Examining Death

Local Coroners Struggle with Loss of Augusta Crime Lab

Examining Death

When Columbia County Medical Examiner Dr. Butch Garrison resigned about three months ago, Coroner Vernon Collins saw an opportunity to give his staff a raise.

“I met with [County Administrator] Scott Johnson and made him aware that we didn’t have a medical examiner anymore and that I didn’t feel the need for one, since I essentially correspond directly with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) folks up in Atlanta,” Collins says. “I asked him if we could keep that money in my budget so there would be a possibility of giving my two deputies a raise, and he said he saw no problem with it since I’m not costing the taxpayers any more money.”

P1160564Eliminating Garrison’s $30,000 annual salary allows Collins to increase his deputy coroner’s pay from $175 a call to $200 a call, and when the commission approved that on Tuesday, August 19, they also approved giving Collins an $8,000 raise, boosting his annual salary to $24,000.

“It was always considered a part-time position,” Collins says. “When I started this, we probably worked 30 calls a year.”

Now, thanks to the influx of new people in the county and the number of baby boomers, the case load has increased — and should continue to increase — substantially. Last year, his department worked 234 cases. They’ve handled approximately 150 so far this year.

Though the raise was a significant one, it still leaves Collins earning far less than Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen, who is making $65,000 this year.

The five salaried members of the Richmond County Coroner’s Department collectively make $245,000.

“We’re a full-time office,” Bowen says. “I think there are only four other full-time coroner’s offices in the state of Georgia.”

P1160540Bowen estimates his office has already worked 575 cases this year. Saturday they had four calls, with three more on Sunday. They average between 800 and 1,000 cases a year.

A coroner investigates the cause and manner of death for homicides, suicides, accidents, and sudden, unexpected or medically unattended deaths. Part detective and part scientist, a coroner looks at the full range of information regarding a death and then considers what the medical examiner discovers from the autopsy.

“He’s looking at the body and that’s all he knows,” Bowen says of the medical examiner. “I’m standing there with the whole crime scene, from the time we got the call to the time we get the autopsy. All the medical examiner does is determine the cause of death and we’re able to work together to determine the cause and manner of death.”

Working with the medical examiner has gotten more difficult for both coroners since October’s closing of Augusta’s crime lab. According to the GBI, when Dr. Dan Brown retired, none of the qualified candidates for the position wanted to live in Augusta, so the position was filled and moved to Atlanta. Now, instead of sending bodies to the lab on Phinizy Road, Bowen and Collins have to make the long trip to Atlanta, where the backlog is as great as 16 weeks.

“A lot of toxicologists and folks in the lab resigned several years ago or moved to better opportunities,” Collins says. “They are understaffed, in my opinion. Right now, I’m having to wait because they’ve got so many up there — they only have so many gurneys, and even if they had more gurneys, they don’t have the cooling part of the facility to take the large amount of bodies.”

That shifts the burden of storage to the individual counties, some of which don’t have a morgue or a place to keep the bodies under refrigeration.

Collins, however, has his own morgue off of Belair Road in Evans, where he’s able to store bodies and do the things he needs to do in order to assist the investigators, including fingerprinting the body and drawing blood for toxicology screens, which he says are still being done in Richmond County.

“Their toxicology department is still open, they just do not do autopsies there,” he says.

Transporting the bodies to Atlanta has become a big, not to mention costly, aspect of their jobs.

“Two hundred forty five dollars one way,” Bowen says.

In order to maintain the chain of custody, Collins does all the transporting himself in a customized 2003 Ford van. It has a bulkhead between the driver and the cargo compartment and a separate air conditioning unit for the back. Modeled after the GBI vans that used to collect the bodies and transport them to the crime labs, it’s also insulated and has a special lining so he can keep it clean and decontaminate it should he have a spill of any kind.

“A lot of times when I’m on the road going to Atlanta or coming back from Atlanta, I have to have somebody take calls for me until I get back in town,” Collins says. “About three weeks ago, I took two up to Atlanta and my deputy had worked two calls while I was up there, so I refueled the van and loaded those two folks up and went back.

That’s four bodies in one day.

“Let’s put it this way: I know every bump between here and Atlanta.”

While in Atlanta, he’ll often wait for the medical examiner to do the autopsy so that he can return with the body.

