Who Killed Ellen Andros?
A Jersey Shore cop came home drunk one night five years ago and strangled his wife — that was the story, according to officials in Atlantic County. But what really happened — and who the real victims are — is a story that is still unfolding.
Here’s Elliot Gross. Sixty-six years old, short barrel-shaped body, big mostly bald head. A tiny, odd-looking man. Hunched over, dressed in a blood-splattered plastic apron and blue scrubs, white surgical gloves gone crimson, a clear plastic shield covering the huge glasses on his large face.
And there, on the metal table in front of him, her body splayed from skull to hips, lies 31-year-old Ellen Andros. It is — it will prove — a somewhat difficult case. But from the start, from the moment a few hours ago when he first approached her still-warm corpse at her home outside Atlantic City, Elliot Gross, the former chief medical examiner for New York City, a man who autopsied Tennessee Williams and John Lennon and many other noteworthies during a 40-year career, thought he was on to something.
What’s going on here isn’t just science. It’s something deeper, something stranger, something at the same time both terrifying and fascinating. With Ellen’s body reduced to parts — organs and tissues and arteries and veins, each one removed and given careful attention — Gross is attempting to communicate with her. He’s asking questions, asking each part of her body a question. And so far, this is all he’s hearing back:
Someone did this to me.
The cops think this, too. Really, they’ve already begun writing this, in investigators’ notebooks and reports. Prosecuting crime depends to a great extent on The Story. And crime stories are the product of many hands and minds. Despite what TV shows suggest, no one in the criminal justice system operates in a vacuum, in separate scenes, separate frames. Not even the medical examiner. Because, unlike on TV, the ME does not walk up to a table cold, in a blue-lit morgue, charged with determining what happened based purely on the body. No, earlier this morning Elliot Gross got a call, a call that summoned him to the scene and provided him with information and the beginnings of a story, of this story:
On Saturday, March 31, 2001, Ellen’s husband, 32-year-old Jim Andros III, an Atlantic City cop, dialed 911 at 4:27 a.m. When authorities arrived at the unimpressive home in Pleasantville, a small, downtrodden city across the bay from the lights of A.C., they were immediately suspicious. The victim had no medical problems. Standing beside her body in their young daughters’ bedroom, Jim Andros, according to police, was clearly drunk. He behaved erratically, admitting he was “fucked up,” relinquishing the handgun he was wearing at his ankle — though he was off duty. He said he feared he’d hurt himself. He cursed the officers. When his in-laws arrived a little while later, they accused him outright of murder.
“What did you do to her?” Ellen’s mother shouted at her son-in-law, racing across the front lawn to confront him. “Did you kill her?”
Now it’s all up to Elliot Gross. Earlier this morning, the investigators, at the scene, apprised him of their suspicions; it’s part of the subplot he’s been pulled into. Chief ME for neighboring Cape May and Cumberland counties, and a part-time assistant ME here in Atlantic County, Gross stands over the emptied body, the organs dissected and set aside. His focus once again returns to Ellen Andros’s face. It is young-looking, beautiful.
And it is dotted with countless tiny red spots called “petechiae” — pinpoints of bleeding into the skin. In his mind, he’s certain.
More than 7,000 times, Elliot Gross has sliced open a body in pursuit of the facts behind how and why a human life has abruptly ended. When murder is the possible cause, getting it right is, of course, fundamental. At stake at this moment is not only solving what happened to Ellen Andros. For the fate of Jim Andros — the sole suspect — hangs in the balance of the answer Gross comes up with as well.
The word “autopsy” comes from the Greek autopsia, meaning to see with one’s own eyes. For the next five years, determining precisely how Ellen Andros died will consume the lives of Elliot Gross and Jim Andros. Along the way, a bright light has been shined into the dark, mostly hidden world of death’s doctors.
At this moment, though, Elliot Gross is certain. A call goes out to Sergeant Bruce DeShields of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Major Crime Unit.
Part One: The Prosecution
Sergeant DeShields heads back to the room where Jim Andros has been repeatedly interviewed since agreeing earlier this morning — still Saturday — to come in for questioning. Andros has now been awake for 24 hours. His head is pounding, his eyes are bloodshot, his shirt is crusty from the dried tears and snot he’s wiped there.
