying to balance all of the death with new innocent life!

I also have multiple hobbies of reading, crafting, and gardening.

Fiona - 
What a beautiful image of you balancing the death and new life. Thank you for that - and don't be surprised if it shows up in one of my books. It's very poignant.

You mentioned dangers in your job and needing street smarts. Can you tell us more about this? In my fictional and research contact with crime scenes, the crime is over and the CSI comes in and does their job. But your answer tells me that you have to both be gathering evidence and looking over your shoulder - do you have an officer guarding you as you work?

Karen Sue - 

In the department that I worked for, we were sworn with limited peace officer powers. We had the option of wearing plain clothes or a complete uniform. Either way, we were always armed. 

I received training in hand to hand self defense. My utility or duty belt (go HERE to learn about a  duty belt) included a baton, pepper spray, handcuffs, and of course my firearm. 

I had quarterly firearm qualifications just as the fully sworn deputies did. I can shoot with either hand, though not at the same level! of course!

Because I investigated all types of deaths, I was in a variety of situations. I also was responsible for notifying the family of the death. (For information about death notification, go HERE) I have been at homicide scenes where the suspect was unknown, and could be one of the family members I had to speak with. I have been at scenes where gang members returned to boast their kill, and the victims gang was waiting as well.

The most dangerous part, where the street smarts come in, would be with notifications. The family members of ex convicts and drug dealers also die, and we are still obligated to find them and notify them the same as anyone else. I worked alone and often found myself in bad neighborhoods in the middle of the night, knocking on doors.

When you knock on the door of a drug dealer at 2 am, and announce Sheriff's office, they do not think you are there to tell them their mother has been in a car accident. They think you are trying to bust them and do not handle it well. I have had to be quick with my words to keep the situation calm and focused.

Also, family members often react badly when they learn of a loved ones death. I have had family members start accusing each other and get physical with each other right in front of me and had to calm them all down with "verbal judo" as I was out numbered and knew drawing one of my weapons would only make it worse. When I got their attention I was able to calm them to the point they apologized to ME! That is where the street smarts and being quick can make the difference between walking out of a scene or becoming a victim as well.

Fiona - 
How did you move from CSI to death investigator? Was that a career path you sought out?

Karen Sue - 
I actually wanted to go into profiling, and started taking classes in that field. The college then began a brand new CSI program, and I added those classes. I was one of the first to complete the certification. My belief was the more knowledge the better. One day my husband learned of an entry level position at the Coroner's unit and suggested I apply to "get my foot in the door". As part of their screening process I had to go there for a day to interact and observe autopsies. Once I was able to look into a body and hold a lung I was hooked!!!

Of course all of my profiling and crime scene training proved useful later on as an investigator! My husband thinks I would have ended up in a medical profession had I not had our kids so young and devoted myself to being a full time mom.

Fiona - 
What was the most surprising thing that came with your shift from field work to lab work? And that begs the question - how much time had you spent (by percentage field v lab in your capacity as CSI?)

Karen Sue - 
Unlike TV, the crime lab has a different crew than the forensic technicians who collect the evidence. 

Even though trained as a CSI, my job at the Coroner's was specific to evidence related to the death itself. If I had a homicide victim of a gunshot for instance, I needed to take note of the caliber of any casings but I did not collect them. The CSI/Forensic Tech did that. Even if there were hairs or other evidence ON the body, I assisted in collection but signed them to the CSI who then delivered and signed them over the Lab tech for analysis.

That is a pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately TV makes it look like any one of us can do all parts of the job, but it does not work that way. There are actually so many different "jobs" involved in the process. Everyone has their part. Even with as many different people involved, it still takes a long time to process evidence. If one of us were doing all the different parts it would take forever. I realize TV has to modify their show to get things done in a timely fashion, but sadly many families think we can also get things done that quickly and we can't.

As for field work verses what I will call "desk time", I would say I spent more time at my desk researching disease, reading through stacks of medical records, speaking with doctors about their patients (my decedent), tracking down long lost family members of transients, researching medications and their side effects, talking with other agency investigators and district attorney investigators as well as writing up my reports.

Not all cases warrant a field response. That is one of the many things I plan to clarify in the website I am working on - how it is decided what happens next with a case.

Fiona -

Let's take a moment and talk about the amazing resource you are developing for us writers.

Karen Sue - 
It will have detailed posts of what I do and why! 

I am almost ready to have my new and improved website up as a source of forensic information for writers as well as interested public. 

