Gary Warnock has seen a lot of death.
Warnock, 48, has worked at the Thurston County Coroner’s Office for about 20 years, including the past seven as the elected coroner.
He’s investigated everything from suicides — including a man who pulled the trigger of a high-powered rifle with his toe and a woman who lay down on railroad tracks before a passing train — to homicides, car accidents and a baby who died in a fire.
He also investigated a macabre natural death that went undiscovered for so long that, by the time authorities found the victim, she was half-eaten by her dogs in her home.
Warnock worked at Mills & Mills Funeral Home in Tumwater for eight years before becoming a deputy coroner in 1991. He was elected coroner in 2006.
Warnock’s staff includes five full-time deputy coroners, a half-time administrative assistant and four other part-time staffers.
He said unexpected deaths can come at any moment. During a recent visit to his office, he and a colleague expressed shock that a healthy, athletic 31-year-old with no medical history could die suddenly of a heart attack.
“I’ve seen old classmates that have come through here,” said Warnock, a longtime Thurston County resident. “It’s a reality check. It can happen, and it can happen in a second.”
Warnock also had a message for teens.
“Death does not discriminate,” he said. “Regardless of your age, ethnicity or popularity, it only takes a second, and it doesn’t have to be your fault. Innocent kids are killed every day because they made a poor decision or they were with someone else who did.”
Some counties in Washington have medical examiners instead of elected coroners. Medical examiners are typically appointed by a county’s executive body. Elected coroners do not have to be medical doctors, whereas medical examiners typically are certified forensic pathologists.
No statute specifically states that a county must be served by medical examiners instead of elected coroners.
The larger counties in the state — King, Pierce, Clark, Whatcom, Spokane and Snohomish — have medical examiners; the rest are served by elected coroners.