What happened to James Christiansen is not clear. The Layton man's body was found Thursday crumpled in the back seat of a new Suburban parked on a quiet residential street in Salt Lake City.

There were no gunshot wounds, marks of a stabbing or signs of strangulation, such as a cord tied around his neck.It was the same with Itisha Camp, a young woman whose body was found Thursday at the bottom of a stairwell in a Central City neighborhood. Police can't say for sure what killed her.

The scene of a suspicious death often spins a confusing tale, giving rise to questions that puzzle police and agonize family members.

But there is a way these people can speak from the grave, an agency that gives victims the words death has stolen. It's called the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office, where pathologists perform tests that eventually do the talking for the dead, explaining what happened.

A woman in Salt Lake County, for example, was found dead in the bathtub, and at first glance, appeared to be the victim of an unfortunate accidental drowning.

But if she could speak, she'd say she was strangled by an assailant and placed in the tub.

Tests performed at the medical examiner's office say what she can't. The tests show there isn't any water in her lungs, that there is evidence of strangulation with the deep layers of bruising in the muscle tissue of her neck.

What looks like accident can be homicide, and what looks like homicide can be an accident.

"We use (autopsies) not only to rule in the hand of another, but to rule out the hand of someone," said Salt Lake County sheriff's detective Mark Chidester.

Detectives from that department were notified of a body found dumped along a ditch. The body was clothed in a shirt and jacket and wrapped tightly in a tarp.

Chidester said investigators believed they might have had a homicide on their hands. Tests, however, proved the man had died of an accidental drug overdose and his friends had simply dumped the body.

Police say the work the medical examiners do is critical in death investigations.

"Sometimes it's obvious. You have the smoking gun. But many other times it is not so apparent. It's not easy to say if the person died at their own hand or at the hands of another or due to accident," said Chidester.

For police, detectives investigate a death to determine if a crime occurred. It is that simple.

The path to get there, unfortunately, frequently is confusing, full of twists and turns that start with how the victim died and then revolve around terms like intent and the suspect's state of mind.

While much of the medical examiner's work augments what police may already suspect, there are those cases that hinge almost exclusively on the forensic examination.

The case of Heidi Sonnenberg and her dead baby was one, Chidester said.

"That whole case centered around medical evidence. There were plenty of questions, pretty volatile questions, that needed to be answered before we determined how we were going to proceed with the case, and if at all."

Sonnenberg, sentenced earlier this month to a year in a residential correctional facility for female child abusers, gave birth to a daughter in the bathroom of her parents' home. Sonnenberg, 22, hid her pregnancy and after the delivery clipped the child's umbilical cord with nail clippers but didn't clamp or tie the cord.

The autopsy revealed the child had breathed on its own and died of blood loss, lack of stimulation, a blocked airway and temperature loss.

Chidester said knowing if the baby was stillborn, could have survived on its own or had been deliberately killed was vital to the direction the case took.

"We could do nothing until we had the medical evidence," he said.

After determining the child could have survived if Sonnenberg had taken more appropriate action, police built a case of child abuse homicide, a third-degree felony, against the woman.

"The ME's office can make or break a case. It all has to be done by the numbers or we lose the case," Chidester said.

The initial work done by the medical examiner's office happens in the field, where more than 30 investigators statewide - many of them police officers who work part time for the agency - act as the eyes and ears of the pathologists.

For 16 years, Rudy Riet supervised those investigators, directing their efforts to work in conjunction with police.

Riet, chief of investigations until his retirement earlier this month, was often among the first people to arrive on the scene of a death and gained a reputation among law enforcement as one of the best in his field and among the easiest to work with.

It's not uncommon for an on-call investigator to be out all hours of the night and day, working side by side with detectives to process a crime scene.

"Obviously you get first peek at the scene, which is sometimes very helpful in determining the course of the investigation in the early phases,' Riet said.

But, as Riet pointed out, he always knew his function was different from the police, and that difference in roles could be beneficial - not something to squabble over in potential turf battles.

Often, Riet said, police provide helpful information about the scene of the crime to the person doing the autopsy, and in turn, the medical examiner's office is providing answers to the detectives.

"You have to work very closely with the police and it's ideal if you have a good relationship," Riet said. "It keeps everybody reading from the same sheet of music."

Riet said he loved his job of 18 years because no two days were the same. While the scrutiny of the dead may seem ghoulish or repulsive to some people, the medical examiner's office approaches its job seriously, in a clinical, scientific way that, very simply, produces answers.

Everything is weighed, measured, sampled, photographed and charted. The documentary of death is necessary to tell the victim's story, and the story has to be succinct because it may be played out in a criminal court if charges are ever filed.

"There's such a technical education up at the office, obviously," said Chidester, "But it goes beyond that. They have to put that together with forensics and the laws of evidence. They have to be practically everything - between police to doctor. These scenes would be miserable without them."