Archive for Monday, August 30, 2004

Catching up with Bornholdt

Forensic investigator takes up new business

August 30, 2004


Maggie Bornholdt provides counseling services in the Kansas University Small Business Development Center - quite a change from her career as a forensic investigator. Before returning to Lawrence in 2002, she was medical legal investigator and internship director for the Office of the Medical Examiner in Delaware County, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. She served primarily as a death scene investigator with a specialty in child and infant deaths. She also served on the Child Death Review Team.

Q: Why did you leave forensics?

A: I had hit a plateau in where I could go in the office. There was no where to go from investigator up unless I wanted to go all the way and become a forensic pathologist which I thought about.

Q: What does a forensic investigator do?

A: Where I worked, a forensic investigator is responsible for handling all death reports and scene investigations that are reportable to the medical examiner's office within that jurisdiction. Our investigators followed cases from the time they were reported to the time the body was released to a funeral home, as well as any aftermath such as courtroom testimony. The scene investigation itself involves taking a thorough initial report, responding to the scene or hospital, working with other investigative agencies, photographing and examining the scene and decedent, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, arranging for transportation of the decedent, occasional autopsy assistance, writing reports, sending press releases and courtroom testimony.

Q: What types of cases was your office involved in?

A: Cases falling in our jurisdiction included any death that was one or more of the following: Any manner other than natural, unattended deaths, any natural death of a person who was not under a physician's care, unexpected or unexplained deaths and peri-operative deaths.

Q: How did you become a forensic investigator?

A: A requirement of my college curriculum was a summer practicum in an approved criminal justice agency. My interests in forensic science led me to a nearby county medical examiner's office through which I obtained an internship. While working as an intern, an investigator's position opened up and I was hired part-time to train and full-time upon graduation. I was fortunate to secure a great job in my field well in advance of graduation.

Maggie Bornholdt, a former forensic investigator in Pennsylvania,
moved to Lawrence and works at the Kansas University Small Business
Development Center. The Ottawa High School graduate returned to
Kansas in 2002.

Maggie Bornholdt, a former forensic investigator in Pennsylvania, moved to Lawrence and works at the Kansas University Small Business Development Center. The Ottawa High School graduate returned to Kansas in 2002.

Q: When did you first become interested in forensics?

A: I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in medicine, psychology and law as well as puzzles and mysteries. This evolved into an interest in criminology and criminalistics. Of course, being a professional in the field changed my perspective quite a bit.

Q: What do you like best about forensic investigation?

A: I found the scene work itself fascinating. Other than asking questions, I didn't talk much at scenes - a style that often seemed to baffle police officers and paramedics. Instead, I reached a state of concentration that put me very much in the scene itself. This enabled me to better observe and document the scene from multiple perspectives: the broad picture, the plain sight view, and the minute details. Then the actual analysis can begin, which I enjoyed immensely.

Q: What are some myths about the profession?

A: Myth: You must be a freaky person to get into that work.

Forensic professionals are not ghoulish people who enjoy the dark and morbid. We don't live in caves and listen to death metal. We are not all large, hairy men. We do not think blood and guts are cool. Those who get into the field for the wrong reasons, such as the "gore factor," should look elsewhere, but I've found that these people rarely endure in the field. In reality, most of my colleagues had a profound appreciation for life and a unique sense of empathy.

Myth: The sad and violent stuff doesn't affect you.

Of course it does. There is a misconception that all forensic professionals become calloused and immune to the horrors we see daily. It is important to be able to be professional and do the necessary work without being clouded by emotion. This was not a problem for me or for anyone I have met in the field; however, I think for most of us, there is some lasting effect on the psyche. It has to go somewhere. Most of us in the field are all too human, and for some, repeated exposure to the effects of tragedy can wear on a forensic professional and cause an increase in sensitivity and empathy. As long as this is channeled in a healthy way, it can be a benefit to the job. Some in the field probably are unaffected, and in my opinion, if a person is never affected or becomes completely numb to tragedy, it's time for a career change.

Myth: Forensic labs are dark places full of high-tech machines that do everything.

Born: June 24, 1972Family: Single.Education: Ottawa High School graduate, Bachelor of Science in criminology and justice studies from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.Pets: Tarantulas and a rabbit.Favorite play: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."Favorite films: "The Power of One" and "Blue."Favorite books: "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl and "Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje.Favorite Lawrence place: Downtown and Allen Fieldhouse.Advice for Lawrence residents: Support small businesses, buy local and keep Lawrence the wonderful, diverse community it is.If you know someone who would make an interesting feature, contact Greg Hurd at 832-6372 or

Unless a luminescent test is in progress or the staff has gone home, labs are well-lit. Forensic professionals don't have innate night vision powers. Some labs have an abundance of high-tech equipment, but I would not say this is the norm. Many jurisdictions don't have the budget, and where I worked, much of the specialized lab work was performed off-site.

Q: What would surprise people about the profession?

A: No one understands a forensic investigator quite like another forensic investigator. It is work that tends to bond people whether they want it to or not.

As popular as the forensic field has become, especially over the past decade, career opportunities are still somewhat limited. National standards and professional groups for death investigators have begun to emerge, giving more credence to the specific job of forensic investigator, thanks to groups such as the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. Death investigation in the United States is not synchronized among various jurisdictions, and jobs are often highly specialized. This makes lateral and upward career moves difficult when relocating to another jurisdiction.

Q: Some terms and definitions pertinent to forensic investigation?

A: It's important to know how cause, manner and mechanism of death differ. Medical terminology is vastly important. Precision is also crucial in report writing. For example, in describing injuries, one must know the difference between a laceration and an incised wound.

Q: What case was the most interesting to you and why?

A: Every case was different making them all somewhat interesting, so it's difficult to pinpoint just one. Any time circumstances surrounding a death seemed to have contradictions, my interest was piqued. For example, if a decedent was reported to have "died peacefully while sleeping" but is sporting numerous petechial hemorrhages, this can indicate violence. Conversely, natural deaths have characteristics that make them look suspicious, for example, a gastrointestinal bleed can appear as a homicide, a violent seizure can mimic manual strangulation, etc. Even some post-mortem changes and artifacts can look like injuries. Investigation isn't always as simple as "putting two and two together." You have to put the right two together.

Q: As a former investigator, which TV show do you prefer, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or "Crossing Jordan?" Why?

A: I've watched both, and hands down, I like "Crossing Jordan" more. "CSI" strikes me as being riddled with inaccuracies and stereotypes, which is not as problematic to me as the fact that it also seems to take itself too seriously. The humor attempts in "CSI" seem contrived and the characters are complacent. But at least they've started wearing gloves at scenes and taking a few pictures now and then.

By contrast, "Crossing Jordan," while still guilty of some technical inaccuracies has a very different approach. The show is able to deal with serious subjects, provide the "puzzle-solving" mystique, and incorporate a main character who does not apologize for doing things that are far beyond the scope of a medical examiner's role. "Jordan" does chase after the "bad guys," but the show makes it clear that it is her rebelliousness, not her occupation, through which she does these outrageous things.

As for the humor, it seems clear that someone involved with the show has spent considerable time in the forensic field. A prime example I can recall on this show is a character getting caught weighing herself on the morgue scale. Do investigators and morgue staff really do that? You bet we do.

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