AS A PATHOLOGIST, medical examiner and director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Glenn Wagner participated in historic crime scene investigations——from the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut to the September 11, 2001 crash of American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon. The former Navy captain also oversaw the recovery of remains for both space shuttle tragedies. And he was part of an elite team selected to perform an autopsy on the president of the United States in the event of an assassination.
In 2003, Wagner became San Diego County’s chief medical examiner. “I’ve practiced in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and don’t recall a more unique population and location than San Diego,” he says. “Most intriguing is the high amount of methamphetamine and drug-abuse deaths——and suicides.” Nine percent of his cases test positive for methamphetamine, 33 percent for marijuana and a surprising 96 percent for at least one drug, including alcohol, antidepressants, painkillers and other addictive substances.
“In addition, I’ve never seen a group with more tattoos and implants,” says Wagner. “This is all part of a unique culture [urging people] to look and feel good. This image obsession seems to set the stage for behaviors that get you a ticket here.”
Diabetes, hypertension and obesity are other high-risk factors. In fact, San Diegans have become so heavy, the workers’ compensation provider for the medical examiner requires that bodies be stored on gurneys, so they can be pushed on wheels, not lifted, to avoid employee back injuries.
Of the approximately 21,000 deaths in San Diego County each year, only 3,000 are referred to the coroner for investigation. Of those, 42 percent are natural deaths. About 38 percent are accidental. Twelve percent are suicides, 6 percent are homicides (usually drug- or gang-related) and 2 percent undetermined.
“Each case is a jigsaw puzzle,” says Wagner. “There are some missing pieces, but you see a pattern. In my office, the dead speak for the living. If we are willing to listen, we don’t have to repeat mistakes.
“I’m fascinated with ‘why’——what behavior got someone a ticket to my office today,” he says. “Drinking and driving? Being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why did they make the decision they did at the time? You can decide, ‘Maybe I can change my behavior in some way.’ ”
Wagner has ambitious plans for his office. A new San Diego Regional Forensics Center, which he will share with the county veterinarian, is slated for completion in May 2009. In addition, he wants to launch a bereavement center and a behavioral unit.
Before starting medical school, Wagner honed his investigative instincts as a young cop with the Philadelphia Police Department for law-and-order Commissioner Frank Rizzo in the turbulent ’60s. “I learned to love the street and to love people,” says Wagner. “I made detective, then [worked] vice and narcotics. I was also an assistant pastor. Sometimes I had problems resolving that with my police activities.”
Today, Wagner’s faith underpins his work. He says, “I see this life as a transition, and am driven by making a difference. An investment in today is an investment in eternity.”