Andros — a tall, muscular man with close-cropped reddish hair — has stuck to his story. He last saw his wife alive Friday morning, when he got home from working the overnight shift. It was his understanding that she was taking the girls to her parents’ house in Pennsauken, where she and the kids typically spent Friday nights. By the time he woke in the late afternoon, they were gone. Around 8:30 p.m., he drove to Brigantine, to the Beach Bar, a legendary old wood-paneled haunt opened by an ex-prizefighter at the base of the dunes, and met up with his dad and some old friends. He left around 4 a.m. Arriving home, he was surprised to see Ellen’s car. He unlocked the front door and walked down the hallway and into his daughters’ bedroom, where he found his wife, unresponsive, at the computer.
DeShields doesn’t buy it, and goes at Andros: You were drunk. You came home drunk. You and Ellen began fighting. You got angry. In the heat of the moment, you put your hands over her nose and mouth. …
I did not kill my wife.
Finally, around 6 p.m., a relative calls the office and says Andros should be permitted to go home and get some rest. Without sufficient evidence to charge him, DeShields lets him go.
In the ensuing days, Andros hires two attorneys, who advise him to stop speaking with the investigators. Andros’s in-laws, aware Jim is a suspect, petition for custody of their granddaughters.
On April 9th — a day when the weather is lurching violently into the new season, the temperature rising to a record 84 degrees before furious storms move in — Ellen Andros is laid to rest. The atmosphere inside the Merchantville church is poisonous. By now, the two families aren’t speaking to each other. Ellen’s friends and family stare at Jim. There is muttering: “Murderer.”
DeShields and the investigators continue crafting their version of The Story. While Jim’s supporters portray him as a loving and devoted police officer and family man — who in fact had just returned two days before his wife’s death from a week of skiing with her and their kids in Vermont — Ellen’s friends and family offer an image of a relationship, and a husband, on the edge.
In sworn statements, they tell investigators that Ellen’s six-and-a-half-year marriage was in tatters, that Jim drank excessively, that he’d been violent, that Ellen suspected he’d been unfaithful. Jim had for some time been sleeping in a separate bedroom, no longer welcome in Ellen’s bed. Ellen and the girls had left before. At the time of her death, her friends say, she was planning to leave again.
And then there’s this: Ellen Andros was seriously involved with another man.
He is Calvin Gadd, a former neighbor she met while walking her daughters past his house one day; he was outside playing with his son. He’s a cop, too. She had been successful in keeping him from Jim, though their relationship appeared to have been intensifying recently. She spoke with Gadd from her parents’ house just hours before her death, discussing her plans to leave Jim and move in with her mom and dad. He waited anxiously for an e-mail from her after she got home. When it never came, he drove by her house the next day. The coroner’s van was parked in the street.
Gadd tells investigators, according to DeShields’s report, that Ellen feared her husband. He says that Jim threatened her repeatedly. He recounts a conversation in which Ellen told him that Jim put a gun to her head, threatening to pull the trigger. She told him that while she and Jim were in the car together, Jim would sometimes drift onto the shoulder of the road, warning he’d keep going and crash, make it look like an accident. According to Deshields’s report, Gadd says Ellen told him that Jim would sometimes come home drunk and force himself on her sexually.
She struggled with what she’d become. “I feel like such a failure,” she e-mailed a friend late one night in 1999. “I have these beautiful little girls and they can’t even have a nice happy childhood because their Mommy can’t marry a nice guy. … I’ve seen TV shows about people like myself and I would always be like man … what a loser.”
Another friend, Mary Ann Bakogiannis, tells investigators that Ellen said Jim had put his hand over her nose and mouth one night while they were being intimate, according to a police report. Ellen said his eyes locked in a terrifying stare, that she fought to get away, and that she was no longer going to have sex with him.
INSIDE SHORE Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, in a basement morgue covered in yellow tile and saturated in fluorescence, Elliot Gross, whose height does not place him so much above the metal table he’s standing beside, peers over the thin, naked body.
From the outset, Gross finds the presence of petechiael hemorrhages highly suspicious. He notes these red dots scattered over Ellen Andros’s face and on her eyelids. While petechiae can form in a variety of deaths, they are classic in strangulation; as blood continues pumping upward through the back of the neck, it becomes trapped in the head, causing the tiny capillaries in the face to burst. He also notes pallor on the tip of the nose and chin, and an indentation in the skin corresponding with the top button and seam of her shirt. The result of pressure, he suspects.
The body is lifted, and plastic blocks are positioned beneath the shoulders, exposing the neck and causing the chest to rise and spread. He raises the large scalpel.
