Originally created 07/09/01

Autopsies as a career



Monika Rohlinger has her finger on the pulse of the corpse business.

She doesn't look the part, walking into mortuaries and hospitals with a flowery suitcase trailing behind her, but this mother of five has carved herself a niche in what most would consider too macabre a business.

Rohlinger, a clerk who became San Bernardino County's youngest-ever deputy coroner and now has started her own private autopsy company in Redlands, doesn't see it that way.

"People don't like to talk about death, or even think about it," she said. "I've found that death is part of life. You can learn a lot about life from death."

Rohlinger has learned by immersing herself in a world of murder scenes, fatal traffic crashes and the cold, sterile coroner's gurney for a decade and a half. In that time, Rohlinger guesses she's investigated around 11,000 deaths.

More than 1,000 times, she has had to tell people that their loved ones have died, usually in traumatic and unexpected ways.

Rohlinger's secret: never holding back her emotions.

"I still cry sometimes," she said. "Sometimes cases can be very sad, and sometimes they can even be funny, but I never want to get so callous that I don't feel anything."

Monika Rohlinger's first real brush with death came when she was a 7-year-old girl.

"I remember a child drowning in a swimming pool down the street," she said. "I remember how no one talked about it. My parents didn't say anything, so I thought, 'Well, I guess that's just how it is.' "

And that's how it was for Rohlinger for most of her young life. Years later, in 1983, Rohlinger - then a young mother studying to be an accountant at Cal State San Bernardino - found herself in need of a job that would provide her with better insurance.

When she was offered a post as a clerk in the coroner's office, she shuddered at the thought.

"I was scared; I didn't even want to take the job," she recalled. "Within the first week, I was fascinated."

So Rohlinger began sneaking peeks at pictures of the corpses and found them more interesting than gruesome. Soon she was spending her lunch hour watching pathologists perform autopsies.

After a year, she had been promoted to office manager. Six months later, she switched her college major to criminal justice and joined the coroner's reserve deputy program, in which she could respond to calls with coroner's deputies.

Her first call was a triple homicide-suicide. She was sold on the job almost immediately and decided to attempt the improbable transition from administrative worker to coroner's deputy.

After she finished in the top 10 applicants among 200 vying for a deputy spot, Coroner Brian McCormick offered her a job in 1986. She took it, becoming the youngest deputy in the department's history, at age 25.

In the 14 years that followed, Rohlinger went from the youngest deputy to the most veteran. She was the department's resident historian and unidentified-persons coordinator and won a national Officer of the Year award for exposing one of the area's first known cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

The 1991 case involved a mother who was attempting to solicit sympathy from others by making her children sick. The woman was putting Lysol in their baby bottles and force-feeding them. Two of the children died, and a third was very ill when Rohlinger solved the case.

During her 14 years in the department, Rohlinger's own family grew. Four of her five children were born while she was working there. When divorce left her alone to raise them, she was faced with the most challenging years of her life. Unwilling to leave her career, Rohlinger decided to do it all.

Her life became a blur as she split her time between the job and her four daughters and one son. It was surreal at times, she said, making the transition between death investigator and mother.

"I can remember once racing straight from a homicide to a school play my daughter was in," Rohlinger said. "It's very strange to have that contrast, even to this day."

On her 40th birthday, she quit her job to start her own business. Private Autopsies Inc. is now a year old and business is booming, she said. She employs six board-certified pathologists and can serve clients in San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange and Kern counties.

The procedures can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to well over $1,000. Most families, Rohlinger said, don't mind shelling out the money in exchange for peace of mind.