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Little shop around the coroner funds alternative sentencing program
(CNN) -- In a town where little is sacred and anything goes, it's fair to say Los Angeles prides itself on being a little bit "out there." So it comes as no surprise that the city's creative nature has worked to transform a dime-a-dozen gift shop idea into one with international tourist appeal. But here's the twist: It's located at the county morgue.
Skeletons in the Closet may be the world's only souvenir shop paying homage to crime scenes. The shop sells nearly 50 licensed L.A. Coroner products and gifts from toe tag key rings and toy replicas of the coroner's 1938 hearse, the Black Mariah, to coffee mugs and sportswear. Most of the merchandise features the Skeletons in the Closet trademark chalk body outline.
Founded in 1993, the shop is located on the second floor of the Los Angeles County Coroner's complex in central Los Angeles, just west of the University of Southern California Medical Center. Hundreds of tourists from around the world manage to find this out-of-the-way location each year. Skeletons in the Closet also has an extensive catalog and a Web site. (www.lacoroner.com)
The items for sale aren't graphic or morbid. There are no crime scene or accident scene photos and management won't even comment on such requests. There are certainly no actual body parts, though people ask about that, too. The coroner's department points out that the latter would be not only offensive and in bad taste, but medically dangerous, ethically wrong, and in most cases illegal.
It's the usual array of mousepads and t-shirts and memo blocks -- with a chalk body outline or a coronorer's department seal instead of, say, the Hollywood sign or glittery stars on them.
Some of the most popular items include body outline logo t-shirts and beach towels and a barbecue apron featuring pockets for your "spare hands" and "spare ribs." Among the most outrageous is a "body bag" that doubles as a garment bag.
With monthly sales between $15,000 and $20,000, business won't be dying down any time soon. In fact, Halloween marks the beginning of the holiday season.
Sales are impressive. "It's been over $2 million in the last five years," says Los Angeles Department of the Coroner spokesman Scott Carrier.
"I don't know what brings people to that gallows sense of humor, but there are those out there," he adds.
Those put off by the seemingly macabre idea of purchasing "undertaker" boxer shorts or a body logo-ed pillow case should know the net profits from Skeletons in the Closet benefit Los Angeles' Youthful Drunk Driving Visitation Program.
Since 1989, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has been presenting the visitation program as a probation requirement or sentencing alternative for people convicted of driving under the influence and other driving offenses.
Craig Harvey, chief coroner investigator and director of the program, says that drivers of all ages are sent to his classroom. The course, originally targeted at 16-24 year-olds, has been praised by city and county judges as effective and necessary. The program also accommodates certain first-time offenders convicted of simple assault, gun possession and minor drug possession, Harvey said.
Because of the program's success as a sentencing alternative, the number of courses was increased this year from four per month to 12.
Offenders are shown some of the grim realities the department of coroner faces every day. Participants attend a lecture about the organization and its mission and watch a slide show with an anti-drunk driving message. Then they are given a tour of the morgue to see some of the consequences of drunk driving. They actually witness an autopsy through windows into the morgue.
After the visit to the morgue, program participants meet with the victim of a drunk driving accident and hear a first-hand account of what its like to live with the consequences of someone else's irresponsible actions. The program has few repeat offenders.
Harvey said the sensory impact of the program accounts for its success. "It's a very powerful program visually," He said. "It's a sensory program because when you're here, it's the sights and it's also the smells that are associated with what we do that create a very powerful image for people."
Linda Oxenreider, the California State Chairperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) agrees. "I think it's a wonderful program. We need to use every means available to get through to our youth," she says. "They need to put real faces with real people."
So far this year, the Youthful Drunk Driver Visitation Program has had more than 2,000 participants. Harvey says the majority of offenders get the message. "The ones who don't, we'll probably see as an eventual client," he added.
A nominal attendance fee, which the court has the right to waive, and money raised by Skeletons in the Closet help to offset the costs of running the course. The staff of volunteers includes off-duty police officers and department officials.
Skeleton's manager Gisella Gray said, "The whole thing started as a joke, as a prank. One of the secretaries put a body outline on a towel to present to one of her friends and it just took off."
The shop had its critics in the beginning, mostly a result of not getting the joke and failing to see the humor in what the coroner's office was promoting.
"They thought how horrible…What kind of store could the coroner possibly have," Carrier said.
He said he believes Skeletons' tactful humor has silenced those who once thought the shop showed disrespect for the dead.
Those who still need to be convinced may only have to look to the shop slogan for an explanation: "Part of you thinks it's in poor taste, part of you wants an XL."
It may not all be in good taste, but it's all for a good cause. So next time you're in the market for something that stands out from the crowd, you may be surprised to find that death becomes you.
Skeletons in the Closet
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