The following content contains disturbing accounts of violence, including sexual violence. Discretion is advised.
From serial killers to murder-suicides and booby-trapped crime scenes, former New York City death investigator Barbara Butcher saw it all during her 23 years with the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office. Despite her profession being shrouded by death and loss, Butcher maintained that her work was “all about the people.”
“[At] the death scene, you see the lives they led, the books they loved, the TV shows they watched and the pictures of their families. You realize that every single victim is a life and a story and has their own little universe,” she tells A&E True Crime.
In her book, What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator, Butcher emphasizes that uncovering the “why” in every case is so important—and how doing so requires understanding that each death was once a life.
Butcher spoke with A&E True Crime about what a death investigator’s work entails, how she approached her cases and which ones stick with her decades later.
What is a misconception about your line of work as a death investigator?
Some of the biggest misconceptions from my line of work come from police procedurals on TV. They show lots of crime-solving using obscure things like carpet fibers or computers that scan the sky for signals from one little phone in New York City. And that’s not how it is.
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A death investigation is about the eyes and ears on the victim, on the scene and on the possible perpetrators. DNA is very high-tech, but mostly we rely on our observations and our questions. If you walk into a death scene, you’re going to be careful to preserve the DNA and collect it. But you also want to get a sense of what happened here, what kind of life this person led—and what does it look like after the murder.
What are the first things you observe when investigating a death, and how could they vary based on the preliminary information you receive?
The first thing I do when I walk into a room is pause and take in the whole scene. The tendency [we have] is to focus right on the body because the dead body is a shocking thing, especially when it’s bloody, beaten, shot or decapitated. The tendency is for your eyes to go right to that and then to work from there. But that’s not the right way to do it.
I remember a time when we went to a double homicide. One body was in the living room and the other was in the bedroom. We were processing the crime scene, taking pictures and examining the bodies. The crime scene unit was dusting for fingerprints. We were pretty much finished when I said, ‘Uh oh, what’s in that closet?’ There was another body in there.
It turned out to be a double homicide-suicide where this guy killed two people and then killed himself in the closet. That changes everything. So now we don’t have to run around in the streets hunting for a homicidal perpetrator. Now we know the case is right here in front of us.
What false or incorrect assumptions could be made during a death investigation that could jeopardize it?
The police department would call our dispatcher and say, ‘We’ve got a homicide in the two-eight precinct’ [which is in Harlem]. My dispatcher would then call me and say, ‘Barbara, you’ve got a homicide for the two-eight precinct.’ I’d say, ‘No, I don’t—It’s not a homicide until we prove it’s a homicide.’
We don’t go in there with that notion. You should go in there and have your eyes and ears open. The preconceived notion that something is a homicide will lead you to observe things with homicidal eyes. Assuming it’s a suicide will color everything you see [as] you’ll be looking to prove to yourself that it’s a suicide. That is the biggest thing that can go wrong in any death investigation.
What are some of the most significant changes you saw while working for the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office?
When I started in 1992, we were using Polaroids to record the scenes. They fade over time. We sometimes hand-wrote our reports in ink on paper and then faxed them into the office because we were running from one scene to another. That’s not a good way to preserve your records. Everything is now done electronically and digitally, from the photography to the scene notes. Interviews are all stored in the cloud for easy access.
What has changed more than anything is DNA. Back in 1992, they were just beginning to see the potential of DNA in crime-solving and identification. Over the years, DNA became a more powerful weapon in fighting crime and identifying missing persons.
The real jump in that technology came out of 9/11. Because so many people were completely vaporized, we relied on DNA, which was now easier to extract from the tiniest of samples. There were tiny bone fragments mixed in with the pebbles, yet they were able to extract DNA and identify one of the victims from the airplane.
I would say that DNA advanced at least four or five generations because of the work we did at [Ground Zero].
What was your experience investigating the crimes of serial-killer duo George Cobo and Tony Lee Simpson, who famously strangled Indian-born Prince Teddy Khedker and his wife Princess Nenescha in 1993?
George Cobo and Tony Lee Simpson were an older man and younger man who were lovers and partners in crime. It was probably the first double homicide I had ever gone to in the Upper West Side in which two men [roommates Milton Setzer and Eric Price] were decapitated. I walked in and noticed a sapphire blue carpet with a huge, thick pool of red blood, and laying on it was [Price]. He had been sliced from ear to ear, and his head was falling off backward.
That site was so incredibly shocking to me. I thought this has to be some kind of savage killer.
[Setzer] was in the bedroom. His throat was cut from ear to ear and he was nearly decapitated. He had defensive wounds on his hands, which are the cuts and bruises you see on someone when they’re fighting for their life.
Turns out Cobo and Simpson went to the victims’ apartment [under the guise of] looking at a piano they wanted to buy. We got a description of them from the doorman.
[Months earlier,] Cobo and Simpson smothered, strangled and cut Khedker and Nenescha in a scene of horrible brutality. [The victims] were wealthy and had jewelry and an art collection.
Afterward, Cobo and Simpson went to Reno and were using the victims’ credit cards, which weren’t so easy to track back then. They were having a great time until they had a lovers’ quarrel. Then George called the police and said, ‘My partner, Tony Lee, had a big fight with me and ran away. And I think you should know he’s wanted for murder in New York.’ As soon as they caught Tony Lee, he told them everything about George. So the two idiots caught themselves.
You also write about Arohn Kee, a serial killer and rapist who killed three teens—Paola Illera, Johalis Castro, and Rasheeda Washington—in the ’90s. Why was that case so significant to you? [Editor’s note: “Rasheeda” has also been spelled “Rasheda” by some media outlets and we’re unable to confirm correct spelling.]
The case of Arohn Kee and the little girls he killed…really bothered me. [Illera], one of his first victims, was 13 years old and she wore a New Kids on the Block watch. She was raped and murdered. A 13-year-old girl, for God’s sake. And the others, they were raped and [in Castro’s case] set on fire.
Arohn Kee wasn’t just a killer, he was a sadist. He would say things to [some of his other young rape victims], ‘Take it like a woman,’ or, ‘You’re lucky you’re being raped by such a handsome guy.’ They wanted to live, and I think of the fear [his victims] must have felt while being killed by a monster. It goes right into my heart, makes a left turn and stabs me in the chest.
Part of what bothers me is that [the crimes] weren’t [looked at as] a big deal back then [because the victims] lived in the projects. They were poor, and they were people of color. So Arohn Kee was free to rape and murder and torment little girls. And that’s what makes me angry and sad.
What are some things that stick with you from working at the 9/11 wreckage, which you and first responders coined ‘the pile’?
The first time I saw the World Trade Center site after the terror attack, I was so awestruck that I stood there on the pile, millions of tons of rubble and acres of collapsed buildings burning and smoking. The destruction was overwhelming. It was only a few days in, so for all we knew, tens of thousands of people were buried beneath the rubble.
There’s a saying, ‘One death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic.’ That’s easy to say if you’re not standing at the crime scene.
Every single one of those people was a tragedy. Every single office that was destroyed, every little desk calendar or pen that was sticking out of the rubble, every picture of kids or a graduation card. It symbolized a piece of a human life…a story of someone with a career, hopes, dreams, children, family and parents. Standing on that pile, you could feel that. It was overwhelming, daunting and so striking.