A Case for the Coroner

By on August 4, 2010

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Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Its dusk on a June day at the Jackson Hole Rodeo. Shade casts over the dirt arena, over the pick-up men who retrieve cowboys from off the backs of bucking broncs when their eight seconds are up. And shade hangs particularly heavy over a young cowboy saddling up a rank mare in a bucking chute.

The metal stands surrounding the arena are packed with spectators. The announcer works the crowd as the cowboy settles onto the bronc’s back and clutches the rein in his hand. The announcer hollers at the cowboy over the PA – “Pull down your hat tight and get ready for the ride!”

The cowboy nods. The chute flies open. Photo Girl erupts in a sky-bound leap. The crowd hoots its encouragement. The cowboy flies out of the saddle. One second. His right foot dangling in the stirrup is his only connection to the horse. Photo Girl descends from her flight, landing on the cowboy. The crowd gasps and goes silent. Two seconds.

When the grey mare gets up and bounds away, the cowboy lies there, face down, in the center of the arena. Other cowboys rush to his body. Paramedics soon arrive. They put his body in an ambulance and take it to the hospital.

Elsewhere in Jackson, Bob Campbell is knee-deep in his Wednesday night routine, sitting around the house watching TV, when his phone rings. “We need you to respond to an incident. Call the emergency room at St. John’s Hospital,” the police dispatcher tells him. After making the call, he gets in a black Chevy Suburban and drives to the ER.

The coroner of Teton County for the past 20 years, Campbell begins another familiar routine. He talks to a doctor. He examines the young cowboy’s body. Later, he’ll mark “accidental” on the death certificate as the nature of the cowboy’s death and note “basal skull fracture” as the cause.

Campbell loads the cowboy’s body into the Suburban and takes it to Valley Mortuary, which doubles as the county’s coroner’s quarters. He puts the body in a stainless steel cold chamber in the morgue. Then he waits.

At four in the morning, the cowboy’s mother and his girlfriend arrive. Few words are exchanged. Campbell has already removed the cowboy’s body from the cold chamber and placed it in the chapel for viewing. He escorts the bereaved family into the chapel and leaves the room. The women shed tears for hours. Though a veteran of the profession, Campbell himself is disturbed by the young cowboy’s untimely death. Another body handled. Another coroner’s case in the books.
In his long tenure as coroner, Campbell has filled out death certificates for close to a thousand people – tourists and locals – who have died in Teton County. After two decades on the job, he’s grown weary of death.

Originally set to retire at the end of the year, Campbell told JH Weekly on Tuesday he will likely leave office as early as this week because he has not completed his continuing education requirement with the State of Wyoming Board of Coroner Standards. His certification expired on June 1, and he may have been filling the position illegally since.

On August 17, county citizens will cast their ballots in primary elections to narrow the field of five candidates vying to become coroner down to two. However, Campbell’s retirement could influence who steps into the partisan seat.
According to County Attorney Keith Gingery, because Campbell is a Republican, the County Commissioners will appoint his replacement from three names provided by the Central Committee of the Republican Party. If the commissioners choose the Republican candidate for coroner selected in the primaries, that person can run in the fall as an incumbent against the Democrat. Campbell entered the office under similar circumstances.

The death of the crushed cowboy was a cut and dry coroner’s case for Campbell: A person died unexpectedly, and his job was to determine the cause and nature of the death. That’s the coroner’s principle duty. He is also responsible for the deceased’s personal effects and for notifying family members.

Any “unanticipated” death can potentially go to the coroner – a climber falls off a cliff, a meth addict ODs, a toddler drowns in a pool, a woman dies in an apartment fire, a prisoner hangs himself in his cell. If a person dies and his death was not the result of illness or disease as determined by a medical physician, and/or they had not seen a physician within 60 days of their demise, the coroner gets the case.

Some cases are more challenging than others. When, in May 2008, Bruce Anderson killed his wife, kept her body on ice for 10 days and then killed himself, Campbell wanted to know: Was it the gunshot to the head that killed Anderson or smoke inhalation from the fire he started in the house before pulling the trigger? So he
took Anderson’s body to be examined by a forensic pathologist in Colorado.

