The coincidence was almost too much to believe. In a sunbaked stretch of farming communities spread across northern Florida, five children had suddenly died of ailments or accidents between February 1980 and July of this year. All had perished after they had been cared for by a 19-year-old babysitter named Christine Falling. If doctors, police and parents suspected foul play, they took no action until last July 3, when newly-arrived district medical examiner Joseph Sapala, 41, performed an autopsy on the latest victim, 2-month-old Travis Coleman. Sapala found severe internal ruptures and other signs indicating the infant had been smothered.
Sapala’s testimony before a grand jury helped lead to the indictments of Falling for the first-degree murder of three of the children. Sapala, who will testify at the trial in November, credits his findings to a special branch of science called forensic pathology, the kind of medical detective work that TV’s Dr. Quincy accomplishes so triumphantly every week. Like Quincy, forensic pathologists “are trained to think in opposites,” says Sapala. “If a natural death is presented to them they automatically look for homicide or some other cause, and vice versa.” Such techniques helped Sapala switch verdicts on earlier cases in the six Panhandle counties, encompassing 3,879 square miles, where he has been practicing since January. In one instance, he found gunshot wounds in a supposed accident victim; in another case, an apparent fire casualty turned out to be a victim of murder.
But lately some undiagnosed problems have threatened Sapala’s practice. Trying to improve his decaying basement morgue, he ran up heavy financial losses. He pleaded for funds from county officials and sent them bills for his expenditures, which exceeded his $60,000 budget, but they staunchly refused to pay, accusing him of wasteful practice (he performed 118 autopsies during his first 184 days on the job). Even Sapala’s findings about the suffocated child failed to impress some county leaders. “The commission stands as it did before,” says Gulf County chairman James Gortman, whose commission recently asked Florida Gov. Bob Graham to investigate Sapala’s practice. “If one of my people dies, I don’t want an unnecessary autopsy happening to him.”
Such accusations create quite a break from Sapala’s otherwise smooth career. The son of a Michigan lawyer, he attended Wayne State University and got his M.D. from the University of Louisville in 1967. The same year he married and entered the Navy, where he learned forensic pathology as a flight surgeon. In 1977, he began teaching and practicing surgical pathology in St. Louis, then became deputy medical examiner for the region. “He was very generous, industrious and reliable,” says Mary Case, Sapala’s St. Louis supervisor.
After his wife died in a tragic car accident, Sapala remarried and moved to Panama City early this year. “I thought I’d be warmly welcomed and needed,” says Sapala, who sacrificed $167,000 a year from salaries as pathologist and teacher for his $36,000 examiner’s job. “But my reception was very cool.”
Still, Sapala has his supporters. Says Bay County Sheriff Lavelle Pitts, a native of Sapala’s district, “He hasn’t learned our ways but we’re getting accustomed to him. We need a man like that.”