A forensic pathologist straps on his face shield, switches on his saw and slices into a skull. The whir of the power tool bounces off the gleaming stainless-steel autopsy table.
In another room, a forensic technician rinses bloodstains off a cadaver riddled with bullet holes.
It's a grisly job, but someone's gotta do it.
"We provide closure for the people who have lost loved ones," said Dr. Mark Fajardo, 49, Los Angeles County's new medical examiner-coroner. "Our role is to speak for the dead and to seek justice for the people who were killed."
The underground autopsy suite in Lincoln Heights, near L.A. County-USC Medical Center, is bustling with activity. In a few weeks, a $24 million, state-of-the-art renovation that began in 2007 will finally be finished, but for now, medical staff in blue scrubs and fuchsia respirators are dodging construction crews in the hallways.
"On a very busy day, we sometimes do up to about 30 autopsies," forensic technician Richard Grijalva said. "Today, for example, it's not even noon yet, but we already have 22 cases. And there are about four or five more (bodies) still in there."
A few steps away, technician Ted Morris waits for ambulances in the receiving bay. "There's none yet, but the day is young," he said. "There's always bodies coming through, always being delivered."
This being L.A., they get more than the usual share of celebrities.
Just in Fajardo's first week, the department looked into the deaths of actors on the television series "Rizzoli & Isles" and "That '70s Show," as well as Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.
His predecessors -- and there have been only four since the early 1960s -- have performed or overseen autopsies on Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Notorious B.I.G., Karen Carpenter, John Belushi, Natalie Wood, Janis Joplin, Sharon Tate, Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. They also testified in court during the trial of O.J. Simpson and Phil Spector, among others.
Though the media frenzy over A-list deaths doesn't intimidate him, Fajardo admits he might "never get used to it." Coming from him, that's saying something.
Formerly the chief forensic pathologist of Riverside County, Fajardo is used to the gruesome aspects of his job. He has autopsied a decomposing body that had been stuffed in a suitcase, as well as cop killer Christopher Dorner, whose body was burned to a crisp after a massive manhunt ended with his hideout erupting in flames.
Once, a judge briefly suspended Fajardo's testimony in a murder case because photographs of the victim's injuries made several jurors feel faint, with one rushing out of the courtroom to vomit.
It was Fajardo's years of experience that persuaded the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to choose him over dozens of candidates from across the country to replace Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, who retired last month after 21 years on the job.
"Having performed over 5,500 autopsies and 350 homicide investigations over the last 13 years, Dr. Fajardo has the knowledge and expertise to serve capably," Supervisor Michael Antonovich said.
"Transparency and professionalism are the two qualities I'm looking for," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "Fajardo needs to bring modern management principles to the office to ensure that the department's resources are used to the maximum benefit of county taxpayers."
Fajardo was sworn in Aug. 12 as the department, with its $33 million annual budget and about 200 employees, is undergoing substantial changes.
For decades, it was the only county department with two heads -- one a chief medical examiner-coroner, the other an administrator -- set up that way to prevent the kind of mismanagement that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s including autopsy backlogs, insect infestations in the morgue and a double-billing scam by employees.
Now, Fajardo is solely in charge, with an annual salary of $275,000, though he plans to delegate much of the managerial work to a soon-to-be-hired chief deputy.
The agency's name was also changed this week from Department of Coroner to Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
The renovation work is also transforming the agency's work. In years past, a lack of space meant bodies occasionally had to wait in hallways -- without refrigeration. Thanks to the renovation, there is now room for up to 500.
The department's office, autopsy, laboratory and forensic support facilities will be stocked with about $2 million worth of new equipment and furniture, including hydraulic autopsy tables, dissecting instruments, rib shears, bone saws, scalpels, forceps and even chisels.
The staff hopes the changes won't stop there. "We need to hire more technicians, doctors and investigators, so the flow of work is easier," forensic technician supervisor Anthony Sanchez said.
"The morale's a little down," added Grijalva. "Sometimes we got bad days when we get overloaded."
About 18,000 deaths are reported annually to the department, about half of which fall under its jurisdiction -- mostly homicides, suicides, overdoses and traffic accidents but also deaths by natural causes if there had been no doctor in attendance.
The department performs about 5,700 autopsies every year, making it one of the busiest in the world. "It's an honor to be here," said Fajardo, who has an easy demeanor and can greet staff in both English and Spanish. "I hope to do well by the people of Los Angeles County."
Growing up in East L.A., the son of a housewife and an L.A. County sheriff's deputy wanted to be a marine biologist. Later, after his father died at a young age, he decided he needed a career that would pay the bills and entered UC Davis to become an emergency-room doctor. Before long, he "burned out" and instead wound up becoming fascinated by forensics, eventually getting his degree in pathology.
Even after all these years, certain autopsies still give him nightmares.
"Child cases -- everybody will tell you, those are the ones that impact us the most," he said. "We have to separate what we do at work from what we do outside work, because we do see horrors. We see terrible things." ___