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Dead Men Talking: Life and Death at the Humboldt County Coroner's Office [photo of investigators and coroner pulling body from bay]

by GEOFF S. FEIN


Death, the most dreaded of all evils,
is therefore no concern to us...

-- Epicurus, Greek philosopher (341-271 BC)

 

DEATH. IT IS A SUBJECT MOST PEOPLE AVOID.

But the employees of the Humboldt County Coroner's Office live with death every day.

The coroner's office averages about 600 reported deaths each year; that's almost two a day. Of those, a third will undergo an investigation. Some investigations will require no more than collecting information from family and friends; others will require an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

"Every county is tasked with finding out how people die," said Frank Jager, Humboldt County coroner. [photo below left]

Frank Jager at his deskThe investigations, the autopsies, notifying families -- all are handled by a small dedicated team led by Jager.

The coroner's office here is unique among its counterparts in California. It has its own forensic pathologist; the coroner's office is not under the authority of the county sheriff; and the coroner is an elected official. Any registered voter, regardless of their background, could become county coroner. Before Jager became coroner in 1998, Glenn Sipma, a banker, held the job for 17 years.

The coroner is also a public administrator, overseeing the estates of those who died alone. Jager handles about 40 to 45 of these cases per year. He's amazed at how many people die without relatives to claim the remains.

"It's so foreign to me," Jager said.

Jager and his team of investigators also have the grim task of notifying family members of a death. Jager called that the toughest part of the job.

On Dec. 20, 1998, Deputy Coroner Roy Horton, after visiting the scene of a fatal car accident on Highway 101 at Miranda, had to deliver the news to the husband that his wife, their granddaughter and the wife's brother all died.

Horton sat in his vehicle outside the family's house waiting for a chaplain from the Eureka Police Department to show up. He could see the husband inside standing by a Christmas tree.

All the time he was waiting, Horton kept going over in his mind what he was going to say.

"I dreaded going in," Horton said. "It was the worst."

Death is a job

At the coroner's office death is a job and death comes in all forms: suicide, homicide, auto fatalities, unexpected natural causes, unattended deaths. Each of those deaths must be painstakingly investigated to determine whether foul play, accident, drugs, alcohol or disease were the culprit.

"When the phone rings, you never know what you'll be dealing with," said Charlie Jones, deputy coroner.

Horton, 51, Jones, 48, and Charles Van Buskirk, 40, are the three deputy coroners, or death investigators, who along with Jager, conduct the initial investigation and retrieve the bodies. They have been called to retrieve skeletal remains, decomposing remains, partial remains and charred remains. They seldom investigate cases where the cause of death is known -- such as those due to cancer, heart disease or other terminal illnesses.

investigators retrieving body on hillsideOne thing is certain: whether rich or poor, whether death by homicide or suicide, every body a death investigator brings back to the county morgue is treated equally. There's no prejudice or discriminating against the dead.

"We investigate [the deaths of] people who were wealthy and those living in dumpsters," Horton said.

Because the deputies often must travel alone, day or night, into remote parts of Humboldt County, they carry guns. They are considered law enforcement officers under California law. They can make arrests (if it's for public safety) and write traffic tickets, but they seldom have time, Horton said.

By the third week of November, the coroner's department had logged 25 suicides (there were 27 for all of last year); 25 vehicle fatalities (compared to a total of 22 in 2001); 29 drug overdoses (there were 40 in 2001); and 13 homicides (already more than last year, when there were eight).

Jager anticipates that the number of motor vehicle deaths and suicides will increase with the upcoming holidays.

[In photo at top right: Deputy Coroner Roy Horton retrieves a body in mountainous terrain. Below left, Deputy Coroner Charlie Jones investigates a suicide in Humboldt County.]

Investigator looking for evidence near body lying below a treeAs of the middle of the month, 378 deaths had been reported by phone to the coroner's department. Those calls came from hospitals, paramedics and law enforcement. If a case requires an investigation -- such as when there are questions about the circumstances surrounding a death -- it's then logged onto a second list. As of last week, the department had logged 209 deaths requiring a full investigation.

