By Fred Rothenberg, Dateline Producer
Bill Lee's friendly Kentucky accent was unmistakable -- even if I was hearing it at 3:30 in the morning.
Bill is the longtime coroner for Hardin County Kentucky, and he was calling on the Bat-Phone. That's what we jokingly called the phone that coroners and police, in and around Louisville, Kentucky, were using to alert us to death stories that we might want to cover.
The dedicated cell phone was on the night stand in my hotel room. Fellow producer Maia Samuel and I were alternating overnights when one of us was on call with the phone, and this was my sleepless night.
Dateline producers, camera and sound technicians and correspondent Victoria Corderi were in the middle of an extraordinary week, chronicling the Louisville medical examiner's office and its death cases.
And on Tuesday morning -- early Tuesday morning -- Coroner Lee had a possible case that would end up at the medical examiner's office later that same day.
In the weeks and months that followed I would often talk to Bill Lee, and when he'd call he'd always be considerate and ask, "Am I catching you at a good time?" This time, he dispensed with that courtesy line.
"Fred, this is Bill Lee from Hardin County," he drawled through my sleepy haze. "I'm calling to see if you'd be interested in a story."
In Kentucky, coroners are elected officials who go to death scenes to investigate and take charge of the bodies before handing them off to the medical examiner for autopsy. Coroners also are the ones who must communicate with the family members -- a rough job for sure.
Over the phone, coroner Lee laid out the basics of a bizarre tale. A man had confessed to killing another man and would soon be leading investigators to where, he said, he had buried a body. By this time, I was wide awake and furiously scribbling notes. Bill was offering to meet us at the Kentucky State Police Post, where investigators would be gathering to embark on a grim mission -- to dig up a body.
And Dateline would be going along every step of the way for a case that the county attorney would later say was unlike any he'd ever seen before.
It all started with a phone call, a wake-up call, and now this unusual case is part of a Dateline hour that will air on NBC Monday night, Aug. 20, at 10 p.m. ET.
Several members of the Dateline team reflected on their experience with the Louisville medical examiner's office. Read senior producer Maia Samuel's story on dealing with dead bodies here, and assistant producer Chetna Purohit's story about a tragic fire here.