Lindholm Hears Dead Men Talking His Curiosity, Ingenuity Help Solve Death’s Riddles
Occupation: Forensic pathologist
Detectives looked at the corpse and saw a mess, a skull shattered in dozens of pieces. George Lindholm looked at it and saw a puzzle.
Within hours, the forensic pathologist matched the jagged edges and wired the skull back together. The two pieces that actually solved the puzzle were missing: holes the size of a bullet. One going in, one going out.
Lindholm, who performs Spokane County’s autopsies, brings skilled science to one of society’s most mysterious jobs. But in both his work and personal life, he also brings enthusiasm and ingenuity that make him stand out among forensic pathologists.
Friends say he’s at his best when wearing latex gloves and blue paper booties in the chrome-and-white morgue at Holy Family Hospital, sifting through the ashes of a burned body for bullets. Or on his knees on a sheet, piecing together a skeleton pulled apart by coyotes.
“It’s like a kid in a candy store,” says Jim Hansen, a retired Spokane County Sheriff’s detective. “He’s so enthusiastic about his work.”
Meticulous science is key to solving cases - a detailed routine of measuring wounds, running toxicology tests, taking biopsies and other specifics. But it helps to keep an open mind at the outset of an investigation, Lindholm says.
With good detectives, he says, “I can go off in all these ridiculous directions of what this could mean. They allow me to indulge my fantasy. They don’t stop me.”
People meeting Lindholm for the first time have trouble believing he’s a pathologist.
Wouldn’t a doctor wear a suit instead of a worn corduroy jacket that smells like cigarettes? Wouldn’t he speak medical jargon, hang out at the country club after work? At least he should have a serious expression. After all, he spends his days with dead people.
When Lindholm goes to court to testify, he drives up in his old red and gray and rust pickup with a jammed passenger door and a shift lever only he knows how to move from drive to park.
He strides to the witness stand in an open-necked shirt and the same gray pants he wears when he’s clutching an autopsy knife. His hair is mussed even before he drops his 6-foot-3 frame to the floor to show jurors how a murder victim got in one position or another.
A picture in the morgue shows him on his back, legs in the air, trying to reconstruct a crime scene. “He’ll end up on the floor, or the ceiling if he could. No inhibitions about that,” says Bernie Bernard, one of Lindholm’s partners at Pathology Associates Inc. P.S.
Lindholm, 52, has worn the same few outfits for so many years, cops joke about pitching in for a new shirt.
He met his wife, Ronnie, 11 years ago while she was waitressing at Chapter Eleven restaurant. She laughed when he said he was a doctor. “What car lot do you really work at?” she asked.
While Lindholm may appear “as common as an old shoe,” as one detective puts it, a look at his four-page resume confirms he is not. He does his job with skill and intensity that stands out in the world of forensic medicine, colleagues say. Attorneys from other states who want second opinions on mysterious deaths routinely turn to Lindholm.
“Around George is this cloud of activity,” says Bernard.
“And he will be doing a task and focused on that task and does a great job at it. But at the same time his mind races, and he has all this energy that goes all sorts of directions. Not only is he supercharged and has more energy than the world needs, but it sort of infects others around him.”
So what made him this way?
Another partner shrugs. Must have something to do with his childhood.
Lindholm remembers growing up in Alaska like a beautiful, vivid dream: The log home - no plumbing - where he lived with his parents and seven brothers and sisters in Fairbanks. The huge garden where they grew cabbage and rutabagas so they’d have enough to eat … the diamond willow branches he found in the woods and carved into canes … the wild animals that wandered into the yard.
“We really did shoot moose in the front yard, and not always in season,” says Lindholm. “A lot of time there was no money for food.”
Lindholm, the oldest child, worked part-time jobs for tuition at a Jesuit school. He was a janitor, a construction worker, then later worked in a butcher shop.
It may have been his grandmother who first sparked his interest in medicine. She always encouraged him to be a doctor. Or it may have been a science project. His sister, Margaret Ogden, suspects he really chose the project that involved dissecting bass so he could spend long afternoons catching them. Regardless, he soon had them packed away in formaldehyde, while his mother worried that one of the younger children would accidentally drink it.
The best years of his life were spent in Alaska, where the biggest rule was “Mind your own business,” Lindholm says.
When it came time for college, he stuck with Catholic schools and chose Gonzaga University. He figured he’d return to Alaska, but he landed his best jobs elsewhere.
