A full-body scanning machine, originally developed to stop diamond theft by South African miners, has found its way to the new Anoka County medical examiner's office that opened in Ramsey this month.

The digital scanner, similar to a CAT scan, will speed up an autopsy case by several hours and get critical information about the cause of death to homicide investigators much quicker, said Chief Medical Examiner Janis Amatuzio.

In its first week, the scanner revealed evidence confirming a Chaska man found in a burning car this month in Sibley County was a homicide victim whose death was not caused by the fire. Although the cause has not been released, the autopsy provided new information for sheriff's investigators, said office administrator Gary Alberts.

The office, which serves a dozen counties, is the first morgue in the nation to have a Lodox scanner, said Amatuzio and an official with Lodox Systems N.A. in Atlanta. Hospitals and universities in the United States have about half of the 100 Lodox scanners in use around the world, said Lodox sales manager Dennis Wolfe. He said Anoka County has the only scanner in Minnesota. The next closest one is at the Creighton University Hospital in Omaha, Wolfe said.

The $275,000 scanner can record three-dimensional images of a person or dead body in about 20 seconds to help doctors and forensic investigators pinpoint the cause of injuries or death, Amatuzio said. That compares to several hours of work using traditional X-rays in a homicide case, she added.

The scanner, which uses 90 percent less radiation than regular chest X-rays, can trace the path of a bullet, or its fragments, through the body, Amatuzio said. Because of the minimal radiation, coroners can run the machine without X-ray technicians, she said.

The Lodox -- short for low-dose X-ray -- was developed from a similar scanner invented a decade ago to check miners in DeBeers diamond mines in South Africa, Wolfe said.

Viewing autopsy work

The new morgue, called the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office, has four forensic pathologists, two part-time investigators and four support staff. The office handles about 500 autopsies and 2,500 death investigations (most without autopsies) a year, Alberts said.

The 19,000-square-foot building in Ramsey's Town Center has four autopsy stations, one of which has a large viewing window above in an amphitheater-style room where students or investigators can watch autopsies. The room has four overhead screens that can display murder-scene photos or zoom in and let viewers talk by intercom with the coroners doing autopsies below.

Viewers can see the Lodox machine in the autopsy room with an overhead hoist scoop than can lift and turn bodies for scanning or autopsy work. Doctors also can use an infrared light to identify blood, semen or body bruises. A dissection microscope is used to analyze bullets, fragments or tissue samples.

The morgue provides a family room with sofas for grieving people who can identify loved ones' bodies up close or through a window. Down the hall is a walk-in cooler that can hold up to 40 bodies.

The morgue's former location was a 3,800-square-foot space in the basement of Mercy Hospital and an adjacent office building in Coon Rapids. The old morgue had only one autopsy station and storage for nine bodies.

The new morgue and equipment cost Anoka County $7.2 million. The county will pay almost $921,000 of nearly $2.1 million in annual operating costs, said Jerry Soma, Anoka County human services manager.

The remaining operating costs will be covered by service fees and eight other Minnesota counties, including Wright and Isanti, that will contribute on a per capita basis. Service fees will be paid by hospitals, private parties and Polk, Burnett and Douglas Counties in Wisconsin.

The new office also will be the only morgue in the Midwest to provide a forensic anthropology lab to train college students as well as forensic investigators, said Alberts and Susan Myster, an associate professor at Hamline University. She will begin teaching lab classes next fall. Hamline will pay $12,000 a year for office space and the lab, which will house Hamline's bone collection, Alberts said.

The partnership is "very innovative in a lot of ways and will be beneficial to both" parties, Myster said. She is a bone expert and has worked on Amatuzio's cases before. The forensic lab will be used to analyze "bones and soft tissue to help understand how a body may have been burned or injured," Myster said.

Amatuzio said investigators can learn a lot from the dead but need to keep an open mind. She teaches trainees: "Don't rush to conclusions. Document your observations and be patient because eventually it will lead you to the truth of what happened."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658