“It saves the family money because that’s an added funeral cost and some families really don’t have that kind of money,” he says. “I’m already up there, so I can afford to stay over there another hour or two.”

Collins became deputy coroner in 1990 after years of working as an EMT and a burn technician. Until a couple of years ago, he also worked in the transportation industry.

“I was under a lot of stress in the transportation industry,” he says. “Having to go back and forth to Atlanta, I decided I’d had enough of trucking.”

Though most people would assume the coroner’s office would be more stressful than just about any other job you could think of, Collins says it’s not the case for him, though there are parts of it that are particularly difficult. Like Bowen, Collins enjoys the challenges of determining the cause and manner of death, but he says the toughest thing to deal with is death notifications.

“It’s really hard to walk up to a house at two or three in the morning, knock on the door and tell a mother her daughter has been killed in a car wreck,” he says. “There’s no way you can sugarcoat it.”

And then there’s the scenario he fears: an accident with two teenage girls who have swapped IDs.

“You have an underage girl and a girl that’s 21 and you’ve got one survivor and one fatality, but I’ve got the one with the wrong ID and I’m going to the wrong house telling them their daughter’s dead when she’s really in ICU,” he says. “That has happened before, but not here. But it’s not that farfetched. It’s really hard for me sometimes to compare a person that’s died to a photo, and with Georgia using the same license for five, six, seven years, it’s really hard.”

Another fear that all coroners face is a large-scale accident with several fatalities, which is why Collins talked with Administrator Scott Johnson about the possibility of purchasing a refrigerated trailer to serve as a mobile morgue.

“You don’t know when you’re going to have a disaster, and you don’t know when you’re going to need it,” he says.

After hearing about Collins’ plan, Bowen offered him the use of the one Richmond County has had, but never used, for the last six years.

“Thank God we’ve never had to use it, but we have it if we have to use it,” he says. “That’s the good and the bad about it. At least you’ve got it when you need it, but in the meantime, it’s just sitting there.”

Like Collins, Bowen started his career working in the ambulance service. Then he moved to working in funeral homes and later joined the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department.

“The last few years at the Sheriff’s Department, I was in violent crime,” he says. “I enjoyed investigating death calls. It was a challenge and it was rewarding when you would talk with the family and work with the family and you could help the family.”

He left the Sheriff’s Department to fill an opening at the coroner’s office in 2000 and was sworn in as coroner on March 11, three months after Coroner Grover Tuten was taken out of office on eight counts of theft and five counts of violation of oath of office.

A joint state-federal investigation led to Tuten’s December arrest for the theft of a deceased man’s car. The subsequent investigation turned up a number of other incidents.

In 2008, Deputy Coroner Charlena Graham received seven years probation and was fined $5,000 for taking gift cards from a deceased gunshot victim.

Not surprisingly, Collins says he doesn’t like the fact that he’s responsible for a victim’s personal effects.

“I don’t like it because the coroner is really the last person on the scene,” he says. “When I remove what’s on the person, I make copies as far as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and credit cards. Then I inventory what they had on them as far as jewelry. We describe them not as gold earrings, but as yellow colored earrings with clear stones.”

Once, Collins says, he was accused of misappropriating a watch, but that allegation quickly fell apart.

“Where the person lived didn’t support them having a Rolex watch,” he says. “Then, when I encouraged them to get with the Sheriff’s Department and start an investigation, she said she wasn’t going to bother — he had another one. You don’t live in a $300 apartment and have two Rolex watches. They dismissed it, but it doesn’t make me feel good.”

Though all the crime scene investigation shows on TV have brought attention to their line of work, they’ve also brought unreasonable expectations. Even without the delays in Atlanta, investigations take time and rely on old-fashioned logic as much as technology.

“I had a lady one time whose live-in boyfriend of 30 years had died,” Bowen says. “When I got there, I asked her his age and she told me what it was, but when she gave me his date of birth it didn’t match with his age. Come to find out they had been together for 30 years, but she had helped him escape from prison and they were living under aliases.”

Collins also values the legwork and critical thinking that goes into the job. He is particularly fascinated by the human brain.

“The brain is really something,” he says. “I’ve held it in my hands on many occasions. It feels like warm Jell-O — that’s the consistency of it. It can make you fight, love, hate, thread a needle. It’s an amazing organ.”

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