‘Eyes and ears of the dead’
After someone dies unexpectedly we are often left with question after question because a dead body can’t speak. That is unless you know what the body is trying to say and former Mount Royal student Debi Spencer seems to speak that language.
Originally from Calgary, Spencer is now a medicolegal death investigator and considers her job to be about the “eyes and the ears” of the dead. When she arrives on a crime scene it is her job to collect evidence and figure out the cause of death.
“Dead bodies do talk, they tell you things,” Spencer explains. Of course she says this figuratively, but after doing this for a number of years, the 37-year-old would know. She has had some interesting experiences in the United States where she now works.
When we enter our Grade 12 year of high school we get the same question: “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
Who’s to say that when we pick something we are going to stick with it? Spencer once thought she was going to be an interior designer then thought she might work in the young offenders system or maybe as a police officer.
Just as the TV series CSI was becoming a hit and everyone wanted to be the next Gil Grissom, Spencer was finishing her masters in forensics science, a field she had never considered when she entered Mount Royal in 1991.
“I thought I was going to be a police officer,” explained Spencer. “Here I am kind of in the same area but I didn’t even know this job existed.”
At first she found interest in the criminology program at Mount Royal but unfortunately her eyesight wasn’t up to par and she wouldn’t have been able to further pursue that career unless she underwent laser eye surgery. At that time, laser eye surgery was too expensive for Spencer despite working three jobs, so she moved onto her next option.
Next she found out about the child and youth-care counselling diploma and decided to give it a shot. After finishing in 1993, she thought a career in the young offenders system would be interesting for a while. However, she still felt drawn to criminology.
“I always wanted to get back into criminology and eventually be a police officer,” she said. She eventually got the eye surgery and then applied for the Calgary Police Service. Just before she was going to start with the force, Spencer was injured in a car accident and couldn’t work. At this point she had been dating her American boyfriend Dan and after two years they decided to get married.
After the wedding, Spencer moved down to the U.S. with her husband, who works in the military. While she was recuperating from her car accident she stumbled across forensic sciences on the Internet and essentially that is where her career began. Spencer then decided to focus her effort on her master’s work in forensic science and attended a death investigator course. This is where she met the assistant coroner from Las Vegas and landed the opportunity of a lifetime.
“That’s how I ended up there in Las Vegas by just networking and getting my face out there,” said Spencer.
She took a job in Las Vegas where she handled 220 on-scene investigations during a period of two and half years.
“When I went to Vegas that was the first time I touched a dead body,” she explained. “I don’t really think about it, I just do it.”
While it has become easier to be around bodies over the years, hers is still not a job that is necessarily normal.
“Yeah, playing with dead bodies comes naturally to me, ”Spencer joked. “ I wouldn’t say that.”
Spencer took her role in Vegas as what it was — her job. Very rarely would she get emotional about a case or a situation that she encountered. But there was one particular case that shook her up— a highly public case in Vegas that made its way onto America’s Most Wanted. It involved a young child who was found dead in a trashcan.
“I had to name (pseudonym) the child because we didn’t know who she was,” explained Spencer. “I saw it on the news and I saw myself on the news. It was really tough; my husband thought he was going to have to hire a therapist.”
To cope after seeing something horrific isn’t easy for everyone and Spencer is no different, but it is her belief in a higher power that keeps her strong, especially when dealing with cases like that.
“People always ask me, ‘can you sleep?’ and I guess I have to say if I didn’t have a belief in a higher power I couldn’t do this job,” explains Spencer. “ If I ever feel like I am going to have a hard time with something I pray. I ask for peace and I actually do pray for the families when I see them hurting.”
After the case with the young girl was solved Spencer felt closure. They had found the person responsible and it was out of her hands, but it wasn’t completely out if the public eye. A few months ago TV show CSI did an episode based on that particular case.
“They did twist it a little but it was a very similar story,” she explained. “They almost used the exact same name I think they just changed a letter or two. It was very, very close, it was spooky. I couldn’t watch it.”
Spencer loves her job for the simple fact that she never stops learning and the job is always changing.
“Just when you think you’ve got people figured out I see something else that is crazy. It’s kind of like what were they thinking.”
After spending a little more than two years in Las Vegas, Spencer and her husband moved to Virginia where she now works and is just as busy as when she was in Las Vegas.
Spencer eventually wants to move back to Canada after her husband retires and look at the option of teaching. Whether it is Alberta or B.C., she hopes to inspire young up-and-comers in forensics and make sure that they have the proper tools to embark on this interesting career.
“I don’t see people do it right,” she explained. “We see it in the news the screw ups, can we say O.J. Simpson?”
For now she will stick to her job in Virginia, handling one case at a time. If there is anything that Spencer has learned since her years at Mount Royal it is that your life will take you down whichever path it chooses and you just have to be open to the idea.
“Doors close, but just look for another one to open. Gosh I’m not where I thought I was going to be in 1991. You have to get your face out there, if you know what you want you have to stick your neck out because if you just sit on the sidelines you are going to wonder.”