Somewhere out there in Humboldt County is case number 210.

With one month left in the year, it's certain that the coroner's office will hit 210. Last year the office investigated 244 cases. The busiest year recently was 1997, when 261 deaths were investigated.

The department is run on a budget of $477,380, but it generates revenues of $307,731 through estate sales. So the net operating cost to the county for employing a coroner, three deputies, a secretary and a medical doctor is $169,652 (these numbers do not include the cost for an on-call forensic pathologist). And unlike most county offices (with the exception of the sheriff) the coroner's office operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Death never rests and never takes a holiday.

Jager used to rely on a pathologist from Trinity County to handle routine and natural death cases. More complex cases and homicides were either taken to Sonoma, Solano or Shasta counties.

But in April, forensic pathologist Dr. Susan Comfort [in photo below right] was hired to perform autopsies. It's rare for a county the size of Humboldt to have someone on board trained in forensic pathology, the most advanced kind of medical examiner around. Comfort is also board certified; Jager said there are very few pathologists with national board certification.

Having Comfort means Jager can consult with her anytime on any case that comes into his office; she can also visit a death scene if necessary.

The dead do tell tales

Dr. Comfort performing an autopsyThere is a saying, a belief, among coroners that the dead talk. Often within a dead body are the clues to whether a person was murdered, died at their own hand, by accident or by natural causes. That is where Comfort comes in.

Comfort performs autopsies to determine cause of death. She meticulously dissects bodies, carefully removing the organs, looking for clues. Depending on the case, an autopsy can take a couple of hours or all day. Some cases are easy -- those who die from heart disease, for example. Others, such as homicide cases, require detailed work to make certain no clue has been missed. Tissue samples are often taken and sent out to labs for toxicology studies. A toxicology test can determine if the deceased was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"The dead speak. They tell us the story of how they lived," she said. "If it was a violent death, what kind of life did they lead?"

Dissecting the dead might seem a gruesome occupation, but to Comfort it is rewarding, especially when her findings help police solve a crime -- or help families learn the fate of missing loved ones.

She was able to do just that six years ago when, as the pathologist for Shasta County. She was brought two skeletal remains that had been buried on a ranch near Susanville, Calif., about 80 miles west of Reno. The remains were thought to be those of two teenage girls from Sparks, Nev., who had been missing since the 1970s, but the remains alone did not provide positive identification.

Comfort was able to piece together shreds of clothing that were still stuck to the skeletons. The clothing was distinctive to the 1970s and she was able to determine that each girl was wearing an identical blouse and that they had both been wearing jeans. When the families of the two Sparks' girls saw the clothing, along with other items such as the shoes the girls had on and a key chain with the name of a Reno mall store on the fob, they knew their daughters had been found at last. "It was exciting after all that time [that we were] able to solve that," Comfort said.

Comfort's job has its disturbing side. Conducting autopsies on children is hard to do, but necessary to determine if a child died of natural causes, abuse or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

In suicide cases not only does Comfort perform an autopsy, but a psychological autopsy is performed as well. The deceased person's life is examined -- investigators will talk with family, friends and the deceased's doctors in an effort to make sure that the death was due to suicide and not an accident or foul play.

Comfort, 45, has been a forensic pathologist for six years. But she didn't start out with an interest in medicine.

"I started out my life as a commercial artist," she said.

But she wasn't enjoying commercial art. Comfort said it wasn't very creative. She had wanted to be a painter. She was also good in science.

Comfort's father was an anesthesiologist and encouraged her to pursue medicine. She eventually received her degree from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

"Initially I thought I'd go into plastic surgery," she said. "But in the first semester I realized I didn't have the mindset to be a surgeon."

By her fourth year in medical school Comfort settled on psychiatry.

Comfort took a forensics course but didn't think she'd be interested in the field. Her professor, however, thought she'd be a natural at it. Once Comfort delved into forensics she knew it was the right field for her, she said.

"You don't have the same hours as an obstetrician and you don't get called up in the middle of the night," she said.

Comfort went on to do her residency at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center and worked at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the same hospital President Kennedy was taken after he was shot.

