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March 9, 2006

11 Questions for Frank Jager


photo of Humboldt County Coroner Frank JagerThe body of Tracy Daniel Roberts, the 38-year-old homeless man who was allegedly robbed of $2 and shot twice through the heart by two teenage boys last week, was still at the morgue Friday, draped beneath a white sheet in a refrigerated room, waiting to be brought to the mortuary. Next door is where Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager [right], 58, spends 50 to 60 hours a week poring over the details of the deaths of Humboldt County residents -- some violent, like Roberts', and some more standard, like victims of heart-attacks or drug overdoses.

About 1,300 people die in Humboldt County every year, and close to half of those go through the Coroner's Office. Jager, 58, talked with the Journal about his job, something he describes as akin to an "orchestra conductor," unifying the work of deputy coroners, toxicologists, dentists, forensic anthropologists and autopsy technicians into a harmonious death investigation. Sounds morbid, but when a case is solved it's music to the coroner's ears.

1. What is a typical day like at the Coroner's Office?

A typical day is sitting right here on the computer writing reports, answering phone calls, answering questions. We're not just a coroner's office here, we're also public administrators. The public administrator side takes up a lot of time. We handle estates, securing a residence, selling a residence, selling cars, selling boats -- you name it, we've sold it. It involves a lot of paperwork. Also finding next of kin, locating people -- that's a big part of what we do. The exciting stuff, the fascinating stuff, the fun stuff doesn't happen that often.

2. What would you describe as the fun part of your job?

I hate to say this, but the fun stuff is being on the scene of a death, a real complicated death investigation, and working to solve what happened. For instance, the latest homicide on the tracks -- going out to the scene and working with detectives to figure out what happened and how it happened.

3. You deal with a lot of drug overdose deaths. Have you become cold or indifferent to it?

I don't think I've gotten cold to it. Often in the morgue, a deputy coroner and I will bring somebody in who died of a drug overdose, and we'll look at the body and just shake our heads. We have the same attitude of -- what a shame, what a waste of life. That's why we work with the Drug and Alcohol Review Team to prevent these things from happening. We work in the schools, and there are always questions about drugs and suicide. We work with nursing students and we give talks at the college. We're involved in a program where we bring in at-risk youth, teenagers who are getting into trouble with drugs, and we actually show them a body if we have a drug victim in here.

4. Do you remember the first time you saw a dead person?

The first time I was involved in a death was when I was a rookie [Eureka] police officer, investigating a fatal traffic accident in Eureka. I attended the autopsy of that person and I got sick, I almost passed out. It was a long time ago, but I still remember it real vividly. Since then, it's been one after another. You get used to it.

5. So you didn't grow up thinking you wanted to be a coroner?

No, no, not at all. I graduated from high school here locally and I went to College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State. I intended to become a teacher. I was always interested in science; I wanted to be a biology teacher.

6. How do you prepare yourself to notify someone's family about their death?

All you can do is not beat around the bush; just make sure that right away you tell them what's going on. Often they know something's wrong because they see the uniform or the vehicle we drive up in -- we never just do it over the phone. If they live out of the area, we contact the coroner in that jurisdiction, or the sheriff, to go out to the house. I can remember the first time I did it, but it's no easier now after eight years.

7. Have you investigated a death that seemed cut and dry, but then realized the cause was very different from what you expected?

A good example would be the homicide on the railroad tracks. We got that call and we were thinking, and the deputies were thinking, "Here's a drunk, probably overdosed by the tracks, we're going to go bring this guy in and that will be it." We got out there and the deputy coroner on the scene noticed there was blood on his [the victim's] shoe. Immediately it was a clue that there was something more wrong here than someone who was just drunk. Then they noticed the shell casings and, of course, when they examined the body closer they found the bullet holes.

8. Any unsolved cases that still haunt you?

There are cases that have bothered me. When I worked for the EPD we found a homeless guy underneath a building that had caught fire down on the waterfront. I remember to this day pulling that body out from under the building. We thought that he'd died in the fire until we realized, no, he was beaten to death. We were never able to find out who did it.

9. How many autopsies does the doctor you contract with perform a year?

Usually about 100 a year. Last year we were down to about 60, because of budget concerns.

10. What's the capacity of your morgue?

In a pinch we could hold probably 25 bodies back there. In a mass disaster we could bring in refrigerated trucks to store additional bodies. I look at some of these cases like 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, and I've talked to people who've worked on these cases, and it's just, oh my God. I hope that never happens here. But we've got a good emergency operation center here and we've gone through training. So there's a whole plan that would be put into place if a disaster were to happen.

11. You ran unopposed for coroner in 1998 and again in 2002. The next election is in June. A lot of people probably don't realize that no experience is necessary to run for coroner, no medical or law background. You just have to be a registered voter. Do you worry someone with no experience would run against you and win?

It's something to consider. I've been at the job long enough and have enough background that I think the voters will want to elect me as coroner versus someone with no experience. But it is one of the risks a county takes if you have an elected coroner. The best system for coroner is a medical examiner's office. That's what they have in San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego, where you have a medical doctor in charge of the coroner's office and he has pathologists to work under him and then investigators that work under them. The larger jurisdictions can afford that. Most counties choose the sheriff/coroner system: Forty-four of the 58 counties in California are sheriff/coroners. It's an unusual system here, but so far it works.


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