Vincent de Maio, a world-renowned forensic pathologist, was behind the “Angel of Death” case in SA

SAN ANTONIO – Dr. Vincent de Maio, the world-renowned San Antonio forensic pathologist who saw a suspicious pattern in a chain of infant deaths at a local hospital and conducted an investigation that led to the “Angel of Death” conviction, has died at age 81.

Di Maio is credited with raising the professional standards for the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s office—and even helping design its current 52,000-square-foot headquarters—during his tenure as Chief Medical Examiner from 1980 until his retirement in 2006.

He was a wanted expert witness in high-profile murder cases around the world, including the 2007 trial of music producer and accused murderer Phil Spector in Los Angeles, where Di Maio testified to the defense.

Di Maio died on September 18 after a long battle with COVID-19, which he contracted in July.

“His unwavering commitment to excellence is part of his legacy here with this office,” said Dr. Kimberly Molina, current chief medical examiner for Bexar County. “If I was going to the field, I would have liked to practice with him.”

Dr. Robert Box, who previously served as Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, recalled the lessons he learned from Di Maio, including the importance of carefully explaining to family members how a loved one died.

Vincent de Maio, right, a gunshot wound forensic expert who has been testifying for the defense, inserts a plastic rod to show an intra-oral gun wound inside the mouth of a plastic head model, during music producer Phil Spector's murder trial Wednesday, June 27, 2007 in Los Angeles .  Spector is accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson in February 2003 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, Pool)

Vincent de Maio, right, a gunshot wound forensic expert who has been testifying for the defense, inserts a plastic rod to show an intra-oral gun wound inside the mouth of a plastic head model, during music producer Phil Spector’s murder trial Wednesday, June 27, 2007 in Los Angeles . Spector is accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson in February 2003 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, Pool)

Damien Devarganis, The Pool / Associated Press

Doctors and public officials said Di Maio ran a professional office, employed competent people, and was fair. “He knew a lot and shared it well,” Bux said.

In one case that caught his national attention, Di Maio identified a series of 42 mysterious infant deaths from 1978 to 1983 at Bexar County Hospital (now University Hospital). His investigation into those deaths led investigators to pediatric nurse Jenin Jones, the notorious “angel of death,” who is estimated to have killed a total of 60 infants.

His daughter, Samantha de Mayo, was one of the Bexar County District Attorneys who prosecuted and convicted Jones on new murder charges in early 2020. She remembered marking her father in court when she was a child, which made her interested in a career in law.

In 1981, Di Maio revealed the battery of 77-year-old Joseph T. Kelly. Di Maio’s predecessor ruled death of natural causes. Kelly’s body was exhumed after San Antonio police approached Di Maio and said a bloody hammer was found near his body.

family business

Forensic pathology was the de Mayo family’s business. His father, Dominic de Mayo, served as the chief medical examiner in New York City. When Vincent de Maio was an established forensic pathologist, he teamed up with his father to write a textbook on forensic pathology.

In 1965, Di Maio graduated from SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in New York, then served in the military as chief of the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Department of Ballistic Wounds at the Armed Forces Institute of Disease in Washington, DC.

Di Maio wrote the first edition of the forensic pathology textbook with his father, Dominic Di Maio, who was the chief medical examiner in New York.

From July 1972 to February 1981, he was a coroner in Dallas County, where he participated in the exhumation of President John F. Kennedy’s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald.

Di Maio came to San Antonio when he was offered a job as the county’s chief medical examiner in the early 1980s. He was also a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio College of Medicine, and served as editor-in-chief of the “American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology” from 1991 to 2017.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio testifies in the murder trial of former Bexar County Deputy Sheriff, Anthony Thomas, Monday, May 23, 2016, at Cadena Reeves Justice Center.  A coroner of more than 40 years, Di Maio retired as the Chief Medical Examiner for Bexar County in 2006.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio testifies in the murder trial of former Bexar County Deputy Sheriff, Anthony Thomas, Monday, May 23, 2016, at Cadena Reeves Justice Center. A coroner of more than 40 years, Di Maio retired as the Chief Medical Examiner for Bexar County in 2006.

Alma y Hernandez, For The San Antonio Express News / Alma y Hernandez / For The San Antonio Express News

Early in his tenure here, Di Maio lobbied the Bexar County commissioners to hire an additional pathologist and boosted the number of autopsies his office performed—so that fewer murders would slip through the cracks.

Vincent Di Maio told PBS’s Frontline that he chose the field because it was “intellectually stimulating.” He was a strong advocate for the professionalization and increased scientific standards of death investigations in the United States

He was not impressed with the less strict old-fashioned work of county judges.

“The forensic system was a great system for the 10th century. Back then people weren’t able to read, and you would walk around barefoot and live in little huts,” he told Frontline. “But this is the 21st century, and legal medical work has to be scientifically grounded, using scientists.”

His family said Di Maio was often in the backyard, lying on a hammock and next to him a pile of books. He was a history buff and could tell the details of major wars. Not surprisingly, he also had an encyclopedic knowledge of firearms.

Bux said Di Maio had a knack for writing and speaking about forensics in a way that jurors, police officers, lawyers and the public could understand.

Di Maio’s wife, Teresa, said his proudest moment was when the medical examiner’s headquarters — on Louis Pasteur Drive at the South Texas Medical Center — was designated in his name in 2018. Bux said Di Maio has worked to ensure the facility has every something. Necessary, including a shooting range for ballistics testing.

Medical examiners around the world rely on Di Maio’s book on gunshot wounds. His family said he saw it in use when he testified as an expert in an Israeli court.

“He’s never been shy about controversy,” Molina said. “He was very passionate about what he did and our field. He was a great advocate for our field on the national stage. Whether you agree or not, you respect him.”

jbeltran@express-news.net

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