In L.A., the coro­ner’s of­fice has a gift shop to die for.

In­side the L.A. County Coro­ner’s Of­fice, Skele­tons in the Closet has macabre mer­chan­dise

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY LIZ LAN­G­LEY travel@wash­ Lan­g­ley is a writer in Or­lando. Her web­site is li­zlan­g­ Find her on Twit­ter at: @Li­zLan­g­ley.

The wind is so fierce that the bear on the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­lic flag out­side my win­dow looks like it’s hav­ing a seizure. The strong­est storm sys­tem to hit Cal­i­for­nia in years is here and I should stay put, but I just can’t. I’m de­ter­mined to go to the Los An­ge­les County Coro­ner’s Of­fice — to buy presents.

“Bring me Char­lie Chap­lin’s mus­tache!” my friend says as I leave, but celebrity relics are not on of­fer at Skele­tons in the Closet, the gift shop at the of­fice in Boyle Heights. Its best-sell­ing item is a black beach towel with a chalk out­line of a body drawn on it.

“The body out­line at a crime scene is kind of anachro­nis­tic,” says Craig Har­vey, who was chief of op­er­a­tions for 28 years and now serves as a con­sul­tant there. “No­body re­ally does it any­more, with DNA and con­tam­i­na­tion of crime scenes.”

The out­line, though, is an icon of death in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“And,” he says, “it looked kind of cool on a beach towel.”

In this snug lit­tle store, you can get scrubs, T-shirts and a li­cense­plate holder that says “Coro­ner,” which might get you a lit­tle grace on your park­ing-me­ter time. You can get a pin with the depart­ment’s seal, which has sym­bols of medicine and law en­force­ment, a re­minder of the col­lab­o­ra­tion re­quired to un­cover how peo­ple have died. You can get a desk­top model of a hu­man torso or a red cooler bag with the seal on it, which can give the im­pres­sion that in­stead of beach snacks you might be trans­port­ing or­gans (to go with that crime-scene towel). Of course, all sales are fi­nal. If you’ve watched “Angie Tribeca,” you’ve seen the build­ing the gift shop is in, as it was used as the fa­cade for the TV show’s po­lice sta­tion. Built in 1909, it’s the front­most of three build­ings hous­ing a work­force that tends to the 174 peo­ple a day who live then die in L.A.

“Los An­ge­les Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal,” its first in­car­na­tion, is still writ­ten in tiles on the en­try­way floor. Its warm, old-world in­te­rior and ge­nial staff are a bonus, con­sid­er­ing that it’s the only build­ing where the public can in­ter­act with the coro­ner’s of­fice. If you had to iden­tify a loved one or pick up their be­long­ings, you would come here. This is where mobs of me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tives and fans gather when a show busi­ness icon such as Michael Jack­son dies in the city. No med­i­cal work is done on the premises.

Skele­tons in the Closet is tucked in the front-right cor­ner of the lobby, and its be­gin­nings stretch back to the early 1990s, when the of­fice put on a foren­sics sem­i­nar and gave reg­is­trants a cof­fee mug dec­o­rated with the de­part­men­tal seal. It was a huge hit, so the fol­low­ing year the mugs fea­tured “Sher­lock,” a skele­ton in a deer­stalker hat, a per­fect sym­bol of death in­ves­ti­ga­tion drawn by for­mer in­ves­ti­ga­tor Phillip Camp­bell. When em­ploy­ees Marilyn Lewis and Mark Cooper came up with the chalk out­line beach towel, the depart­ment de­cided to sell them. And so the gift shop be­gan.

If you’re a griev­ing rel­a­tive, Har­vey ac­knowl­edges, the gift shop might not ap­peal to you right at that mo­ment. But most peo­ple are fine with this cuckoo in the nest. Sur­pris­ingly it’s not the only coro­ner’s of­fice to sport one. Clark County, Nev. — home of Las Ve­gas — has one, too.

Har­vey says the peo­ple who seek the shop out are usu­ally ei­ther in foren­sics or just “iden­tify strongly with the in­sti­tu­tion,” like “peo­ple who wear T-shirts that say USC or UCLA who never went to the school.”

That’s not sur­pris­ing, as the num­ber of foren­sics stu­dents has in­creased steadily since the 1990s and the pro­fes­sion has been pop­u­lar­ized by nu­mer­ous TV shows, fic­tional and re­al­ity-based. One of those is the doc­u­men­tary se­ries “North Mis­sion Road,” based on cases that have come through this very of­fice. In the episode “Fron­tier Jus­tice,” for ex­am­ple, a film crew shoot­ing an episode of “The Six Mil­lion Dol­lar Man” at a Cal­i­for­nia fun house in 1976 dis­cov­ers a prop hang­ing vic­tim that turns out to be an ac­tual mum­mi­fied per­son. The coro­ner’s of­fice suc­cess­fully iden­ti­fies him as Elmer McCurdy, an old west Ok­la­homa out­law, who was shot in 1911 in a gun bat­tle with law en­force­ment in the Osage.

“We can’t do it in 44 min­utes plus com­mer­cials,” Har­vey says, a dis­claimer that is won­der­fully and thor­oughly L.A. “It takes us longer to ar­rive at these things.”

The tale of Elmer McCurdy and other lively times at the coro­ner’s of­fice can be found in the book “Death in Par­adise, an il­lus­trated His­tory of the Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Coro­ner,” which turned out to be one of my fa­vorite sou­venirs and a rip­ping air­plane read.

The rain has wors­ened by the time I leave the build­ing and de­spite the dan­ger­ous con­di­tions some peo­ple are still driv­ing like they’re in the Day­tona 500. My Lyft driver apol­o­gizes for go­ing slowly, say­ing it’s just not safe to go fast.

“Take your time,” I tell him. “I just came from the coro­ner’s of­fice. I don’t want to go back.”

My last trip to this city was in 2003. I didn’t have time to tip­toe through the toe tags on that visit, but 14 years later I was thrilled to find that Skele­tons was still rat­tling along.

“The gift shop makes its ex­penses,” but not much more than that, Har­vey says.

I’m root­ing for it to last. But if it ever dies, I hope it goes some­where that has a gift shop. It’s nice to get sou­venirs.


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