Dr. Joseph Davis passed away yesterday. He was one of the first interviews we shot for Cocaine Cowboys.
We didn’t have much funding when we started making the documentary in 2003, so we decided to shoot just enough to cut a reel. In that first production round, we interviewed Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Detectives Al Singleton and Raul Diaz, attorney Sam Burstyn and Joe Davis.
Joe Davis made the first cut after we saw an interview he gave to Al Sunshine at the height of the Mariel violence that plagued Miami in 1981:
Dr. Davis was a legend among the tight-knit community who examine dead bodies for a living. He was hired to review the results of Elvis’s autopsy. When the House Select Committee on Assassinations was investigating the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King in 1976, they called Joe Davis. He was once able to determine that a homicide victim ate his last meal at Shorty’s because Davis recognized the smell of the BBQ sauce when he opened up the victim’s stomach.
The Miami Herald cataloged the breadth of his knowledge: “Davis lectured and wrote on a wide range of topics, including the deadly effects of man-of-war stings, peanut butter as a choking hazard, drowning, self-immolations, carbon monoxide poisoning, auto-erotic asphyxiation, rape and cocaine psychosis.”
Davis retired in 1996 after 10,000 autopsies and 40 years as the chief of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office.
In May 2003, I called Dr. Davis at home to ask for an interview. He agreed to do it at his old office.
None of us had been to the morgue before. It’s just off the 836, around the block from Jackson Memorial Hospital on NW 10th Avenue (curiously co-named Bob Hope Road).
The building was christened The Dr. Joseph H. Davis Center for Forensic Pathology when the county opened the brand new state-of-the-art facility in April 1988 (Edna Buchanan takes some credit for its construction, citing the county’s embarrassment after she reported that the medical examiner’s office rented a refrigerated truck from Burger King to store an overflow of bodies as a result of the Cocaine Wars of the early 80s).
We were offered the VIP autopsy suite to shoot the interview and while Billy and our DP Armando Salas started working on the shot, Dave went looking for an electric outlet to plug-in a light. He opened a door to an adjoining room and came face-to-face with an assistant medical examiner sitting at a desk, wielding an electric saw, cutting off the crown of the skull of a baby who died a day or two earlier. That really made quite an impression of all of us.
I was looking forward to Dr. Davis’s tales from the trenches of the Cocaine Wars: public machine gunnings and MAC-10 riddled bodies. But when we started rolling, he spent the first twenty minutes of the interview talking about highway guard rails. Turns out Dr. Davis was an early highway safety crusader and saved countless lives because of his lobbying. He was one of the first to use data to make the connection between fatal accidents and alcohol. On issues like swimming pool safety, cigarettes and pesticides, Dr. Davis had a strong opinion and voiced it frequently.
During the two hour interview, he walked us through nearly a half century of Death in Miami.
When Carl Hiaasen reported in 1987 that Miami had become the Car-Trunk Murder Capital of the United States, Dr. Davis was non-plussed: “It’s a bother. Another thing that’s annoying…now you find a car parked at the airport — stinks to high heaven — and for some reason you have to wait six hours while they go find a judge to get a court order to open the thing up! Everybody knows there’s a body inside.”
Shortly after he retired, ValuJet flight 592 plunged nose-first into the Everglades minutes after takeoff from Miami International Airport on May 11, 1996, killing 110 people. He told me the task of recovering body parts no bigger than a finger from the fetid, alligator-infested swamp made it the worst crime scene he’d ever seen. As he reminded me, “The human body is 70% water. When it hits the ground traveling that fast (over 507 MPH), the body basically explodes.”
I never saw Dr. Davis again after the interview. We spoke a few times on the phone and I heard that he liked the documentary. We reached out when we were putting together the Cocaine Cowboys cast reunion last March, but he had already moved upstate to Tallahassee. That’s where he died yesterday, peacefully, in his sleep in his home on Lake Bradford.
In a 1997 Tropic Magazine profile, staff writer Michelle Genz asked him how he viewed death: “With wonderment. How do you reach a point where scientific knowledge and theology blend? You wonder what’s beyond.”
Miami Herald: “Griselda Blanco, cocaine godmother, lives on in Corben/Spellman films” http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/09/08/2991689/griselda-blanco-cocaine-godmother.html (Taken with Instagram)
Miami New Times: Cocaine Cowboys Creator Gets Called ‘Tweeting Twit’ By Crotchety, Out Of Touch Columnist:
“[Fabiola Santiago] makes a point of using his legal name, “William Corben,” like she was an angry mother reprimanding her son. She calls him “condescending,” and a “bad-boy” narcissist, and chides his “stupidity” and “runaway self-promotion.” Never mind that Santiago herself comes off as condescending and slightly stupid. Worst of all, not a single bit of Santiago’s painful column is particularly funny, clever or illuminating.”
“Somewhere Herald columnist @FabiolaSantiago, who memorably called Corben a “Tweeting twit” in a bizarre column, is surely smacking herself and pouring a stiff drink.” http://bit.ly/Kuj3yb (Taken with Instagram)