Patrick Freuen, an obstetrician who also studied pre-med at Gonzaga, said Lindholm studied every night, seldom partying with his peers. “I wouldn’t call him a nerd, but he was very introverted, basically.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree, he taught high school science awhile, until he got bored. He landed in forensics only after a routine shift during an internship at the University of Washington, where he earned his medical doctorate.
Part of the allure, he admits, was the $50 per autopsy he got on weekend shifts no one else wanted. But mostly, Lindholm says, his colleagues made it look like so much fun, like one puzzle after another.
He came to Spokane in 1985 and has had a hand in solving hundreds of mysterious deaths since then.
Lindholm doesn’t just do criminal autopsies. He also studies corpses when the cause of death is unknown, perhaps to see whether someone had a heart attack or committed suicide.
In a recent autopsy, he sliced through a man’s brain to look for unusual growths. He admired the cerebellum, which reminds him of a flowering bush. “It’s one of the prettiest parts of the brain, I think,” he said.
He found a handful of whitish nuggets inside another corpse’s stomach recently. He squished one between his fingers, sniffed it, wondering aloud if it was food or partlydissolved medicine capsules. A possible overdose?
He always checks stomachs closely. In various stomachs, he’s found clues such as dish soap, poison roots, razor blades, ammonia, household bleach, condoms filled with crack cocaine, and salami stuffed with aspirin.
This time, he imagines sending the oval clumps to a lab for identification and getting this response: “Why, Dr. Lindholm, what you have here is Campbell’s pork and beans.”
Lindholm’s humor is legend among those who routinely attend autopsies. Homicide detectives say it helps relax people under tense, difficult circumstances.
It’s not unusual for him to look at the identification number on a silver toe tag and say, “Look! The winning lottery number!”
On a dart board near his desk, there are words where numbers usually go: Natural, homicide, overdose, undetermined, suicide, accident.
Seattle pathologists still laugh about the birthday party Lindholm threw for King County Medical Examiner Don Reay. Reay’s quiet dinner at home was interrupted by reports of a massacre that killed several people. Reay arrived to find a homicide team taking notes and snapping photographs. When he yanked back a balcony curtain to check out a body, he instead found his entire staff shouting, “Surprise!”
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Reay. Leave it to Lindholm to create corpses so realistic the city’s top forensic expert would fall for it. Lindholm had convinced friends to play dead and had written a script for detectives.
Reay wasn’t thrilled about being suckered. But he says that same attention to detail is what helps Lindholm shine in his work, too.
“He begins like everyone else in a death investigation, but he follows through with a lot more detail. People don’t generally go to the same extent he does.”
Which leads his wife and others to wonder how one can be so bright, yet, so … forgetful. It’s the routine things, Ronnie Lindholm says, such as remembering to pick up 9-year-old Jacob, the oldest of their three children, at school. And remembering cab fare flying to Seattle. And remembering to have the kids change clothes during weekend jaunts.
“You took them Friday and it’s Sunday, and they’re still wearing the same things,” Ronnie will say.
“I fed them,” he’ll answer.
She laughs in the half-hearted way Lindholm’s co-workers chuckle about his office, where stacks of paper grow into heaps. His secretary used to sneak in and bag some of it, then hide it for a month. If he didn’t ask for it, she filed or tossed it.
Lindholm’s days of strictly science are over. He still reads quantum physics textbooks for fun. But now Sesame Street stories and Little Golden Books are mixed in.
For the past few years, Lindholm and Jacob have been making annual pilgrimages from their Colbert home to Alaska with their good buddy, George Maykowskyj. They fish, smoke fish in a smokehouse Lindholm built, fish some more.
When he’s not in Alaska, or flipping though snapshots of Alaska, or watching his Alaska videos, Lindholm fishes here with friends. He finds it relaxing. He says he loses himself in fishing and tying flies.
Randy Shaber, who works quietly alongside Lindholm during autopsies (and keeps his own office quite tidy), doubts his partner ever really loses himself.
“His mind goes 90 miles per hour, and when he’s fishing, it maybe goes 70 miles per hour. I don’t think he ever gets away from it,” Shaber says. “I’m a catch-and-release sort of guy, and he’s trying to catch as many fish as he can and put them away for the winter.”
Must have something to do with his childhood.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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