Campbell readily admits he has no medical background, and Wyoming statutes don’t require him to. You only need to be 18 years old and a Wyoming resident to run for coroner, a four-year, part-time job that will pay $40,000 a year when a new coroner takes the keys to the Suburban in January. It’s unlikely that Campbell’s lack of formal medical education figured into his decision to have a forensic autopsy performed on Anderson’s body. Of the approximately 50 bodies he handles on average in a year, Campbell orders autopsies for about 40.

In the end, there was no trace of soot in Anderson’s lungs or trachea, meaning he wasn’t breathing when the fire reached him. Cause of death: gunshot wound. Nature of death: suicide.

Most of the time, the cause of a person’s death is obvious, Campbell said. What isn’t regularly obvious is why somebody died, the Anderson homicide/suicide being a perfect case in point. It’s law enforcement’s job to discover the reason and circumstances behind a suspicious or unanticipated death. When Campbell went to retrieve Anderson’s body, police officers and sheriff’s deputies had secured the scene of the crime and were already collecting evidence to determine what had taken place there. He zipped the bodies into body bags, and put them in the Suburban.

Wyoming isn’t alone in setting minimal qualification standards for its coroners. States such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia also set nominal standards. In Nevada, sheriffs are ex officio coroners. In many states medical examiners are appointed by a state’s chief medical examiner, and they’re required to be certified physicians, often with particular expertise in investigating violent, sudden and unexpected, suspicious or unattended deaths.

Campbell was attending mortuary school in California when he was drafted into the armed forces to serve in Vietnam, where he transported dead soldiers to the morgue during his enlistment. He was a deputy coroner for four years before being promoted to county coroner in the wake of Stan Wilhelmson’s resignation in 1990. (A deputy coroner is basically a substitute for the county coroner when he’s unavailable.)  Now, at age 63, he works the nightshift as a janitor at the Virginian to help pay the bills.

Both deputies and county coroners are required by state statute to attend a basic coroner course at the Police Officer Training School in Douglas within one year of assuming office. Campbell said the coroner class involves case studies, familiarization with state statutes and training in basic practices. That one class is more or less all the formal training a coroner in Wyoming gets before he handles a dead body. Additionally, they are required to complete 20 hours of training every two years, a requirement Campbell recently neglected.

In a letter to Teton County‘s sheriff and prosecutor, the state’s board of coroner standards said that Campbell is subject to misdemeanor charges and a fine of $25 for each day he remains in office without certification. The letter, given to JH Weekly by Sheriff Jim Whalen, also reccomends “criminal action and removal proceedings.”

In 2005, a committee of the Wyoming legislature held several discussions about the need to adopt a medical examiner system in the state. Legislation to do so was drafted that summer, however it was killed by the committee in October and was never resuscitated. Campbell suspects it’s only a matter of time before Wyoming replaces its coroners with medical examiners.

Tom Eekhoff, the coroner of Campbell County and the chairman of the Wyoming Board of Coroners, firmly believes in the state’s coroner system, principally because the public has the power to control who holds the position. He’s also highly skeptical that the costs of instituting a medical examiner system in the state are prohibitive given the current economic doldrums.

The hardest part of being coroner, Campbell said, isn’t dealing with a dead person – it’s dealing with the dead person’s living family. The compassion, empathy and patience required to tactfully interact with people in the throes of immense grief and confusion aren’t qualities you can pick up during a weeklong coroner course, either.
“You need thick skin,” Campbell said. “You get hit and you get cussed at.”
Given Teton County’s status as an American vacation destination par excellence, Campbell often winds up having to impart the worst news to people hundreds or thousands of miles away, unless that news has already reached them through other channels. He claims he never tells the newly bereaved over the phone. Instead, he relays the message to a police dispatcher who in turn sends an officer out to break the bad news in person.

In the case of the young cowboy, the mother and daughter were so grief-stricken that they wanted to take the body home with them there and then, a request Campbell had to deflect with the utmost caution lest he further upset them.
There are other times, like the Anderson case, when interacting with the bereaved is surprisingly less difficult. The brothers of both Bruce and Sue Anderson had already heard the news before Campbell contacted them. When they arrived at the mortuary, the respective families were, in Campbell’s opinion, rather cordial to each other, which made his job a little easier.