Elliot Gross is indisputably one of the world’s most experienced and lauded medical examiners. That he should find himself, at 66, working in a basement morgue in Somers Point, New Jersey, of all places, must be as surprising to him as it is to anyone who knew him when.
In 1985, the New York Times accused Gross, then that city’s chief medical examiner, of serious improprieties. By then, the city ME’s office — the most prestigious in the country — had been rocked by a series of mini-scandals and controversies. Gross had started his career there in the 1960s before becoming chief ME for Connecticut, and had been named top ME in New York by Mayor Ed Koch in 1979, after Koch demoted Gross’s former friend and colleague, Michael Baden. Baden would eventually assume the role of the most famous medical examiner in the world — consulting on behalf of celebrity defendants, including Claus Von Bülow and O.J. Simpson; publishing a well-received memoir; and becoming the star of his own recurring special on HBO. But Gross and Baden — who were classmates in med school at NYU in the 1950s — had been feuding ever since they had adjacent offices in New York as young MEs, and now Gross was sure Baden and his loyalists were behind the Times assault. The paper claimed Gross had produced inaccurate or misleading autopsy reports as part of an extraordinary pattern of solicitousness to police and the D.A.’s office. One allegation — that he covered up for police when suspects died in their custody — was transparently criminal. Gross fought back, blaming Baden.
The Times assault would prove deleterious. Even though four separate investigations cleared Gross of any wrongdoing, his reputation and that of his office had been badly damaged. Koch fired him in 1987. He moved to the Midwest, where he worked in relative obscurity in coroners’ offices in Indiana and Ohio.
But in 1995, he became chief ME for Cumberland and Cape May counties. He also takes part-time work as an assistant ME for Atlantic County, home to Atlantic City, a magic dateline. It’s proved a hard slog back, but he’s well-respected here, and he’s already had some big cases. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s in the midst of the biggest of his career.
With his scalpel, Gross presses down hard and swift, slicing a deep Y shape across the shoulders and down the chest and abdomen of Ellen Andros’s body.
The tissue separates, revealing a thin layer of yellow fat; with the heart still, virtually no blood seeps from the incision. He separates the skin and fat from the muscle and bone, and pulls the tissue back in wide flaps on either side, revealing the rib cage, protecting vital organs, and the open abdominal cavity. He separates the rib cage and sternum from the body.
Visible now is practically the entirety of her body’s contents. Popular opinion has it that MEs are freakish ghouls, that autopsies are graceless and macabre. But to observe an autopsy — to watch a pathologist peel open the body’s exterior and enter into its core — is to witness more art than butchery. It is a disturbing and beautiful image.
The organs fit together perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle. They are still and silent and glistening, seemingly ready to recommence their operations at any moment. Positioned on either side of the chest cavity, like an angel’s wings, the lungs are large and the color of bubble gum. The heart is tucked between and slightly behind them, hidden inside the yellow pericardial sac. Below the thin diaphragm, a portion of purple liver is visible, resting atop the pink stomach. The intestines coil into one astonishingly dense piece. The smell initially is faint; some MEs compare it to raw lamb meat.
Gross cuts opens the pericardium, and slices the major arteries and veins, including the massive aortal opening at the top, to release Ellen’s heart. He pulls it out and holds it in his hand. Covered in a thin layer of yellow fat, dripping blood, it is the shape of a lopsided softball. He draws back a long, sharp blade called a bread knife and begins cutting into it, exposing a deep burgundy interior. He slices open lengthwise the large pulmonary artery running down the middle, searching for clots; he finds none. He crosscuts the coronary arteries running like branches around the exterior of the heart — the primary site of blockages — creating small sections through which he can look. He finds nothing unusual.
He removes each lung. They appear healthy. He removes Ellen Andros’s liver, and it spills over his hands. He cuts it into thin slices. Once again, nothing remarkable.
He moves on to the digestive system, and the odors from this part of the autopsy are overwhelming — a mix of bad breath, vomit and feces. He removes and opens the pink J-shaped stomach. Inside, he finds pieces of broccoli, asparagus, potato and white meat. He removes the massive collection of intestines, like a huge bundle of uncooked sausage. Once again, they are unremarkable.
The pancreas, bladder and kidneys all appear normal as well, as do the sex organs.
