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Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

County's internal report finds no proof of botched autopsies

An in-house review of the county medical examiner's office also dismisses concerns about management.

EVERETT -- A new in-house review of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office finds little evidence to support claims about mutilated bodies being sent to area funeral homes, though the report may fail to put many questions to rest.
The report by Peter Camp, one of County Executive Aaron Reardon's executive directors, was under way before the County Council specifically asked that the investigation be conducted by somebody who doesn't work for the county.
Camp's report acknowledges a "long-standing concern" about morale and personnel relations in the office that handles the county's death investigations. However, he found nothing to support allegations that the office has routinely botched autopsies, leading to usually difficult and expensive embalming procedures.
"Awesome! Never had a problem," reads one comment attributed to the manager at a local funeral home. "No problems with bodies. You guys are awesome."
Another comment begins, "Most of the time, no issues."
The review came after a Seattle television station in May suggested that bodies autopsied at Snohomish County's morgue were being "mutilated." An anonymous complaint sent to the County Council last year made similar claims. The county also has since 2003 received a few written complaints from funeral homes about autopsies.
To explore those allegations, Camp said he contacted management representatives from all funeral homes in the county and promised them confidentiality.
Camp reported that funeral home operators mentioned occasional problems with the condition of neck arteries after autopsies, but no widespread concerns. Some of the funeral home representatives criticized the television station's eight-minute-long special report as being unfair and blowing the issue out of proportion.
At the same time, Camp's review dismisses management concerns that have persisted during the past several years.
The medical examiner's office "has worked with staff proactively to create a positive work environment," he found.
Management concerns were the main focus of a letter an ex-employee with the office sent to Reardon and the County Council early this year. In his report, Camp noted the employee had been fired by Dr. Norman Thiersch, the medical examiner.
Among the former employee's concerns were the five associate medical examiners who have left the office since Thiersch began as its top manager in 1998. In March, Reardon's human resources director completed a separate review, asserting that most of the former employees had performance problems and questioned the mental health of one.
Former employees mentioned in the report, most of them doctors, have challenged its accuracy.
In June, the County Council asked that Reardon come up with a plan to contract an outside party to look into complaints about the office. By that point, the executive already had instructed Camp to do his own investigation, and they continued down that path, Reardon's spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said.
Gossett was out of the office Monday. Earlier this month he said that it's crucial for the outside review to be open and transparent, even if it ultimately concludes the office is well-run. In a July 12 e-mail, Gossett made the same point to Camp. He urged confidential interviews be conducted with all of the medical examiner's employees, past and present.
"(W)e strongly advise that the way to bring closure to these issues is to have an independent, outside agency handle this investigation," Gossett wrote. "Doing otherwise may not lead to the closure we are all hoping the investigation will bring."
Camp's report doesn't address Gossett's request. It ends by saying the councilman "can sit down with the Executive to determine what, if any, action needs to follow this report."

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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