Death at his door
Mark Super, M.D.
We’re all going to die. The only questions are when and how. Mark Super, M.D., chief forensic pathologist for the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, has been answering those questions for more than two decades. He has touched more hearts than Liberace and squeezed more livers than Southern Comfort. Death has become Dr. Super’s life. You may think you know where you’re going when you die, but only he’ll know why. And, if nothing else, remember this: Wine enemas may ring your bell, but they can also punch your ticket.
Why did you choose this profession?
When I was a medical student I was doing rotations, trying to decide what I might want to do. I had been thinking about geriatrics. My first rotation as a fourth-year medical student was pathology in a small Midwestern hospital. And I really liked pathology, and I thought I would like to do it. I had an opportunity to do an autopsy as a medical student and I really liked that. So when I went into the Navy, which got me to California, I was trained to be a pathologist. Then I met a forensic pathologist who actually introduced me to forensic pathology, and I immediately said, “That’s exactly what I want to do.”
So how long have you been doing this?
Is there a case that you are most proud of?
One I am proud of, because it had a lot of ramifications and it was a case I handled in San Diego, where there was a women and her three-year-old daughter found dead in the back of her car, a hatchback car locked up in the garage. I wrote an opinion she had been beaten and smothered and that the child was smothered.
The thing that made it unique was the perpetrator was a French citizen who fled the United States and ended up in Paris, where he was arrested. Seven years later, they held this trial and I got to go to Paris, France, and testify to the homicide in French court. My testimony was really key in convicting the guy of these two homicides.
If you could go back in time and perform an autopsy on anyone, who would it be?
Kennedy would probably be a good one because so much controversy has been generated about that shooting. The other presidents who were shot, the shootings themselves were not particularly controversial, but his was. I would like to have gone back and do it and see it got done right.
Knowing what you know of death, do you have a particular preference for how you would like to die?
At home, quietly, with my children, around my family. I think that’s how any individual would want to go—with their family around and being supported by them.
Being in the field, I can tell you statistically what my chances are. I have a 70-percent chance of dying from something natural. There’s a 30-percent chance it’s going to be some accident, with a small chance that someone’s going to kill me. I don’t plan on killing myself, so that leaves me with natural causes and accidents. Accidents, I can’t control. So that leaves me with a natural disease and I’d like to have it be something that was fairly slow enough so I could get my affairs in order and have my family around.
Any advice for the rest of us out there?
I’ll tell you one thing people forget, young people forget, because in their minds they’re immortal, but smoking. In fact, if people quit smoking and drinking alcohol—just those two alone—we would have very little to do here.
What do you like most about your job?
Every day I get up and I don’t know what weird thing somebody has done to themselves or to somebody else or what thing I am going to figure out today. That’s probably the thing that drives most forensic pathologists.
What do you like least about your job?
What’s the most unusual cause of death you’ve investigated?
We had this guy once in San Diego, they found him at home. He was cross-dressing. He was wearing pantyhose and he was dead on this couch with this kind of satisfied look on his face. Next to him was this plastic bin and in it was a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi Vin Rose, and he had a siphon tube from that up his butt. It was an autoerotic thing. He was giving himself wine enemas.
Of course, as you know, you can absorb alcohol just fine in that route. So, he had like a .5 alcohol level. And there was evidence at the scene that this wasn’t any kind of suicide attempt. There were all sorts of bottles all over the place. He was doing this fairly regularly as an autoerotic experience.
That’s one way to go.
I don’t think he cared about the taste too much.