Nuclear chemist, forensic toxicologist, and crime lab director; dad to Amy, and my father-in-law; David Todd Stafford has passed away. As a young nuclear chemist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he researched radioactive fuels for the Department of Energy, as toxicologist for Shelby County, TN (Memphis) coroner’s office, he wrote the toxicology report on Elvis Presley. As Director of the Chemical Pathology and Toxicology Lab at the University of Tennessee (Memphis), he taught forensic pathology, as a contractor to Hewlett Packard, he traveled extensively helping crime labs come to terms with gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers.
What’s a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer? Imagine a machine that can break down a substance to the atomic level while providing DNA-like information on that substance. Naturally it’s a rather complicated machine, and for years this was his favorite toy. With it he was able to find accelerants in the ashes of a suspicious fire; chemical combustibles in the ruins of a fraudulent gas line explosion, opioids in the body of someone burned beyond recognition. And his professional experiences led to an enormous amount of published works in journals, books, and presentations.
In his later years, as a professional witness, his 18 page curriculum vitae often succumbed fraudulent cases before they went to trial. A traumatic amputation at a factory followed by a massive lawsuit? Once Dr. David Stafford was on the job, if the injured had any illegal substance in his body, he was going to find it.
In the late 90s, the FBI’s crime lab suffered a mountainous scandal and its director was fired. When the search was on for a new director, David was on the short list. That’s how significant his reputation was.
In his signature gruff manner he answered their queries with, “What the hell would I want to do that for?!” He was too private a man for such a public position.
Incredibly self-sufficient, born in rural Kentucky and working by the age of 12, he insured his own path to college with exemplary grades and a full ride to the University of Louisville, followed by a master’s degree and Ph.D in chemistry, courtesy Virginia Poly Tech.
He loved Kentucky Bourbon but only if he wasn’t driving. He loved his daughters, his grandkids, true BBQ, camping, and his adopted state of Tennessee. Years ago he took us to the UT – Vanderbilt game and when the Volunteer’s band broke out Rocky Top, he stood up and sang right along, at that moment as happy as only a Tennessee fan could be.
A slight man with a full beard, he had a giant of an intellect. For years Amy’s extended family would get together at Pawley’s Island and I’d always bring him a book as a present. One year I gave him the biography of Nobel prize winner and physicist, Richard Feynman. Four hours later he handed it back to me and pronounced it fascinating, all 500+ pages of it.
After watching Amy’s grandmother languish away in a nursing home, he begged me to “hold me under the water until the bubbles stop” if he ever became incapacitated. It didn’t come to that. After 82 years he was still sharp as a tack yet his body had repeatedly failed him.
So with his only surviving daughter, son-in-law, and grandson holding his hands, he slipped quietly away while Willie Nelson sang “Blue eyes crying in the rain” and the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy lashed at the windows.
On that day one of my tasks was to contact all his attorneys to let them know he was passing away. One of them sent me an email, a judgement he had pronounced on a fraudulent employee that had a six pack in the plant’s parking lot, proceeded to cause an accident, then blamed it on her employer. David’s well-reasoned opinion and composure on the stand was still vital to this attorney, 10 years later.
David was a man of facts, of numbers, of research. He was a ruthless card player, a crime fighter, an excellent gardener, and a patient teacher. He sent many physicians into the world of health care better prepared to cure and save. He was also a loving father with a gentle soul. Godspeed, sir. To whom shall we now turn for our fatherly advice?