Gross dissects the neck, and removes the contents, including the tongue, all together. Jim Andros has already told the authorities that his wife suffered from chronic tonsillitis, and Gross finds intense congestion in both tonsils, which were significantly enlarged; he dismisses the tonsils, however, as a contributing factor. Curiously, though, there is no hemorrhaging in the throat, and the bones and cartilage of the neck have no fractures. In other words, there is no evidence of strangulation.
The autopsy assistant makes an incision across the back of the head, from ear to ear. She works to reflect the scalp down over the face. There is the sudden whine of the power saw, which she uses to delicately cut around the circumference. She pulls the skulltop slowly away, and it makes a sucking sound.
The human brain is pinkish-gray, with purple blood vessels swirling along its surface. Gently cradling it, Gross lays it on a table, and it shifts easily, like Jell-O. He makes slow slices through it. The interior is gray and white, solid, and utterly plain. He scrutinizes the vessels; there are no signs of aneurysm or clotting.
It’s late afternoon, three and a half grueling hours since he began. With the exception of the microscopic analysis and toxicity studies — which won’t be ready for some time, and which Gross has determined he won’t need to make his ruling — the autopsy is essentially complete. Bright red blood coats the table, the floor, the weighing scales, Elliot Gross. The body lies open and empty down to the spine, literally a shell of its former self.
A call goes out from the morgue to Sergeant DeShields at the Major Crime Unit.
Through what amounts essentially to a long and sophisticated process of elimination, Gross has arrived at his conclusion. Her face dotted with those countless petechiae, pinpoints of bleeding into the skin, Ellen Andros, Gross rules, died from suffocation. Ellen Andros, Gross is certain, was the victim of homicide.
And there it is: corpus delicti — the fact of a crime. The proof the investigators have been anxiously awaiting.
In a few weeks, Jim Andros will be arrested and charged with killing his wife. ACPD immediately suspends him without pay. A judge awards his in-laws custody of his daughters. In jail, he’s sequestered, and officers wake him every 15 minutes, on suicide watch. A week later, he posts $170,000 bail — representing his every asset, and then some — and, with no money or income, moves in with his sister and brother-in-law. For almost two years, the case against him — The Story — will grow and coalesce on its way toward trial, surviving repeated attempts by his lawyers to squash it. It will seem unimpeachable, obvious, open and shut.
But never what it really is.
Part Two: The Defense
Over the course of 20 months, as New Jersey v. James Andros III slowly moves toward trial, the prosecution continues building its case. This is The Story the state is prepared to present to a jury:
Jim Andros demonstrated a pattern of alcohol abuse and violent behavior toward his wife. In the early morning hours of March 31, 2001, he arrived home after a night of heavy drinking. He confronted his wife, possibly soliciting her for sex. When she rebuffed him, he grew angry. He pulled her onto the floor, and in a homicidal process called “burking” sat on her chest and put his hand over her nose and mouth. Asphyxia occurred quickly, leaving virtually no physical evidence. He moved her to their daughters’ bedroom, and sometime thereafter, he dialed 911.
Now it’s the defense’s turn. During strategy sessions in their office atop Lefty’s piano bar in Atlantic City, Jim Andros’s lawyers have been writing their own version of The Story.
They believe their client’s profession made him a particularly delicious target — that the Atlantic County prosecutor, like many prosecutors, views convictions of “rogue cops” as trophies. On top of that, the Andros family — particularly its patriarch, Jim Andros Jr., a longtime Atlantic City cop himself — has developed a certain notoriety over the years. In and around Brigantine, where Jim III and his seven siblings grew up, their father’s drinking and hair-trigger temper are well-known. In one much-publicized incident back in 1981, he was off-duty, riding his bike near the family’s home, when an eight-month-old retriever mutt began chasing him. The pup allegedly snarled. Still riding his bike, the elder Andros unholstered a .45-caliber pistol and shot it in the head.
In an attempt to build an alibi, Andros’s lawyers go to work on establishing his whereabouts the night of his wife’s death. Several fellow patrons corroborate Andros’s account that he arrived at the Beach Bar about 9 p.m. and stayed until around 4 a.m. While these witnesses’ recollections don’t mesh perfectly — and some were obviously drinking heavily (including Andros’s father, who was so drunk that he spent the rest of the night in his pickup in the parking lot) — the earliest anyone places him leaving is 3:30. The drive home averages about 20 minutes. He dialed 911 at 4:27.
