LA makes murder most profitable

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

IT IS the height of good fashion and, some say, the depth of bad taste. A mere dollars 20 (pounds 13.50), buys a beach towel decorated with the chalk outline of a spreadeagled corpse. And the seller of this charming product? An American coroner's office.

In the past four months, the Los Angeles county coroner's department has raised thousands of pounds by cashing in on the city's reputation for murder and mayhem. It is running a mail order operation selling tote bags adorned with a skeleton, baseball caps with the chalk body logo, and personalised toe tags.

The enterprise, called the 'Skeleton in the Closet' shop, has proved so successful that similar plans are reportedly being considered in San Francisco and in Houston, Texas, where it prompted complaints that it is both insensitive to relatives of the dead and macabre. But in Los Angeles the venture has won admiration. Californians are notoriously reluctant to pay extra taxes, and generally welcome any public body that can raise revenue without asking them to dig deeper into their wallets. 'Hey, this is the Nineties,' said Marilyn Lewis, the coroner's 'marketing co-ordinator'. 'We are trying whatever we can to raise money.'

She claims to have been inundated with hundreds of orders from Americans, who evidently saw the grisly wares as an ideal Christmas gift. Since starting the project in September, the department has raised dollars 80,000 towards an unusual sentencing programme aimed at deterring young people from drink-driving. A judge can order offenders, aged 16 to 21, to tour the coroner's office, which includes being shown the dead victims of drunken drivers. 'There have been no repeat offenders,' said Ms Lewis.

It remains to be seen how the coroner will eventually strike a balance between the quick (buck) and the dead. Will the office soon be churning out potted accounts of inquiries into the deaths of the rich and famous - that of Marilyn Monroe, for example? 'No,' says Ms Lewis. 'We do like to show some sensitivity.' It was for this reason that she discarded one of the more glib ideas for her product line: a T-shirt bearing the legend 'Our Day Begins Where Your Day Ends'.