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Pathologist in Conflict With Coroner Is Stickler for Facts

Times Staff Writer

As a boy in Bombay, India, a half century ago, Hormez Guard was an avid reader of Popular Science magazine, a backyard biologist who longed to be a doctor. All he lacked was a microscope with which he could peer into the world of organisms invisible to the naked eye.

Young Hormez badgered his father, an electrical engineer, until finally the elder Guard bought him a microscope. But it wasn’t good enough.

“It was a reasonably good microscope for a 13-year-old boy,” Guard recalled last week, his characteristic Indian accent rising and falling within each word. “But I wanted the top-notch thing.”

Ever since, it seems, Hormez Guard has been a stubborn advocate for the best in scientific equipment, technique and results. And at age 61, Guard’s blunt manner and persistent criticism of methods he finds less than proper have placed him squarely in the center of a growing controversy over the quality of work in the San Diego County coroner’s office.

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Last week, Guard performed laboratory tests that he said showed that a Mexican border bandit killed by police May 4 died from a shot fired at point-blank range, not from 30 feet away as was claimed in the official police account of the shooting.

Although the police version of the death of Julio Arroyo Zaragoza was confirmed in a May 6 coroner’s autopsy by Dr. David Katsuyama, Guard’s findings prompted Coroner David Stark on Thursday to order tests on tissue preserved from the bullet’s path through Arroyo’s brain.

Guard resigned from the coroner’s staff of contract pathologists in October, 1984, after Stark told him that police and district attorney investigators had differences with his style that could not be resolved.

Since then, Guard, who did autopsies on a per-case basis for the county for 18 months, has been a constant thorn in the coroner’s side, using interviews and testimony as an expert witness in criminal cases to belittle Stark and his operation.

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In the past year, Guard’s critiques of coroner’s autopsies have helped exonerate three people accused of homicides and have prompted the county Board of Supervisors to ask for an examination of the office’s management structure. Guard has urged the establishment of a medical examiner’s office, where a doctor, not a layman such as Stark, would have the final say in all judgments about the cause of death and other medical matters.

Guard’s criticism of the coroner’s office has been supported in comments by local pathologists and attorneys, and medical examiners from other counties. But his personal attack on Stark--Guard calls him a “mere embalmer” and once said a Boy Scout could do a better job--and his undisguised bitterness over the events leading to his departure from the coroner’s office have left his motives open to suspicion.

“He (Stark) took this authority to hire and fire me as if I were a piece of rag that could be thrown out of the office,” Guard complained. “That was shabby treatment. I couldn’t accept being treated by a layman in this way.

“People have said I have a personal vendetta against Mr. Stark. This is not true. I am only trying to get at the facts.”

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Those who have worked with Guard in San Diego and in Maryland, where Guard was an assistant medical examiner for eight years, describe the white-haired, diminutive Indian as a meticulous worker who will go to great lengths to prove a point but will not make claims unsupported by scientific evidence.

Elisabeth Semel, president of the county’s Criminal Defense Lawyers Club, said she thinks Guard is a man of high ethical standards.

In a recent case on which they worked together, Semel said, Guard was “willing to tell me what he could, but there were certain things he couldn’t tell me because it just wasn’t there.”

Although today his income comes mostly from work on behalf of defendants, Guard’s colleagues say he was just as zealous in Maryland, where most of his findings helped the state prosecute suspected criminals.

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Dr. Dennis Smyth, who worked under Guard as a resident and later alongside him as a fellow assistant medical examiner, said Guard was known in Maryland for his thoroughness and attention to detail.

Smyth said one well-publicized Guard case involved a victim who died from a blow to the head. Guard took extra time to fashion a clay impression of a blow from a hammer suspected to be the murder weapon, demonstrating to a jury how the model matched the damage done to the victim’s skull.

Another time, Guard found partially digested french fries in the stomach of a stabbing victim whose decomposing body was found in the woods outside Annapolis, Md. Guard stunned his colleagues when he suggested that he recognized the fries as coming from a McDonald’s restaurant, his wife’s favorite fast-food outlet, and said the food had been in the victim’s stomach for only about half an hour.

Detectives then went to the only McDonald’s within a half-hour of the remote crime scene, and clerks at the restaurant recognized a picture of the victim and that of another woman, who was later charged with murder.

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“He was a very thorough examiner who took his work very seriously,” Smyth said. “He would really get involved in his cases. He would do a little extra.”

Smyth said Guard also seemed to enjoy helping residents who were training to be medical examiners, exhibiting a flair for teaching that others have also found in him.

“He takes the time to walk the attorney through the medical evidence so the attorney will have as much familiarity with the evidence as the expert,” said David Thompson, a Carlsbad attorney who used Guard to help win acquittal for a former Oceanside woman accused of killing her son.

After that case, in which Guard and Thompson cast doubt upon the accuracy of the coroner’s autopsy that concluded the boy was struck or shaken, Superior Court Judge Lawrence Kapiloff said the state owed defendant Carol Phinney “an abject apology” for prosecuting her at all.

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Semel said Guard’s professorial manner makes him an effective witness for either the defense or the prosecution.

“He’s fairly clear in terms of his testimony,” Semel said. “He knows how to speak in lay language.”

According to Stark, it was Guard’s desire to be a teacher that got him into trouble at the coroner’s office, where fellow pathologists and law enforcement agents did not always appreciate his advice.

“He’s a good instructor,” Stark said. “Sometimes in his interaction with homicide investigators, it became a teaching session. Sometimes it became so basic that the investigators were insulted by it.”

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Guard says that trait, which some consider arrogance, is a product of his upbringing and his religion. He is a member of the Parsi faith, a descendant of a band of Persians who emigrated to India after Arabs conquered their country in the Eighth Century.

Followers of the prophet Zoroaster, the approximately 80,000 Parsis left in the world today live by the simple ethical code: “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

It was with that code that Guard was raised in Bombay by his mother and his father, who ran a hydroelectric plant and encouraged Guard’s ambition to be a doctor.

Guard graduated at the top of his medical school class at the University of Bombay and, after earning a doctorate degree in pathology, went on to be chief of pathology at a large general hospital in the city.

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There he worked for 18 years, taking time off to travel to America, where, as a Fulbright scholar, he worked at Harvard on the development of the birth control pill. Attracted by the superior research facilities available in the United States, Guard moved here in 1969, earning certification from the American Board of Pathology. In 1975, he began his work as an assistant in the state medical examiner’s office in Baltimore, where many of the nation’s most renowned forensic pathologists got their training.

Although Guard was well-established in Maryland, his only brother--a yoga instructor--lives in San Diego, so Guard bought a retirement home here and made plans to move. Once, on a business trip to Southern California, he stopped by to see Stark, and the two men agreed that Guard would move West if the right opportunity arose.

“We had a little chat and kind of hit it off,” Stark said. “I was impressed with him.”

In 1983, Stark had an opening, and Guard filled it. But after about six pleasant months, Guard’s desire to be a more aggressive examiner became clear, and their relationship began to deteriorate. A year later, the two men agreed to part, and Guard since then has been a relentless critic.

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Stark said in an interview with The Times last month that he agrees with most of Guard’s criticisms of his office. Last week, Stark said he does not believe Guard’s findings in the border shooting case were colored by his differences with the coroner.

“I know he has very strong feelings about this office and about me personally,” Stark said. “But Dr. Guard is a good pathologist. I don’t think his professional judgment is clouded by any feelings he has.”


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