Comfort was hired by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner in Phoenix, Ariz. Very quickly the realities of the job set in. Pathologists were handling a horrendous number of cases, Comfort said.

"In Phoenix I did six autopsies a day," she said.

The high caseload can turn an interesting job into a depressing one. That is one reason there is a high burnout rate among pathologists. Many quit to go into teaching or they become expert witnesses, testifying in wrongful death and homicide cases to avoid dealing with dead bodies, Comfort said.

After more than two years of performing dozens of autopsies per week, Comfort left Phoenix for the Shasta County Coroner's office in Redding. Although the number of autopsies she had to perform dropped, she soon found herself handling cases from nine surrounding counties. It also meant she could be called to testify at trials in any of those surrounding counties.

"If I had to testify [in court] I could be stuck some place for two to three days," she said.

Being away from the office for a few days often meant that back in Shasta County bodies would begin to pile up. As an employee of Shasta County, she was required to be in the office for 40 hours a week, but as an independent contractor with Humboldt County she has more freedom to pursue outside interests.

Innocence lost

Performing an autopsy profoundly changes a person, Comfort said.

"You never look the same at things after doing this," she said. "You know about things other people can't comprehend."

Comfort's first two autopsies left her horrified. They were a baby who drowned and a child run over by a sport utility vehicle. She said it was the worst thing she ever saw.

"It was very shocking to me," she said. "I didn't know how anyone could do [pathology]. It was not a good first experience."

Over time, Comfort said she lost her fear of death. It's an experience pathologists and death investigators all go through.

Horton was a police sciences major at College of the Redwoods. He eventually went to work as a reserve officer for the Arcata Police Department. In 1995 he was hired by the county coroner. He said his first death investigation was emotional. And it wasn't easy to leave his work at the office.

"Everyone has nightmares," Horton said. "People are not designed to deal with what we see."

Horton said he is able to handle the job because of his faith (he's a Christian) and by learning to concentrate on the work.

"You can't relate to a dead person. You have to focus on the investigation," he said. "The job intrigues people to a certain point, until they think of their own death."

Van Buskirk, who is originally from Oregon, was a computer programming major in college. He moved to Michigan to train to become a paramedic. His brother, who was with the Samoa Fire Department, encouraged him to move to Humboldt County. The department needed advanced life support personnel. Two weeks after graduating Van Buskirk got the job. For 19 months he commuted between his four-day-a-week paramedic job in Eureka and a part-time job in Eugene, Ore.

[Below left, Deputy Coroner Charles Van Buskirk stages a drunk driving accident for students at St. Bernard High School.]

Charles Van Buskirk in front of staged car accidentA friend at the Samoa Fire Department told Van Buskirk about an opening at the county coroner's office. Van Buskirk applied and now, after almost 13 years, he is one of the most senior employees in the office.

He said the job still gets to him on occasion. Child abuse cases, for example, make him emotional.

"Some things are hard to put behind you," he said.

Back in 1997, Van Buskirk was investigating a torso that was found floating in Humboldt Bay. That investigation was difficult, he said.

"It's stunning to see in person what people can do to each other," Van Buskirk said.

Those remains have yet to be identified.

In 1998 Wayne Adam Ford, a truck driver accused of killing prostitutes, turned himself in to the Humboldt County Sheriff. He eventually led authorities to a tree stump in Trinidad where he had placed the pair of legs that belonged to the torso out in the bay. Ford also kept parts of other victims in a storage locker in Arcata. (Ford was charged with one count of murder by the district attorney's office; the case is pending as Ford is now on trial in Riverside County for allegedly killing three prostitutes there.)

Van Buskirk also tracks all the "John and Jane Doe" cases -- cases where investigators have either recovered unidentified partial remains or when someone is reported missing and law enforcement is hoping to find information.

Van Buskirk has several thick files of missing persons reports and information on unidentified remains that have come in from all over the country. Some of the cases date back to 1968. The file for cases solved is significantly thinner simply because it pertains only to cases that have occurred here.

"You can't be sloppy with [missing persons] cases," Van Buskirk said.