Next, they try to establish the time of Ellen’s death. America Online records show Ellen sent her last e-mail at 1:48 a.m.; her account logged off automatically due to inactivity at about 2:30. According to the autopsy, her last meal, eaten at her parents’ house at about 10 p.m., was still in her stomach. Healthy individuals’ stomachs typically empty within four to six hours. EMTs at the scene noted cold extremities and early lividity. Lividity, or reddening of the skin due to blood sinking after circulation ceases, isn’t usually seen until 30 minutes after death. This proves to Andros’s lawyers that Ellen must have died well before 4.
Still, the lawyers know that establishing time of death is more art than science, and they’re reluctant to pin their client’s fate on this alone. They have from the outset resisted suggesting another suspect, acknowledging that the prosecution’s storyline leaves Andros the most viable target. Instead, in an unusual and risky move, they decide to attack the assertion — so far accepted as fact — that Ellen Andros was murdered in the first place.
They brainstorm an alternative explanation: During his autopsy, Gross saw Ellen’s enlarged tonsils. A local doctor Ellen had visited confirms Ellen’s existing tonsil condition and says this swelling could have obstructed her airways. But a specialist at Jefferson Hospital who’d seen Ellen recently rejects the tonsil problem as a possible cause of her death.
Of course, this “alternative cause of death” theory has one significant caveat — that the medical examiner erred in his autopsy. Andros’s lawyers begin doing a little research into Elliot Gross’s recent cases, and stumble onto the story of Tracy Thomas.
Very early one snowy morning in 1997, a driver on a deserted Cape May County roadway happened upon a Ford Explorer that had sheared a telephone pole. Tracy Thomas, six months pregnant, sat belted in the driver’s seat, the airbag deployed, dead. Her husband, Eric Thomas, sitting in the passenger seat, was unconscious but otherwise relatively unscathed; their young daughter, strapped in her car seat, was uninjured. Eric, a well-respected dentist, said the family was en route to the ER to have their daughter evaluated for a high fever when a deer ran into the road; Tracy swerved, and his memory blacked out there.
Elliot Gross listed the cause of death as blunt-force trauma with asphyxia, sustained in the accident and apparently the result of the airbag’s force. In 1999, however, when Eric Thomas filed a wrongful-death suit against Ford, the company investigated Thomas, and uncovered unsavory details. He had increased Tracy’s life insurance policy one month before the accident, and by the time of his suit, he’d married his high-school sweetheart, whom he’d secretly flown to meet repeatedly prior to Tracy’s death, and whom he spoke with on the phone at least seven times on the day she died. Though he passed a lie-detector test, and a federal investigation blamed the airbag, Thomas, citing legal bills, eventually dropped his suit.
Critical to Ford’s success in muddying Thomas’s claim was the opinion of the forensic pathologist the company hired, who, focusing on the hemorrhaging in the neck and eyes, determined that Tracy had been strangled. The pathologist did more than that, however, advising the lawyers in the deposing of Gross, who stuck by his findings but conceded that strangulation was possible.
Ford’s pathologist was Dr. Michael Baden.
IT'S A GRAY DAY in mid-October 2002, a few weeks before the expected start of Andros’s trial, and his lawyers are feeling butterflies. Today, Michael Baden comes to town. One of the defense lawyers and Baden arrive at Shore Memorial Hospital early in the afternoon, ride the elevator down to the basement, and are led into the fluorescent-lit morgue.
The metal tables are empty. Standing there waiting are an assistant Atlantic County prosecutor, an investigator, an ME assistant, and Elliot Gross. It has been at least 15 years since Gross and Baden have seen each other.
The two men — wrinkled, hair gone gray and thinning, both almost 70, a 45-year history between them — exchange greetings.
“You’re balder than I remember,” Baden tells Gross, towering over him.
“You’re fatter than I remember,” Gross says.
To those in the morgue watching, who are familiar with their long history, it is an extraordinary, surreal reunion.
They gather around one of the tables, Gross on one side, Baden directly across from him, the others filling in the spaces in between. Baden asks the defense lawyer to take notes; the man stands beside him, pad in hand.
Small pieces of Ellen Andros’s remains are preserved in formalin, in a plastic lidded container like one that might hold a large order of coleslaw. Baden and Gross snap on gloves, and Baden begins by picking up the pieces one at a time, staring at them. There is no conversation, and everyone’s eyes are on Baden’s hands.