There will be photos and details of lividity, stippling, decomposition and decubitus ulcers, as well as entomology information complete with photos of my projects. I will also eventually expand into PTSD in law enforcement, what it is like to be a cops spouse, and provide downloadable forms for emergency information for children and the elderly, especially those that live alone.

The website is 

Fiona - 
Here are some photos that Karen Sue took of a staged crime scene - (that's an actor not a real victim).You can find the link just look under "blogs I follow" on my right toward the bottom my sidebar.

Fiona - 
Was it ever an issue in court that you were a death investigator but not a physician?

Karen Sue - 
It has not been so far - for me anyway. I am very careful about how I write my reports. I make it clear that my observations at the scene are external and sometimes presumed until autopsy. In the first couple of years as a tech, I worked many autopsies. I knew from that experience that the Forensic Pathologist would do the dissection of the organs and make the final cause of death report. My job as an investigator was to determine MANNER and the pathologist determined CAUSE OF DEATH. They are 2 separate things but go hand in hand for the death certificate.

Fiona - 
Readers - for more about autopsies, medical examiners and dead bodies go to the DEATH DO US PART tab in the archives above.

Karen - I know that you've left the field now, but did you like doing your job?

Karen Sue -
When people asked me that, I have always replied that I love my job. I worked hard to get the job. People assume I mean I love the gore and such; however, what I LOVE is helping people at the worst time of their life. I have been there myself. My own father committed suicide by gunshot, and I was the one who found him. I HAVE BEEN THERE, and I know how it feels. 

I am grateful for the strength and opportunity to help others when they are in that position. I feel the family members left in shock DESERVE someone who will answer their questions with compassion.

Fiona - 
And finally, here on ThrillWriting it is a tradition that you share a scar story.

Karen Sue - 
I would say my biggest scars are emotional and come from child cases. I have autopsied children as well as worked field investigations of child related deaths. Every case effected me in some way, but the children left the deepest emotional scars. 

One case that stands out to me was of a young boy. He was playing outside and a neighbor's puppy got loose and ran over to the yard where the boy was playing. His father had just stepped inside to get something. The boy was frightened of the puppy who just wanted to play. The boy began to run and the puppy chased him. They both ran out into the street from between parked vehicles. A truck, being driving by a young man in his early 20's was driving down the street at that very moment and unable to stop in time struck both the boy and the puppy. The driver was not speeding, was NOT under the influence and not distracted. He simply could not stop in time. What really got to me was that no one was doing anything wrong. The puppy just wanted to play. The boy was scared. His father was not negligent and was only inside a minute. The driver was not doing anything wrong. And yet here are multiple families who have no other connection but this horrible tragedy and it was nobody’s fault. There was no one to get justifiably angry at. Even the owners of the puppy had done their best but puppies are escape artists. The puppy owners happened upon the death scene as they were out looking for their puppy. I had to tell them not only was their puppy dead, but as a result of its escape a young boy had been killed and a young man forever scared by his part in the event. So much pain and yet nobody really did anything wrong. Nothing that happened was due to wrong doing or bad people. I realized with that case it is easier when there is someone to blame, someone to be at fault, and especially when there is someone to prosecute and punish for such a tragedy but there was not.

So many cases stick with me. I usually would carry out the children myself whenever possible and if I close my eyes I can “feel” the weight of their lifeless bodies in my arms. I feel as though there is damage done to my soul from the evil than I have seen and cannot unsee.

Fiona - 
A huge thank you to Karen Sue for helping us to understand more about crime scenes and the humanity behind the professionals who work a crime scene.

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Wow. You made me cry with your scar story.
    This is an amazing post. As a physician, I find forensic science fascinating. I am amazed that people don't burn out more often from this field of work.
    I can't wait to read your blog!
    Michele Carlon, MD

    1. Dr. Carlon thank you four the kind words! I agree it is indeed a difficult job emotionally. For some reason my department does not have a debriefing program for my job. Some of us would join debriefings with the fire department or fellow agencies. I would be honored to have you read my blog. I hope to have it up by the end of the week!!

    2. Dr. Carlon, First let me apologize for the misuse of "four" instead of "for". Apparently the grammar correcting section of my brain was not working when I made that comment! My website and blog are now live and can be accessed from the link posted in the article! Thanks again!! Karen

  2. Both very proud & very honored to be one of Karen Sue's daughter! She is such an amazing person with a big heart and has helped bring closure to families and just helps people hear and deal with horrible news. I love you mom!

  3. SPECIAL NOTE: website has now been moved to a blog format as "" on wordpress. I have also begun doing some beta reading, editing and consulting with a couple authors and am enjoying the opportunity!!!!