A day in the life with the Thurston County coroner

Warnock: ‘People who pass through … they have a mom … belong to somebody’

jpawloski@theolympian.comMarch 24, 2013 

The dead man was lying naked on a cold steel table.

He was in his 50s. He had a goatee and long, black hair flecked with gray. One eye was open, the other squinted shut. An earring dangled from his right earlobe.

A forensic pathologist and his assistants entered the exam room at the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. They are about to begin the autopsy, this man’s last surgical procedure to answer the vital questions of how and why he died, before he goes to his final resting place.

Autopsies are not for the squeamish.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officers often sit in on autopsies when deaths concern a potential homicide investigation. Mark Thompson, Thurston County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, has witnessed about 10 autopsies during his career, and he said the experience can be humbling. Most recently, Thompson was present during the autopsy of a 19-year-old male homicide victim whose charred remains were found in a burn barrel near an Olympia transient camp in October.

“In essence, just a couple of days before, that person was alive, with whatever hopes and dreams they had, with relationships with friends and family and loved ones,” Thompson said.

Even some police detectives get uneasy during autopsies, admitted sheriff’s Lt. Greg Elwin, who said he will always remember the first time he watched an autopsy. It was on a 16-year-old boy who drowned in a lake near Yelm in the mid-1990s. The victim’s young age made the autopsy more disturbing, Elwin said.

In homicides, Thompson said, police and prosecutors treat the body as part of the crime scene, and the location and documentation of the victim’s injuries can help establish how and when a crime was committed and point to a suspect.

But a coroner’s office performs autopsies for many reasons beyond homicides. Autopsies are done in connection with all sorts of unnatural deaths, including all suicides, deaths from traffic accidents, and accidental deaths such as drug overdoses.

If you die an unnatural death in Thurston County, it’s the job of elected Coroner Gary Warnock to determine the cause and manner for the death certificate. The results of his office’s findings are used not only by law enforcement, but also by life insurance companies and government agencies in charge of disbursing benefits.

THE OFFICE

The coroner’s 7,000-square-foot facility includes a walk-in refrigeration unit and morgue where bodies can be stored. The state-of-the-art facility on 37th Avenue in Tumwater opened in 2003.

Before that, the office was in cramped quarters in the basement of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.

Warnock said his office averages about 15 autopsies a month.

He said he and his staff strive to show compassion and care for all of the deceased before the body is moved to the next resting spot — usually one of the county’s funeral homes, where it is prepared for burial or cremation.

“The people who pass through here, they have a mom and belong to somebody,” Warnock said. “They’re someone’s mom, friend, brother or sister.”

However, Dr. Emmanuel Lacsina, one of two forensic pathologists the county contracts with to perform autopsies, said it’s necessary to separate one’s self from the emotions of working with the dead.

“There are some situations; kids are difficult, especially if you have a child or a grandchild of the same age,” he said. “But you don’t internalize. You have to look at the body as a piece of evidence. That’s the only way you can do this.”

DEATHS IN THE COUNTY

In 2012, there were 2,203 deaths reported and documented by the Coroner’s Office. The office assumed jurisdiction in 336 of the deaths, meaning they were unexpected.

Sometimes an autopsy is needed to reveal the details behind a death.

A recent homicide in Lacey underscored that need.

Shari Peters, 61, had a history of medical problems. She was found dead Dec. 18 on the bathroom floor of her home in the 3800 block of 12th Avenue Southeast.

Authorities initially believed her death was accidental.

However, the autopsy found blunt-force trauma to her neck and abdomen. The Coroner’s Office ruled the death a homicide.

The case remains under investigation by Lacey police, and no arrests have been made, Cmdr. Jim Mack said.

Other times no autopsy is necessary, Warnock said.

For example, if an elderly person falls and breaks a hip, and the injury is documented at the hospital and the patient then dies, the cause of death will be established by medical professionals there, Warnock said.

Of the 2,203 deaths last year in the county, the Coroner’s Office performed 124 autopsies and 34 external examinations. In an external examination, a forensic pathologist confirms an already known cause of death by doing a review that does not require examining internal organs.

Taxpayers pay for all autopsies and external examinations performed by the Coroner’s Office. In cases where the office determines the cause and manner of death without an autopsy, family members who dispute the findings can choose to pay for a private autopsy.

The going rate for a private autopsy is between $2,000 and $4,000, Lacsina said.

The 2013 operating budget for the Coroner’s Office — $1,023,819 — includes about $180,000 for autopsies. The office contracts with Pacific Northwest Forensic Pathologists for autopsies. Warnock said most of the rest of the budget goes to salaries and benefits for his five full-time deputy coroners, a half-time administrative assistant, and salaries for other part-time staffers. Additional funds from the coroner’s budget go to paying for supplies, instruments and computers and for the upkeep and mileage of the two vehicles used to respond at the scenes of death investigations, he said.

Warnock’s annual salary as elected coroner is about $105,000.

Sometimes family members do not want an autopsy performed because of religious reasons. Sometimes they are grieving and don’t want to subject a loved one’s body to the process. In those cases, Warnock said, he explains the need of an autopsy in answering definitively how someone has died.

In one death investigation, Warnock said, his predecessor, Judy Arnold, had to obtain an order from a judge to allow an autopsy because grieving parents would not consent to the examination on their child, who had died in a car crash.

NEXT STEPS

After an autopsy, the Coroner’s Office notifies the deceased’s next-of-kin of the initial results. In most cases, a funeral home selected by the family picks up the body.

However, sometimes the family does not want to or cannot afford to claim a person’s remains, Warnock said. Other times no family can be found.

In those cases, the costs of interment are assumed by the Coroner’s Office — and, by extension, the taxpayer, Warnock said. It costs the county $550 to pay a funeral home for cremation and interment of indigent and unclaimed bodies, Warnock said.

Over the years, the number of indigent and unclaimed bodies has grown in Thurston County. In 2007, there were three. In 2009, there were six, and in 2010, the number grew to 12. In 2011, there were 13. Last year there were 17, according to the Coroner’s Office.

FINDING THE FAMILY

In the case of the man in his 50s, a week after the autopsy his family had not been found and his body remained in the morgue.

The man’s former state Department of Corrections supervisor helped deputy coroner Don Seese find an address for the man’s ex-wife, and he hoped to visit her soon.

Seese said he also was trying to locate the man’s friends or family by using an address book found in his wallet. To try to locate next of kin, deputy coroners have the authority to look through a deceased person’s belongings, in a home or on a person, without a search warrant, Seese and Warnock said.

After next of kin has been found, coroners must perform the most difficult part of their job — the death notification.

“You never get used to it,” Warnock said.

“You really have to be a people person to do this work,” he added. “You’re dealing with raw emotion. This is not a job for you if you’re rough and you don’t have empathy and compassion.”

Deputy coroner Madelyn Schwartz has years of experience giving death notifications to families. Being compassionate for grieving loved ones is paramount, she said.

“I don’t think I have ever gotten used to the idea that some people die before their time in ways that are unexpected or in ways that are truly tragic,” Schwartz said. “I hope I never get used to it.”

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445 jpawloski@theolympian.com

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