LAS VEGAS – The coroner slowly slipped off his shoes, just as he’s done most mornings over the past year, and took a seat on the floor in the small room.
Legs crossed and palms raised, he closed his eyes. Soothing sitar music played softly as Elizabeth Scherwenka asked him to focus on his breathing.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. Deeper.
Take eight breaths and be conscious of each and every one, she instructed. She told him to notice his inner state as a golden ball of light.
His chest rose and fell beneath his blue Clark County coroner shirt. John Fudenberg felt the world slowing down, taking him away from that first day in October when his heart, mind and body raced in the madness.
Nobody knew Oct. 1 would be the day Stephen Paddock would take aim from his suite on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino and lay waste to the Route 91 Harvest country music festival with hundreds of rounds from semi-automatic rifles. He would kill 58 people — the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
That Sunday had been slightly busier than normal, with 14 bodies examined at the coroner’s office. There had been two suicides. Four drug overdoses. A few vehicle accidents, including one in which three children were killed.
But it was later in the evening now and he was in the back seat of an Uber ride along with a friend, Jason Cheney. The two were headed home after watching a Vegas Golden Knights preseason hockey game. His phone buzzed. It was an investigator from his office.
Fudenberg heard the gunshots through his phone. Popping sounds. He can’t forget them. His protocol has been to show up at any scene if there were two or more dead. The investigator told him there were at least 20. Maybe more.
Cheney saw his friend absorb the news. His face locked in an expression he’d never seen.
“The change in him was instant,” Cheney said. “We had been talking and joking and, suddenly, it was gone.”
Fudenberg was dropped off first by the driver. Cheney didn’t see him again until he was on television, giving updates on the deceased. It would be two more weeks before he would see his friend again in person. Over that dinner, Cheney would see some cracks.
The veteran coroner would cry. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Fudenberg, 49, was born and raised in St. Paul, and his staff is acutely aware of his “Minnesota nice” persona. There is the Midwestern accent that has ceded only slightly despite nearly three decades in Nevada. He is known to bring in doughnuts or bagels for the staff on the first working day of the month. He hand-writes birthday and anniversary cards for his staff of about 70.
Nicole Charlton, administrative assistant, said during the morning meetings that if a staff member is having a birthday, he leads them in singing.
“We’re very close-knit,” she said.
Which is why it wasn’t unusual for Charlton to suddenly be driving to his house that night. He had asked her to pick him up right away and drive him to the Las Vegas Strip. She knew it was going to be a long night and canceled a surgery scheduled for the next morning.
As she drove him to the staging area, he was on the phone the entire trip.
That would become normal for days. Weeks, even. He said it was unrelenting as elected officials put pressure on his team to provide updates on the victims and answers about Paddock. Fudenberg said he even got a call from the White House. He didn’t remember who it was.
Arriving at a staging site, Clark County Undersheriff Kevin McMahill arranged to get Fudenberg to the concert venue across the street from the Mandalay Bay. McMahill remembered it was windy. He also remembered what it looked like and what it sounded like in the open field. Just hours before, it had been a rollicking concert.
“It was surreal and the most eerie scene I’ve ever been at,” McMahill said. “There were victims’ cellphones ringing and the lights were flashing on them. It was as if 22,000 people dropped everything and ran away.”
Fudenberg walked the concert grounds, Charlton next to him. Wind blew plastic cups that hit him in the shins. He saw food still cooking on grills. His team set up a laptop and went to work.
By 3 a.m., refrigerated trucks began arriving to take the victims to the coroner’s office. It took 12 hours to remove all the victims.
The day after the shooting, the normal caseload in Vegas resumed. Nine people died from a variety of causes, including a pair of overdoses, two suicides and a car accident. But the shooting on the Strip had become all-consuming at the coroner’s office.
Meetings were scheduled. A centralized location was set up for friends and families of those trying to find out if a person was dead or alive. Fudenberg was now running on adrenaline. He put a cot in his office, but he hadn’t really slept.
At the coroner’s office, where medical examiners studied gunshot wounds and tried to identify the victims, they were running out of room. There were so many bodies, they had to use a second storage area. Paddock’s body was kept separate from the victims. It is standard protocol to keep a suspect separate out of respect for the victims. “I absolutely made sure we did it with him,” Fudenberg said.
Fudenberg knew determining the cause of death for the 58 wouldn’t be complicated. When the coroner’s office released the autopsy reports three months later, it was as he suspected: All had died from gunshot wounds. The difficult part, he knew, would be telling relatives.
The notifications were grueling. Fudenberg did several on his own. One was a large family. He began to tell them — words that could never be taken back. Words that would haunt them forever. He started to feel the tears. Heaviness in the chest. He summoned his years of professional training to try to push it back down.
Then he heard the little girl. “No. No. Mommy.” She was wailing uncontrollably.
The coroner cried.
Meditation has helped him through the past 12 months, he said, along with support from his teenage daughter and ex-wife. The meditation was a new experience and he admitted skepticism at first. Now, it quiets his mind. He can’t forget the night and following days and weeks. He remains the coroner who oversaw the identifications and notifications after the largest mass shooting in modern American history.
And there is another reminder. It’s small and simple, clipped to the side of his computer. A pink piece of paper from a time that he said still often feels like yesterday. It’s written in ballpoint pen: “10/4. 9:34 p.m. ALL ID’D. ALL NOTIFIED!!!!!!!”
Fudenberg reads it aloud in his office. It is quiet for a moment. He exhales.