Harrison Graham: The Corpse Collector
What a Man Can Stand
It was August 9, a Sunday afternoon that threatened to saturate the already humid air with a shower. An officer familiar with the area from numerous drug busts, arrived at 1631 North 19th Street, near Cecil B. Moore Avenue, where many buildings along that block were boarded up and abandoned. Just that week, the police had arrested someone for dealing in R&Ts Ritalin and Talwin, a combination of a stimulant and a painkiller that offered a cheap high. Although the building at 1631 looked deserted, according to reporters for the Philadelphia Daily News, with broken windows and a missing front door, families did live in several apartments.
Officer Pete Scallatino walked up to the third floor. He could smell the odor of death even before he entered the place, so he assumed he'd find a dead body. He walked into the first room of the apartment and saw waist-high piles of trash everywhere. On a kitchen wall was the drawing of a naked woman, with aggressive expletives scrawled next to it and a smear that looked like dried blood left by the dragging of two fingers in parallel. Clearly, someone had once had a dog or two in here, as hardened excrement on the floor contributed to the stench.
The men who'd called him beckoned to the keyhole, so he bent down near a door that had "Marty" scrawled across it to have a look. He saw a black woman's naked legs. She lay too still, so he assumed that this was the source of the offensive stench. Officer Scallatino knocked and announced himself but the figure did not move. Charles Johnson, an investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office, joined him. His black van outside quickly drew the attention of neighbors, who gathered together to guess about what was happening inside.
Scallatino and Johnson pried open the door to get into the second room. The odor nearly overwhelmed them, so they donned gauze masks. They found that this room, too, was piled high with trash, but not so much that they couldn't see the victim: The nude female they'd spotted through the keyhole was indeed deceased. She lay on a mattress, piled two high on the floor, next to a television set. She'd been dead for some time, as she was discolored and bloated, her limbs askew from the way her body was decomposing. But next to the mattress, on the floor, was another female corpse, also bloated. She was wearing a denim miniskirt and a light-colored shirt with the words, "Pour Toi," and a red rose printed on it.
The men put up their yellow crime scene tape around the building and in the hallway, then called for backup. There was no electricity and most of the windows had been boarded up, so in the dark room, they'd need extra lights. While drug overdoses were common in this area, and they could have simply died in the building and been dumped here, Scallatino called in homicide detective, James Hansen, who had just led the Heidnik investigation. Ambiguous scenes such as this required him to assume murder first.