The woman in charge of examining dead bodies for local criminal cases was arrested in July on suspicion of driving under the influence of pain pills, according to an incident report filed by the Lewis County Sheriff's Office.
Lewis County Chief Deputy Coroner Carmen Brunton has been put on paid administrative leave by the county, according to Human Resources Director Archie Smith.
She was allegedly swerving across lanes while driving her SUV in Napavine and on Interstate 5 Thursday, July 15, after sheriff's office deputies pulled her over on a tip from a concerned 911 caller saying her vehicle was "all over the road." Headed northbound on I-5 at 60 to 65 mph, Brunton was pulled over on the south edge of Chehalis just after 8 a.m.
When a deputy contacted Brunton, she had "very slow speech and heavy, sleepy eyes," according to the report. She told the deputy she takes several prescription medications - pain pills, muscle relaxers and heart pills - for health problems.
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Brunton initially denied taking any pills that impair driving, but later said she took some oxycodone about an hour earlier. Known to be habit-forming, the pain killer is a semi-synthetic opiate similar to morphine and commonly used for moderate to severe pain. The report did not specify whether Brunton had been prescribed oxycodone.
After Washington State Patrol troopers arrived at the scene alongside the interstate, Brunton agreed to take a sobriety test. She passed a Breathalyzer test, registering no alcohol, so WSP troopers brought her to a hospital where they drew her blood for a drug test.
Her 2010 black Ford Expedition was released to someone she described as a family member and she was taken into custody by WSP. According to WSP's information office in Vancouver, the results of the blood test are still pending and could take weeks. Lewis County Prosecutor Michael Golden said he is aware of the situation and awaiting the results before any official charges are filed.
Elected Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson said he put Brunton on leave. He had no comment on whether the swerving incident and the administrative leave are related.
"I don't know anything about her health and those things," Wilson said, adding that he is unaware of any previous problems with Brunton driving under the influence of pills. "Most people take something."
Wilson said the county has plenty of resources to complete autopsies and other duties of the office in the absence of Brunton, who has held her position at the county for more than a decade.
Although Wilson is the official county coroner, Brunton does most of the hands-on work in the office. She was involved in the 1998 death determination for Toledo woman Ronda Reynolds, a former WSP trooper whose case has exploded into unprecedented court action over whether a suicide ruling was accurate.
The ruling was changed three times between "undetermined" and "suicide" during the body examination process, and in November 2009, a jury unanimously determined the final suicide ruling to be incorrect. Reynolds' mother Barb Thompson believes her daughter's death was a homicide.