Sharp end: Richard says his work has made him appreciate life
He is one of the nation’s most respected forensic pathologists and has been involved in the investigation of more than 23,000 cases, including the deaths of Princess Diana and Stephen Lawrence. These would be enough to keep most people awake at night. Now that he is retired, Dr Richard Shepherd would not be blamed for moving on.
Because of our fascination with death, and forensic medicine, he’s in high demand again.
Following the publication of Unnatural Causes, his autobiography, he’s now on tour in the United States, speaking about his cases and the bodies that shaped his life. He’s also just published The Seven Ages of Death: More fascinating stories from his 40-year career as a “SilentWitness,” sleuth.
He says, “People are always fascinated with death.” Death used to be a part of everyday life. Death was part of daily life in my family’s day. People are now more concerned about death because it is less frequent. They rarely talk about the end. Nowadays, people talk about death. This is a way of removing the meaning from its actual essence and concealing it. “He has passed.” He’s not dead. This is what I have done my whole career, so maybe I can be a bit harder.”
Richard’s hard work has been paid in a matter-of fact approach that is rooted in a daily familiarity with human mortalities. Although Richard previously stated that he could manage strong emotions better than experience them, he now admits that “cutting up 23,000 bodies isn’t normal”.
Richard was diagnosed with PTSD after suffering flashbacks to the Bali nightclub bombings
He was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress disorder in 2016. This condition is triggered when he flashbacks to his time working in Bali after the bombings of nightclubs that Islamic extremists committed in 2002, killing 202.
He recalls that it was “very odd.” I was giving my wife a Gin and Tonic, and the trigger was taking ice cubes from a freezer bag. The bag took me back to Bali, the bombing. Because the facilities were so poor, the only way to keep them cool was by adding bags of frozen yogurt from the grocery store. Instantly, I was back in the heat, smell, and stress.
It was almost like someone opened a portal to hell and I fell through it. It was impossible to work because there was a overlap of anxiety and depression. “I felt a strong desire to kill myself.”
Richard’s wife Linda was also a physician and rushed Richard to the psychiatric emergency unit. He was able to resume work six months after his recovery with regular therapy and antidepressants. Richard claims that despite being professional, his life was not complete without the death stories.
His explanation: “I used do nine cases per day. It’s impossible to grieve for every case – it’s your work, and each one will teach you something. You have to get involved with it, or you will become completely cold and insensitive.
He recalls well the 1987 Hungerford massacre, where Michael Ryan, then 27, shot 16 victims, including an unarmed officer of police, and later killed himself.
Crime Drama: Emilia Fox and the team in BBC1’s Silent Witness
Richard is now 68 and says that he was young when his boss left for the summer. It was my turn to manage London and South East. A phone call came from the unknown asking me to travel to Hungerford.
I had just washed and read to the children before putting them to sleep. “I went from being a father at home to Hungerford. My first job was to check on Michael Ryan, who had taken his own life in school.
There were rumours that SAS was sent to him to kill him. But I quickly confirmed that the gun was in his left hand. He had also shot himself in the right temple. The bullet was from the left and had embedded itself into the classroom wall. Although it was quite simple, the experience was still very unusual as it occurred in a room with someone who had killed so many.
Richard retired from the military three years back. He was also flown to New York after the attacks on the Twin Towers twenty years ago. He recalls that there were many British citizens in the WorldTrade Center, and that it was obvious that bodies would be returned to the UK.
“I strongly believed that the UK shouldn’t add to the family’s trauma by conducting a second post-mortem exam back there. So I was dispatched to verify how the bodies were identified.”
He stated that he remembered the smells of the burned building and the sounds of emergency vehicles. It was an assault on our senses.
It was well-organized and taught us a lot. This helped us prepare for the London bombings, four years later. It helped us to figure out the details because we weren’t ready for such a huge disaster. It is crucial to have identification in a major disaster. This helps families grieve and help them. They are still finding DNA fragments of 9/11 victims. Although it’s difficult to tell a loved one’s family that you have found another part of them, it’s necessary.
Although he was proud of his ability to change between home and mortuary, his marriage began to unravel in 2007.
He would be asked by his wife to show some emotion. His response was: “I didn’t realize it was so tight screwed down.” It was not only blocking bad emotion, but also good emotion. Shepherd was not only unable to bear the horrors of large-scale disasters like the Clapham train crash in 1988 or the Marchioness sinking in the next year but also had to fight for better restraint training. Shepherd became a specialist in knife crime after experimenting with Sunday roasts from his family.
Richard, the expert pathological examiner in the official police investigation into the 1997 death of Diana Princess of Wales was summoned to assist in her funeral.
He explained: “I was the Royal Family’s pathologist – that wasn’t an actual title. But the coroner of the Royal Family said that if I was in the area, he would call. Because I was away on vacation when Princess Diana’s death occurred, I wasn’t called. The police opened a formal investigation, and I was summoned.
Richard was only 13 when he felt first drawn to the calling. He was growing up in Watford. Simpson’s Forensic Medicine was brought to school by a friend. Richard fell in love with the idea of finding the secrets to a deceased body. He recalls, “It opened up an entirely new world for me and completely grabbed my attention.” “I was amazed at the possibilities of this career,” he recalls.
He graduated from St George’s Hospital Medical School as a physician and then went on to complete his postgraduate training in forensic pathology. In 1987, he joined Guy’s Hospital’s elite forensic team before establishing his own St George’s department, Tooting.
His cases included the murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992, Clapham’s rail accident in 1988, and the Marchioness tragedy in 1989, where 51 people were killed when a pleasure boat collided with a dredger at the Thames. He also worked on the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
Richard states that it can be difficult to determine if a person’s death has a greater impact on society when a body is placed in the mortuary.
He explained that no death is “just another” and all deaths are tragic, but Stephen Lawrence’s pathology was simple. There were many stabbings in south London during that period.
Silent Witness is a BBC One crime drama starring Emilia Fox. It follows the investigation of a group of experts in forensic pathology. This shows how popular this area of medicine is.
Richard will tell stories about the haunting and fascinating cases he has encountered on his theatre tour Unnatural Causes. His new book The Seven Ages Of Death sees Richard sharing autopsies from seven different ages. Richard is a father of two and lives in Cheshire, England with Linda. He insists that he has never become pessimistic from living in fear. It has made him more grateful for life.
He simply said, “I love life.” He said, “I love my family and grandchildren. I also enjoy music, reading, walking, and taking care of my dogs.” Flying aeroplanes is my favorite thing. I also enjoy looking after the bees. It is important to live and enjoy life.
- Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd is now playing in UK theatres starting October 5. drrichardshepherd.com. Seven Ages Of Death, Penguin/Michael Joseph is available today
Publiated at Thu, 02/09/2021 13:37.50 +0000