DENVER -- Denver Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Caruso doesn’t like mysteries.
Over a two-year period, he and his staff of forensic pathologists performed 1,257 autopsies and 357 chart reviews. Of those, doctors failed to determine a specific cause of death only 47 times.
“We try not to use undetermined very often. It is very unrewarding for the doctors. We don’t like it, but in some cases it’s all we can do,” Caruso said.
"We sort of feel like we failed. The autopsy for us is the deceased person trying to tell us their story. How’d they end up in our suite?”
One of those rare unknown cases which came through Caruso’s office last fall was the death of 28-year-old Marina Placencia.
Placencia was found dead inside an Amtrak train car on Sept. 1.
The Denver Police Department opened an investigation, in part, because of her autopsy results, which listed 35 instances of recent, mostly blunt force trauma injuries.
Those injuries included a large number of contusions, bruises, 10 broken ribs and bleeding in her stomach.
Her final days were traced from her former residence in Racine, Wis. Placencia lived there with her longtime boyfriend, Angelo Mantych.
According to two neighbors, Mantych had dragged Placencia into the driveway and beat her up about 48 hours before her death.
"The night before they left, he was hitting her," Lana Martinez said. "And he was slapping the kids and throwing furniture out that window right there.
"He didn't just hit her, he hit her with hate. He was beatin' her. Them slaps were so hard, it was disgusting. I mean ... it was disgusting.
Placencia’s mother, Terrie Medina, said her daughter told her Mantych was physically abusive the entire week she planned to leave him in August.
“She told us he beat her three days before, then she said he beat her the day before,” Medina said. “He was constantly beating. The kids told us he had got a chair and kept hitting their mommy until the chair broke.”
Court records show Mantych was convicted of domestic violence and spent time in a Wisconsin jail in 2015 for punching Placencia.
He declined to elaborate on the more recent allegations of abuse when approached in Thornton a few weeks ago, offering a “no comment.”
According to witnesses and the limited public records available, Placencia bought an Amtrak ticket and traveled alive from Milwaukee through Chicago, then to Denver.
Tickets show Placencia and her four children were with her on the passenger train.
After a series of investigative reports, another passenger who was in the train car next to Placencia for the last portion of her trip reached out to the Problem Solvers.
She asked she only be identified as JM.
“I want to do the right thing, but I'm a little scared because he's still out there,” JM said.
JM boarded the Amtrak train in Holdrege, Neb., about 2 a.m. She didn’t hear any disturbances.
"All quiet" was how she put it until arriving in Denver.
“Over the speaker, I heard somebody saying, ‘Is there a doctor?’” she said, before describing what she saw when she went to the windows between the cars.
“I saw her in the aisle on the floor. Nobody was around her. I assumed she had already passed away," JM said.
She said paramedics at first tried to resuscitate Placencia, then police arrived.
“They said they were waiting for the detectives and make sure nobody had killed her on the train. Their words not my words. They just wanted to make sure. Have an investigation,” JM said.
She also wanted Placencia’s family to know she and an Amtrak employee prayed for Placencia before the body was picked up by the coroner.
"She was somebody. Not the woman who died on the train. She’s a woman. She has children. The children were with her. As a mother, as a mother you don’t want your children to be alone," JM said.
As police were still investigating, Caruso continued to question the case even after the “undetermined” ruling of her death.
"There’s all kinds of red flags in the history here," Caruso said. "We knew that going in. We’d like nothing more than to come up with another manner of death in this case.”
Because none of the bruises, contusions or broken bones were likely fatal, Caruso supported the decision to leave the death as unknown.
That, he said, does not rule out further investigation as new facts become available.
"If new information comes about, I am certainly willing to change my opinion," Caruso said.
That’s all Placencia’s brother, Christopher Medina, is asking, to not let his only sister’s death be left forever unknown.
“If it’s undetermined, something happened. Something, somewhere happened that nobody knows about and we have to figure that out,” Medina said.
Amtrak officials said they do not have cameras inside train cars.
But they have an internal police department. Any witness statements and other records gathered as part of the investigation are sealed pending the open death inquiry.
Mantych has not been charged or named a suspect in any crime.
The Racine Police Department did not respond to inquiries regarding if it had opened a case in connection with the alleged assault before Placencia’s train ride.
The FBI, which would be the agency that could investigate any potential cross-state criminal acts, did respond to requests for comment.