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Image: Virginia's chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro
Lisa Billings  /  AP
Virginia's chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro, who served as the inspiration for Kay Scarpetta, the protagonist in Patricia Cornwell's crime novels, retired Dec. 31.
updated 1/1/2008 6:37:42 PM ET 2008-01-01T23:37:42

The party was held down the hall from the morgue. The color scheme was purple, to denote mourning. The chitchat over hors d'oeuvres was about really interesting autopsies. And the guests included crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who was the life of the party, even if the business that brought everyone together was death.

The occasion was the retirement of Virginia's pioneering chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro — the real-life inspiration for one of the most famous characters in crime fiction.

"You become much more aware of how tenuous life is," the 66-year-old Fierro told The Associated Press in a rare interview, offering a post-mortem on the horrors she saw during her more than 30 years of service to the state.

Fierro, whose last day was Monday, worked on some of the nation's most notorious crimes, including the Virginia Tech massacre and Richmond's Southside Strangler killings. And though she would never admit it, many would argue she was the catalyst for the explosion of forensic-science TV shows, movies and books.

In 1984, Cornwell, then an aspiring writer, got an appointment with Fierro to ask questions about what a medical examiner does. Fierro became the inspiration for Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the heroine of what would prove to be a string of best-selling thrillers for Cornwell.

"I would not be where I am today in my life were it not for Dr. Fierro," Cornwell says.

Kay Scarpetta is chief medical examiner of Virginia, at least in Cornwell's earlier novels. But aside from their jobs and penchant for Italian food, Fierro sees little resemblance between her and the fictional doctor.

"Kay is blond, blue-eyed and 115 pounds," she says dryly. "I've never been blond, I have brown eyes, and I haven't weighed 115 pounds since I was 12."

Cornwell sees a stronger connection.

"What she does have in common with Marcella is this amazing database between her ears, a tremendous compassion for the victims, and she will fight to the death for them," Cornwell says. "She has always been a tremendous advocate for those who can no longer speak for themselves."

Indeed, those who end up on Fierro's table are not "bodies" or "the dead." They are patients.

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"We are physicians. And our mission is to take care of our patient — who just happens to be dead," Fierro says. "They have a story to tell. And they tell us their story through the physical examination and the testing that we do — just as if they were living people."

From the time she was a child in Buffalo, N.Y., Fierro wanted to be a doctor. The daughter of a teacher and an aviation machinist was drawn to the way forensic pathology seemed like detective work.

She went to medical school at the State University of New York at Buffalo and received her certification in forensic pathology in 1975, only the ninth woman in the country to achieve that distinction. She was hired as deputy chief medical examiner for central Virginia, and became chief in 1994.

She earned a reputation as meticulous and relentless, a defense attorney's nightmare in court. Colleagues describe her as entertaining, tough, warm, brilliant and humble, with a wit that is scalpel-sharp.

"She leads by example," says Dr. Leah Bush, who will succeed Fierro as chief. "And because she's so dynamic, you want to follow her."

Her biggest vice is smoking ("I may be the last living physician smoker," she admits in a gravelly voice) and she has been trying to quit for more than 40 years. Despite all the gruesome things she has seen on the job, she has nightmares only when she goes on the nicotine patch.

She doesn't care much for attention and isn't impressed by fame. Years ago, Cornwell brought Demi Moore to the morgue when the actress was considering playing Kay Scarpetta in a movie. Fierro, Cornwell recalls, "didn't give a rat's ass."

"I've had several people say, `Well, how does Marcella treat you now that you're so rich and famous?' and I said, `Just as rudely as she ever did,'" Cornwell says with a laugh.

Fierro, who has been married to her college sweetheart for 41 years, favors romantic comedies, thinks the CBS series "Numb3rs" is "the cat's meow," and devours thrillers. She is indifferent toward the "CSI" series. And she can't tolerate violent movies or TV shows.

"I cannot find a shooting or a stabbing entertaining. I simply can't," she says. "My frame of reference — absolutely wrong for gore."

Years ago, Cornwell remembers, she and Fierro went to see a play that had a rape scene. Fierro bolted from the theater, and Cornwell found her in the parking lot, crying.

"People just don't understand," she told Cornwell. "They don't understand."

It was the only time Cornwell ever saw her friend cry.

Compartmentalizing her grief, Fierro says, has been crucial to her work.

"If you're sitting there grieving over somebody's pain and misery, you're not concentrating on solving their problem," she says. "The patient doesn't need your tears. He needs your skill."

Setting her emotions aside has also been key to her survival, she says: "Otherwise, you would probably sit in a corner and never turn your head away."

The job made her more aware of her own mortality; she prays that her death will be a speedy one. In the eyes of her two children, the job also made her an overprotective mother.

Despite the grim nature of her job, she easily finds humor in its absurdities.

There was the time she and a detective found themselves at the scene of a homicide in a house filled with glass tanks of snakes. The jittery cop kept pointing his gun at the tanks, which only made Fierro panic, because she knew that one bullet would shatter the glass and unleash the serpents.

"If any of those snakes got out, man, I was outta there!" she recalls, roaring with laughter.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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