Katrina's Unexplained Dead

Dr. Louis Cataldie, the Louisiana medical examiner, shows a morgue's decontamination during a tour of new facilities at the Victim Identification Center in Carville, La., Dec. 1, 2005. Coroners and police are still trying to solve the mysterious cases of 21 people who died violently during Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki) AP Photo

While hundreds drowned in Hurricane Katrina's filthy floodwaters, at least 21 people died more mysteriously. From unexplained gunshot wounds to stabbings and fatal blows to the head, these unidentified victims are now the main characters in a real-life version of "CSI."

Coroners are using science, creative thinking and even a Crock-Pot to try to answer the question many are asking: Who or what killed these 21 people?

With evidence that's washed away, witnesses who fled the state and an overworked police department, at least one official says the mysteries may never be solved.

"We don't know if they are suicide or murder or accident," says New Orleans coroner Dr. Frank Minyard. "We may never know."

Coroners examining the 1,090 bodies recovered in and around New Orleans occasionally find something suspicious: a bullet lodged in a bone, a wound that could match a knife blade.

When that happens, they set the bodies aside for a closer look, and notify the police and district attorney, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state medical examiner.

New Orleans police spokesman Capt. Juan Quinton said his department investigates when the coroner declares a homicide, but he's unaware of "any great volume" of deaths unrelated to the storm. He refused to discuss details of any ongoing homicide cases because the coroner has yet to release names.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan and his staff are investigating four homicides that occurred in the aftermath of the hurricane: one at the Superdome, one at the city's convention center and two "on the street," said spokeswoman Leatrice Dupre.

Included in the morgue's mysterious 21, but not among the four on the DA's homicide list, are the police-shooting deaths of two people in September. Cops say the men were among gunmen who opened fire on contractors traveling across the Danzinger Bridge on their way to make repairs. The family of one of the dead disputes the men were shooting at anyone, and Jordan's office is investigating. The family's lawyer has advised them not to speak to reporters.

"Those shootings may very well be determined to be justifiable; they may not be," Dupre said.

The 21 mystery cases are in limbo until Minyard and his small staff can re-examine the bodies for clues. Their priority now is identifying the remains of hundreds of drowning victims in the state's temporary morgue so they can be returned to families.

When the investigation does begin, Minyard's team will face challenges: Flooding not only washed away evidence from crime scenes but also forced both perpetrators and potential witnesses to flee.
  • Sean Alfano

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