The coroner's department gets about two to three "Doe" cases a year, Van Buskirk said. Every time a new case comes in, he'll go through the case files plus all those sent to him from police and sheriff's departments from around the country.

Jones has been around dead bodies for most of his life. While in high school he worked at a mortuary. He has about 20 years experience in the mortuary field. He was a reserve deputy coroner in Corning, just south of Redding. Before coming to the Humboldt County Coroner's Office, Jones was the manager of Chapel of the Ferns Mortuary in Eureka.

"At the mortuary you get the aftermath (of death)," he said. "Here you get it up front."

Jones said he learned a long time ago to block out death. Like Horton and Van Buskirk, Jones is able to handle the job by not dwelling on what he does.

"Something just kicks in; I can handle it," Jones said.

There are times when he has been unable to leave work behind, especially if he handled a difficult investigation.

"I'll question a thing I did or didn't do," Jones said.

Although Jones believes his 20 years in the mortuary business gave him an advantage at the job, he did have some adjustments to make. At the mortuary he was the boss. He oversaw the finances. Now he is back to being an employee. Jones also misses doing "restorative art" -- restoring badly damaged or decomposed bodies to make them look natural.

Horton and Van Buskirk share a small cramped office space. Papers are stacked on the floor, on shelves, on their desks. Jones and Jager share the other office, using removable dividers to split Jager's office into two.

Anyone can be coroner

Jager, 55, has been in law enforcement since 1971, when he joined the Eureka Police Department. In 1990 he became a criminal investigator with the Humboldt County District Attorney's office. He's been coroner since 1998 (he won a new four-year term this past spring).

The Board of Supervisors has toyed with the idea of going with a sheriff coroner. There are 44 counties (out of 58) in California with a sheriff-coroner system. Jager said it is a good idea to keep the coroner an independent office.

"You can end up with people who don't want to be in the coroner department," he said. "When you have grieving families you need someone to go the extra mile. You won't get that in a sherif-coroner [system]."

Besides running the office and conducting death investigations, Jager is also a public administrator; he oversees administration of estate sales.

When the investigators come across a deceased person and they can't locate any nearby family or relatives, all of the deceased's personal property must be secured. Guns, money, jewelry are all taken back to the coroner's office and placed in safe keeping.

Investigators then must pore over the deceased's mail, address book and papers to track relatives. It can take 45 minutes or several days to learn whether someone has family or not. If there are no relatives, then the deceased's belongings are sold. The funds from the sale are placed in an estate in case a relative comes forward to pay any outstanding bills. After three years, the money goes to the state. The office also collects a fee for handling the sale -- 4 percent of the first $100,000. The fee was established by the state. Jager estimates it cost about $560 to handle each sale.

human skull, jawbone and miscellaneous bones being examined by student wearing surgical gloves

[An on-call anthropology student examines unidentified remains found in rural Humboldt County.]

"That's the revenue source for the coroner's office," Jager said. "It helps offset operating costs."

The sales can bring in between $80,000 and $100,000 a year for the department.

Those fees come in handy. Lab costs can add up over time. Each toxicology test costs between $100 and $150. The county has to send samples to a lab in Fresno because a local lab is not available. Jager estimates the department spends upward of $25,000 per year on toxicology.

DNA analysis can cost up to $5,000 per test. But the state will cover the cost if the DNA test is for a homicide case.

Jager can also take advantage of a new state missing persons lab. Remains can be sent to the Sacramento area lab to be matched against DNA samples from across the state.

"There are thousands of missing persons cases in California," he said.

Earlier this year a partial skeleton was found in the waters off Eureka. The remains are believed to be that of a man who was swept off the North Jetty (at the mouth of Humboldt Bay) and out to sea in January. Because the remains did not include the skull, no dental records match could be made. The state lab is looking at it as a test case. Technicians should be able to extract DNA from the bones and hopefully match it with DNA taken from hair samples provided by the man's family, Jager said.

The technology available now to the coroner's office allows them to do things they couldn't do just 30 years ago, Jager said.

"We didn't have computers back then to do DNA testing," he said. "In 30 years law enforcement has come a long way."

 


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