The pieces, which have gone white in the formalin and resemble small bits of boiled chicken, are samples from all the major organs of the body. Baden examines the tonsils; they are certainly enlarged, but since they’ve been removed from the throat, it’s impossible to tell the degree of obstruction. He picks up a tiny piece of liver, finds nothing remarkable. A tiny piece of brain; unremarkable. A tiny piece of kidney; unremarkable. Piece of spinal cord; unremarkable. And then he picks up a tiny chunk of heart muscle, about the size of a nickel, containing a cross section of the left anterior descending coronary artery.
The coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygenated blood, are embedded on the surface of the muscle, stretching down its length; it is by chance that Gross chose to preserve this particular portion and not another. During the autopsy, Gross crosscut the artery. Baden stares through the tiny section in his hands. He’s shocked by what he sees.
A RARE CONDITION called “spontaneous coronary artery dissection” killed Ellen Andros; only about 150 cases have been reported since 1931. It occurs when a microscopic tear forms within the three layers that make up the wall of the artery, leading the layer beside the tear to bulge from the bleeding and obstruct the artery. It was visible within the section of artery as a tiny occlusion of unknown origin, millimeters large, and then on one of the microscopic slides Gross reviewed after the autopsy.
On December 4, 2002, the Atlantic County prosecutor, hugely embarrassed, moves to have New Jersey v. James Andros III dismissed.
Stunned, Jim Andros stands outside the courthouse, a horde of media around him. “How could I be any happier?” he tells them. “Now we can do what we should have been able to do from day one, which is mourn the passing of my wife. … The people who did this to me, may God forgive them. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure these people are exposed for what they’ve done.”
He is reunited with his daughters. ACPD reinstates him with back pay. For the next few days, he sleeps with the court’s paperwork, waking up to check it, making sure he’s not dreaming.
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES immediately move to distance themselves from Elliot Gross. Atlantic County fires him at once. The New Jersey chief medical examiner declares him professionally incompetent. The state attorney general, on the advice of the state medical examiner, bans him from performing autopsies. Gross claims he’s being railroaded by the state medical examiner, and a state administrative law judge later twice agrees with him, determining that the error in the Ellen Andros case cannot, on its own, constitute professional incompetence. Gross nevertheless is essentially forced to resign from Cape May and Cumberland counties, though he vows to fight the state’s actions.
On April 22, 2003, Jim Andros files a 37-count federal lawsuit against Gross, Atlantic County, the prosecutor’s office and the investigators, alleging that they conspired to recklessly prosecute him in spite of the overwhelming evidence that he was innocent. The suit, unsurprisingly, focuses on Gross. It seeks unspecified damages understood to be in the millions of dollars.
AS OF THIS writing, Andros’s suit is still working toward trial. How much Gross’s past will figure into the trial’s outcome isn’t clear. It seems a safe bet that Andros’s lawyers plan to dredge up every controversy over his long career in an effort to portray him as, essentially, a buffoon whom Atlantic County officials should not have hired.
But is that fair?
Donald Jason, the former chief ME of Atlantic County, is now director of the forensic pathology program at Wake Forest University Medical School and a forensic pathologist for North Carolina. Following Baden’s trip to South Jersey, it was Jason whom the prosecution flew in to review the official diagnosis in the Ellen Andros case. (Baden knew only that there was an arterial occlusion of some sort.) There are only about 450 full-time MEs in the nation, and in a beautiful bit of irony, Jason did his training in the New York City ME’s office, where he worked with both Baden and Gross.
Jason says that before he arrived in Atlantic County and saw the artery and slides himself, he agreed that asphyxia seemed probable and was disinclined to trust Baden, whom he calls a “pain-in-the-neck dilettante” to work with. (Despite Baden’s mostly sterling reputation in the medico-legal community, others have raised questions about his tactics. When Baden’s 38-year marriage to Judianne Densen-Gerber — the New York City psychiatrist, socialite and heiress — dissolved sensationally in 1997, her accusations made tabloid headlines: Not only was Baden serially unfaithful and a certifiable slob, she said, but he had also conducted autopsies on the dining room table of their multimillion-dollar townhouse, and kept AIDS-infected tissue in their basement.)
When asked what he thinks of Baden’s skills as a forensic pathologist, Jason’s answer is succinct: “Not much.”