Brent Blue – Democrat
Born in Louisville, Ky., Dr. Brent “Doc” Blue has been a familiar name and face in Jackson since he moved here in 1982. He attended medical school at the University of Louisville and completed his residency at the University of California, San Francisco. Blue currently practices family medicine at Emerg-A-Care and sits on the Teton County Board of Health. He previously ran for coroner in 1998 as a write-in candidate.

For almost 25 years, Blue worked in emergency rooms in San Francisco, San Jose and Chicago, where he encountered “quite a bit of death.” He attended a mandatory class about death and dying as part of his medical training and said he saw death notifications handled the right way and the wrong way as a resident physician.

In Blue’s opinion, the office of coroner is one that requires significant professional medical knowledge, and he expressed concern about the current “quality of the coroner’s office.”

“It’s not what I would consider stellar,” he said. He continued by mentioning complaints he’s heard from families about the delayed return of personal effects belonging to a deceased relative, and faux causes of death – such as “died of a broken heart” – declared by Campbell to avoid “hurting anybody’s feelings.” Campbell denies both charges.

Steven Ware – DEMOCRAT
A Florida native, Steve Ware had never visited the West until he took a job at Jenny Lake Lodge in 1995. He currently works as assistant director of food service at C-Bar-V Ranch on the West Bank and serves as an officer in the Jackson Elks Lodge.

From 2006 to 2009, Ware worked as an EMT and emergency medical technician for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. He said he’s excited about the potential to combine his fascination with the inner-workings of the human body with the scientific investigation duties of a coroner.

“I’ve cared for people in emergencies, and they still need care afterwards, until they’re buried. I wouldn’t mind being a part of that,” Ware said in an interview.
He doesn’t believe his relative lack of medical knowledge will hinder him as coroner and pointed to Campbell’s record as proof that a layperson be “phenomenal” at the job.

James Flower – REPUBLICAN
Also a Jackson native, James Flower has worked as an EMT since 2001 and is currently branch manager/director of the local Red Cross department. Though he has no formal medical schooling, Flower said he has familiarized himself with human anatomy through countless hours of private study.

As an EMT, Flower claims to have observed several autopsies. In 1997, he was summoned by Bob Campbell to identify the body of a coworker, an experience that gave him a great deal of respect for the outgoing coroner. “He showed respect and took things one step at a time. I want to follow in his footsteps,” Flower said.
When asked why he thinks the coroner is a publicly elected official, Flower said, “I think the community should decide who will take care of their loved ones. I think I can give the community what they need.”

If elected coroner, Flower said he would look into the possibility of establishing a physical office for the coroner independent of the mortuary.

Kiley Campbell – REPUBLICAN
As you might infer from the name, Kiley Campbell is the son of current coroner Bob Campbell. He’s a Jackson native who has been involved with the police department here since high school. Campbell even took his son out on coroner’s cases when he was a teenager, which, Kiley said, spiked his heart rate a bit, but didn’t freak him out too much.

Kiley has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and has worked as an evidence technician for the Jackson Hole Police Department since 2006. At the scenes of major crimes, it’s his job to collect evidence and dust for fingerprints. He believes his experience as a crime scene investigator and the familiarity he has gained with the coroner’s office through his father make him an excellent candidate for the job.
In Kiley’s opinion, only a portion of a coroner’s work is medical. More important, he said, are the investigative and human relations sides to the job. Kiley has no medical background and he does not believe that will affect his performance as coroner.

Alan John – REPUBLICAN
Originally from San Luis Obispo, Calif., Alan John has more than 27 years of experience in law enforcement and as a deputy coroner. He moved to Jackson in 1991 and has worked for the JHPD since then. In December 2009, John graduated from the FBI National Academy, a highly competitive law enforcement-training course that he had been trying to get into for 14 years.

As a rookie cop at just 18 years old, John responded to a car crash and found a 16-year-old driver dead at the scene. The responsibility to notify the dead boy’s family fell to him.

“That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been a deputy coroner for a long time, and I can pretty much remember every case I’ve attended. I try to see it as, this person lived their life, and now it’s my turn to help them in death.”

John hopes voters will consider his experience as a deputy coroner and his position as a detective sergeant at the JHPD when they cast their primary ballots in two weeks. JHW

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