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LA County's chief coroner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, retires

Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran is the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles and will retire this year.
Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran is the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles and will retire this year.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Last Friday, in the LA County Coroner's office, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran came in for his last day on the job and then took his first weekend of retirement. 

Dr Lak -- as he's known to his colleagues -- was the county's Chief Medical Examiner - Coroner. Since taking the job in 1992, his office has seen countless changes and been involved in dozens of very public trials--Dr Lak was involved in the OJ Simpson case, he performed Michael Jackson's autopsy.

Off-Ramp Producer Kevin Ferguson talked with the outgoing coroner about what it's like doing such a private job in the public eye, and how the department has changed over the years.

His replacement, Dr. Mark Farjado, starts Monday.

Interview Highlights:

On how/why he got into this line of work:
"I got interested in forensic science in medical school, and I watched my first autopsy. It was a case of tuberculosis and it pointed to me the role of a pathologist in public health...We speak for the person who died, and we try to figure out why they died and bring closure to families."

On how crime TV shows have influenced his industry:
"In our line of work the circumstances are very important, the scene investigation is very important, and in our line of work when the circumstances don't match the findings, something's wrong with the circumstances, not with the findings. The story told to you by somebody, it might not be the right story. We have had those situations where we go back and reinvestigate. I think what the shows have done is created an interest in forensic science, it'll definitely make some of the younger scientists in the world get interested in our field, which is good for our field."

On dealing with high-profile people:
"It happened during the Simpson trial. There was an ABC reporter who did confront me behind the office. To me sometimes, it's better not to discuss anything in those situations. In that case I think I said some things that haunted me during the trial, because they replayed the tape during the trial."

On seeing the morbid-side of LA:
"Remember that we are medical examiner-coroners. I am a doctor. And when I do the examination I am trying to find out why that person passed away. With that approach, nothing traumatizes you. Of course, it's quite traumatizing when you see young children being murdered, or other kinds of violent crimes.

"It is difficult sometimes, but the important thing is if you approach it as a scientist, and also remember there's a loving family behind this person awaiting to know what happened."

On staying focused on the job:
"I tell my staff: be thorough, be systematic, follow procedure. So we can come to the right conclusion, and just since I got an opportunity to tell the public, sometimes we do not find a cause of death. But the important thing is preserve specimens, evidence, so we can do a proper consultation and do further testing if needed."

On one of the most gratifying cases of his career:
"We had skeletonized remains of a young boy found in a chimney in one of the residences in 2005. After recovery, we estimated him to be African American and a teenager, based off our anthropological findings. We managed to produce a portrait of him which we published in the news media, and the cousin recognized him by the picture. She then put us in touch with the mother. With the help of the mother's DNA and DNA from the skeletal remains, we were able to identify him.

"This case was found in 2005, but really he went missing in 1977. So this was a big story, and the important thing is we brought closure to the mother. There's a lot of good people in the world. You know, the other big client is the funeral director industry—the funeral directors, the funeral homes. The mother didn't have enough money for the burial, and so the House of Winston [Mortuary] provided the funeral services for this child.

"We try hard with the staffing we have to give the best quality work product for the public in a timely manager. And I just want to thank the public for the trust they place in this office.

On his retirement plans:
"My plans when I retire is to do consultation, teaching. I love teaching young scientists, residents, medical students. And hopefully, one day, I can put my experiences into a book format, God willing."