Gaines Finds That Dead Men Do Tell Tales

By Purnell T. Cropper | September 2, 2014


It’s pitch black, long after dark in a south N.J. wood. A group of police officers, dodging heavy branches and nocturnal creatures, lugs a large spotlight, illuminating the forest. To add to the potential eeriness, a massive nest of daddy long legs seemed to beckon Allison Gaines ’14 to the corpse she sought.

This isn’t the opening of a network television crime drama. It’s all in a day’s—or night’s—work for Gaines, who wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is what I was meant to do with my life,” says Gaines, a medicolegal death investigator for New Jersey Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office in Woodbine.

In the beginning, though, Gaines had her doubts.

“I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for it,” admits Gaines, who once thought of becoming a kindergarten teacher before she began to consider a career in forensic sciences while a senior at Cumberland Regional High School in Seabrook, N.J. “I knew I needed to figure out early if I could take the sights, the smells, the emotions, in real life.”

Despite her parents’ concerns about the change in her career aspirations, her family supported Gaines in her decision to forsake early childhood education and enroll at Arcadia as a biology major on a pre-forensic science track. In her first year of study, she overcame her shyness, enlisting the help of faculty and staff in her quest to learn if she was cut out to work with the dead.

“My adviser, Dr. Chad Hoefler, was pretty grossed out by it—most of the biology faculty were—but they all did everything they could to help me anyway,” Gaines laughs.

An anthropology professor urged her to talk to Allen Stewart, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Arcadia who is also a sergeant with the Montgomery County, Pa. Sheriff’s Office. Stewart convinced Gaines to shadow law enforcement officials, which she did through a police station in Vineland, N.J. Next, Stewart presented her with another idea: participating or interning at a medical examiner’s office.

“I called every medical examiner’s office in the state of N.J. that I could, and there were plenty of ‘no’s: ‘Oh, we don’t take interns.’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ‘No, you can’t do that,’” says Gaines.

Her last call was to a sergeant in Vineland. On her behalf, he called the medical examiner in nearby Woodbine, who was interested. The medical examiner wanted a resume from Gaines, who didn’t have one and needed guidance from Arcadia’s Office of Career Education to learn how to write one.

While other students traveled, earned extra money, or took classes in the summer of 2012, Gaines had committed herself to working 250 hours without pay or course credit, shadowing investigators as they gathered evidence in the field and assisting the medical examiner with more than 50 autopsies.

Her determination paid off. Not only did Gaines confirm her career path, but she also scored a job offer before returning to Arcadia for her junior year: a paid position to work as her school schedule allowed and, upon completing her degree, an offer to continue on in the role, with full-time hours.

“As one of our death investigators, Allison goes to wherever a body might be found—a home, a crime scene, or a hospital, most commonly—and gets information about the circumstances and the decedent’s medical and social history that help me to determine cause and manner of death,” explains Dr. Marianne Hamel, a medical examiner who has worked with Gaines for the past two years. “I rely heavily on my investigators’ impressions to form my opinions, and Allison is among the best I’ve worked with.”

Gaines still marvels that she was able to fit in two years of real work experience with study abroad in London and Paris, campus leadership in student government, helping to teach a first-year seminar course in science, and earning her bachelor’s degree.

“I did it in reverse,” says Gaines, who plans to go to medical school and become a forensic pathologist. “Yes, I had to buckle down early, but I was able to enjoy my friends and have good times on the back end.”

Since graduating from Arcadia in May, Gaines has found that in spite of her vocation, the good times have not stopped.

“To me it’s about helping families get closure,” she says. “And that there’s no such thing as a typical day. You walk into that building not having a single clue what is going to happen in that day, and that is so thrilling to me.”

Photo by Christina Yee ’14