“He shoots from the hip,” Jason continues. “He says whatever first thought comes to mind, whether it makes sense or not. He’s not a great pathologist. Gross was the better pathologist.” But Jason says that Gross’s odd physicality, strange affect and public reticence hindered him, hampering his ability to play his role as a principal character, as an actor, in The Story behind every criminal case. “Gross,” he says, “didn’t know how to play the part of medical examiner at all.”
But what about the Ellen Andros error? How could Gross have made such a mistake?
“He was set to see asphyxia as soon as he heard about the bad family environment and [saw] the petechiae,” Jason says. “And don’t let the facts get in the way.”
During an interview at his spacious high-rise condo just off Fifth Avenue, Michael Baden himself calls his feud with Gross an invention of the media. Baden remains the international ME of choice, having participated in the re-autopsy of the teen apparently killed in boot camp in Florida, fielding calls from Greece requesting that he re-autopsy a victim in that country’s worst-ever espionage case, and making regular appearances on Fox News.
But when asked whether he’s ever made a serious mistake, Baden is surprisingly forthcoming with a story.
In the mid-1970s, he autopsied a woman found dead in a flophouse, and cited alcoholism as the cause. Later, a man confessed to having strangled several women in the same flophouse. Baden had the body exhumed, re-autopsied it, and, sure enough, found evidence of strangulation. He changed his report and admitted his mistake. Not long after, the chief of homicide at the New York City D.A.’s office was appointed to the House Select Committee reinvestigating JFK’s and MLK’s assassinations. He’d admired Baden’s honesty in the flophouse case, and recommended him to head the inquiry’s forensic pathology portion, a major break in Baden’s career. And then Baden abruptly says this:
“Look, to say that [Gross] is not competent to do autopsies is a stretch, I think. Because clearly he’s competent. He was chief medical examiner of New York. You can make mistakes, but it’s not lack of competence.”
That leaves this possible outcome for Jim Andros’s lawsuit — that the jury will find in favor of Gross. Such a ruling would say, in effect, that the system worked, that honest mistakes were made and caught and an innocent man was proven innocent. And, implicitly, that Gross should gain back something of his lost reputation and career.
But where would that leave Jim Andros? He lost his wife in a sudden, unexpected death. For almost two years, the state accused him of her murder. He was vilified publicly, branded an abusive drunk. He went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt proving that the case — The Story — against him all along was wrong. If not for a tiny piece of tissue preserved by chance, all parties involved in the case concede, he’d likely have been convicted and spent the rest of his life behind bars. And the people who did it to him — the system that prosecuted him — would owe him nothing.
It’s sometime before 2:30 a.m. on March 31, 2001, and despite the many versions of The Story that will emerge over the next five years, this is what happened. This is the objective truth, as much as we can believe in one:
Elliot Gross is asleep in his modest house near the marshes in Ocean City. Michael Baden is asleep in his apartment in midtown Manhattan. Jim Andros is drinking yet another 7&7 at the Beach Bar in Brigantine. And Ellen Andros, at her home outside Atlantic City, her 31-year-old body fully intact, begins dying.
In the bedroom, she sits in front of the computer, the room aglow with the blue light of the screen. As she types an e-mail to a friend, inside her body, beneath her breasts, her skin and fat and muscle and sternum, a microscopic tear begins in one layer of the wall of the left anterior descending coronary artery.
Like a run in a pair of pantyhose, the tear begins small, and spreads. The bleeding quickly fills the tiny space between the layers. The pressure of the bleeding causes a bulge across the channel of the artery, which is smaller in diameter than a pencil. Within seconds, the bulge overwhelms the artery.
There is crushing chest pain.
The flow of blood to the heart backs up in the artery. The muscle begins starving for oxygen. Ellen’s heart, which for 31 years has pumped in the same perfect rhythm, 100,000 times a day, suddenly begins beating chaotically, racing, trying in vain to bring in fresh blood. The rhythm soon falls apart completely, the chambers of the heart contracting randomly against each other, an image heart surgeons liken to a writhing bag of worms.
The blood flow within the body’s miles of arteries, veins and capillaries ceases. The brain quickly sucks up the remaining oxygen within its vessels. Brain cells begin dying. Ellen Andros’s sight and consciousness fade to black, as if by the turning of a dimmer switch. As more brain cells die, her arms and legs begin contracting and spasming in terrible jerks.
Until, suddenly, she’s slumped forward, still.
Moments — perhaps minutes — have passed.
This is how The Story begins.