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The People of Pensacola: Emily Speed

The story held in our bones is the passion inside of hers. This one-time death investigator turned podcaster is carving out a niche in the true crime genre.

Photo: Jordan Burch

When we lose someone we love, we desperately want to focus on how they lived – their voice, their movements, the essence of who they were. 

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But for Emily Speed, the focus on how someone died is paramount. The story held in our bones is the passion inside of hers. 

Emily, one-time death investigator turned podcaster, is carving out a niche in the true crime genre with recollections of past work. Her fascination with human osteology and the notion that you can uncover secrets and stories hidden in a person’s bones was the catalyst for this fascinating Pensacolian’s career as a death investigator.

Emily graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of West Florida. Simply put, biological anthropology is the mix of the social behavior of people combined with their biology. She also earned a master’s degree in forensic science from The University of Florida.

Every state operates under different laws either by a coroner system or a medical examiner system. The state of Florida operates under a medical examiner system and has statutes outlining which deaths must be investigated. 

The medical examiner, a physician trained in forensic pathology, must determine the cause and manner of death outlined in Florida statute 406. In addition to their staff, medical examiners are assisted by law enforcement, forensic investigators, and morgue personnel. 

Death investigators are highly trained professionals who work under the direction and guidance of the medical examiner and are governed by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI), of which Speed is board-certified. 

For nearly 14 years, Emily Speed worked in the Florida District One Medical Examiner’s Office, closing her career as the Senior Forensic Investigator. She found her way to the office after completing an internship there while still a student at UWF. She became hooked on investigations and later returned for full-time employment.

While most may not think investigating death would be appealing, it was enticing for her for the problem-solving aspect. She elaborates, “When you get a hunch and are on the road to figuring it out, and you get to be the one to put the puzzle piece together, it is very satisfying.”

Another silver lining to a seemingly dark profession is the bonds made with coworkers. 

“I enjoyed the people I was working with,” she recalls, “you learn to have the best sense of humor and bond over this thing you are experiencing together.”

But after years of working death cases, communicating with families of the decedents, and long hours of being on call, Emily decided to prioritize time with the two young boys she shares with her husband. 

“They are my priority,” she says of her family, before adding, “The effects of the job changed me to the point that I wasn’t happy with who I was anymore. I allowed it to become my identity, instead of having an identity in who I was and who I was raising.” 

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she says of leaving the office.

Emily left investigations and started professional organizing as a home-based business, something she still does. It’s also interesting to note that she is a certified yoga instructor and personal trainer. But her passion for forensic science lingered still, so on October 4, 2022, Emily launched the podcast “Death Calls: Experiences of a Death Investigator.”

Emily leads with the invitation to “hear about some of her craziest cases, interesting facts surrounding death, and what happens post-mortem, featuring some special guests and dark humor.” Her goal is to stay connected to her passion, help others in the field, and educate the public on a very misunderstood process.

Emily appreciates the public’s fascination with the work, explaining that people’s curiosity is one of the guiding factors for her topic selection.

“When I wore my [uniform] shirt and badge in public, people often asked, ‘Are you CSI?,’ or ‘What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?’”. 

But in real investigations, she states, “There are a lot of misconceptions about the way the process works,” noting that the editing done to create popular true crime and police television shows gives the illusion that things happen quickly and easily.

She’s hoping her podcast sheds light on the reality of the process by giving the public an insider’s look at a less Hollywood version of true crime. 

In working with many families through the years, she was witness to the extraordinary grief following an unexpected death. Often these emotions are exacerbated by financial and legal strains, that create a pressure cooker from unmet, but unrealistic expectations. 

“It’s hard because people are dealing with a loss and they might need money from a life insurance policy to conduct a funeral, but they cannot get it without a death certificate, but a death certificate cannot be released until the investigation is complete,” she explains as another element of the reality of the profession and her desire to educate the community. 

While the podcast covers a variety of angles, she wanted the first couple of episodes to cover some of her most memorable cases, both tragic and haunting. 

Other episodes include things like an inside look at grief support for children, who are often witnesses or victims of accidents or crimes. In her January 12 episode, she speaks with licensed clinical social worker Jennifer Holler. Jennifer provides bereavement care for children at Nonie’s Place, a resource center for grieving children and families.

Emily spent time in her career as a liaison to the Department of Children and Families and in meetings at Gulf Coast Kids House, often bonding with other professionals who work in arenas that crossover with her profession.

In addition to the heaviness of knowing children are witnesses to or impacted by deaths, she notes, “It was hard to investigate the deaths of children, and became even harder after I had my own.” 

Because of this, she is passionate about educating the public about providing for the needs of children following a death. This is often a topic that is not discussed until families are in the throes of an unexpected and possibly tragic experience. 

Emily takes care to avoid specifically identifying information, by changing names or omitting locations. It is important to note that once a death investigation case is finalized, it is considered a public record.

Another important byproduct of the podcast is that she is creating a community for others who work in the field. The unique and taxing environment can cause fatigue, PTSD, and difficulties for fellow professionals. She hopes others in the field will find comfort and commonality so they will not feel alone. 

Emily also remains connected to forensic investigations by offering educational and consulting services. She hopes the podcast continues to grow beyond the nearly 30 episodes currently offered and is enjoying documenting her experiences and helping others. 

If you are interested in true crime, organ donation, forensic pathology or psychology, or any specifics of death investigations, follow Death Calls by Emily Speed wherever you get your podcasts. 

You will find answers to questions you didn’t know you had and get to know an intriguing Pensacola neighbor in the process.