An After-Death Experience

When Jannette Mayhew popped open the trunk of her car and discovered the bullet-pierced body of her son, she probably thought things couldn't get much worse. But that was before her husband reached into a box he'd been told contained his son's personal effects--but which actually contained the boy's internal organs.

That bizarre turn of events led to a highly unusual lawsuit recently filed by the family in Denver District Court against a local funeral home. The circumstances leading up to the macabre conclusion began just over two years ago, when Fred Mayhew, a mechanic, and his wife, Jannette, a United Airlines employee, sent their 21-year-old son, Mordecai, to Indianapolis. Mordecai had been running with a rough crowd in Denver and getting into trouble, so the Mayhews, who live in Montbello, decided to relocate him to the Midwest in the hopes that he could get a fresh start there.

At first his new life seemed to be going smoothly. Mordecai stayed with relatives and called his mother every Sunday to check in. But on January 9, 1997, he vanished. And although it wasn't unusual for their son to disappear for several days at a time without telling anyone, the Mayhews started to worry when Indianapolis police called on January 23 saying they'd found Mordecai's car but not him.

The car, a black 1996 Chevrolet Impala, had actually been found ten days earlier. According to police records, the vehicle was towed to the Indy Towing Service impound lot. The car had been vandalized, and police suspected that it had been stolen earlier and then abandoned. Police tracked down Jannette through the Impala's registration, which was in her name and listed her Denver address.

As an airline employee, Jannette was able to catch a quick flight out of Denver. She arrived in Indianapolis on the afternoon of January 23 and immediately drove to the impound lot. She was directed by an attendant to her car, which she noted had sustained considerable damage: Several windows were broken and the radio was missing. As she continued surveying the car, Jannette opened the trunk and discovered the dead body of her missing son.

"She was just stunned," says the family's Denver lawyer, Richard Ott Jr. "She was horrified."

Today, just over a year later, Mordecai Mayhew's murder remains unsolved. Ott says he suspects that the case hasn't been given much attention by Indianapolis police because the victim was an out-of-state man with a history of drug dealing. Lieutenant William Reardon, a homicide investigator for the Indianapolis Police Department, denies that this is the case.

Reardon adds that the ten-day span between the time the police towed the car and the time Jannette Mayhew was notified is typical. And he says it is not unusual that the police didn't search the car after impounding it. "We're not going to do a forced entry on a car that clearly belongs to someone," he says.

Following its discovery by his mother, Mordecai Mayhew's body was transported to a local university for an autopsy. The temperature in Indianapolis had been unusually cold for the past several days, so his 200-pound body was frozen solid. John Cavanaugh, a forensic pathologist working for the Marion County coroner's office, remembers that he had to wait nearly one full week for the body to thaw before he could begin his examination.

Despite that inconvenience, Mayhew had been so well-preserved by the cold that determining the cause of his death was a fairly simple matter. He had been shot twice. The first bullet had entered his body from the front, passing through the meaty part of his shoulder and exiting his back. A second shot had entered his body from the back and clipped his heart. This was the shot that killed him. Mayhew's throat had been slashed, too; however, the pathologist observed that the cut wasn't particularly deep, and so he concluded that it probably hadn't been lethal.

In an autopsy, a pathologist makes a long incision down the front of the body and removes the organs, which are examined to determine the exact medical cause of death. Typically, when the pathologist is finished, he puts the organs into a bag, replaces them in the thoracic cavity and closes the cut.

And, says Cavanaugh, who today works in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a pathologist for the Hamilton County coroner's office, that is exactly what he did. "We put the organs in a biohazard bag and stitched them back up," he recalls.

In addition to aiding the coroner's investigation, the frigid Midwest temperatures of January 1997 had a second beneficial consequence for the grieving Mayhew family. In spite of the length of time between Mayhew's death and the discovery of his body, the cold had kept his remains so well-preserved that an open-casket service was possible. On January 28, following Cavanaugh's autopsy, the body was transported to Indianapolis's Boatright Funeral Home, where Marvin Boatright embalmed it.

When a mortician receives an autopsied body from the coroner's office, he reopens the chest incision to begin the embalming procedure. Generally, the internal organs are embalmed into the corpse. This procedure was not followed in the case of Mordecai Mayhew, however.

Marvin Boatright did not return phone calls. But Ott says that, for some reason, the mortician removed Mayhew's organs from the body and placed them in a separate box rather than back into Mayhew's body. Boatright reportedly labeled the package "internal organs." Even so, pathologist Cavanaugh remains perplexed. "It sounds asinine and foolish," he says. "But," he adds, "that's not my job."

Mordecai Mayhew's remains were placed on a plane to Denver, where the family had planned a service at Caldwell-Kirk Mortuary. The body arrived on the day of the service. It was taken immediately to Caldwell-Kirk in northeast Denver, where the Mayhews and their friends and relatives had gathered to say their goodbyes to Mordecai.

As the family was milling around, waiting for the service to begin, Fred Mayhew, who was standing with his twelve-year-old niece, was approached by a mortuary employee. According to Ott, the Caldwell-Kirk worker presented the niece with a box, which, the worker said, contained Mordecai's "personal effects." Apparently nervous, the niece fumbled the box, and it dropped to the floor.

"Let's go over to the table and open it," Fred Mayhew suggested.
"Of course, he's thinking it's some of Mordecai's things," says Ott. "Like maybe his parka, his wallet, his keys. And he wanted to look at it." Mayhew opened the box, which had a plastic lining, and reached inside.

"Fred Mayhew inserted his arm and hand...and was covered with blood and remains of Mordecai Mayhew," states the family's lawsuit.

"Oh, my God! You're not supposed to see this!" the funeral-home worker allegedly said.

"Fred just froze," Ott says. "He was totally stunned. He just couldn't believe what was happening." Noticing that Mayhew was seemingly in shock and not moving, another Caldwell-Kirk employee gently instructed him to wash his arm and hand.

Jannette Mayhew was standing close by. Within moments she learned what had happened to her husband. "The wake dissolved," says Ott. "There was pandemonium."

The Mayhews declined a request for an interview, and efforts to reach a spokesman for Caldwell-Kirk were unsuccessful. But, says Ott, "Fred has had nightmares ever since this happened. When he talks about this, he still looks at his hand. The whole family has been traumatized. They'll never get over this--there's no way.