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Lack of autopsy hampers probe of boy’s death

He died under suspicious circumstances, but the timing of decisions about his case and the lack of a full autopsy have complicated a potential manslaughter investigation.

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By Diana Hefley
Herald Writer
MONROE -- Just three hours after Monroe police began investigating the suspicious death of a child, officials with the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office released his body to a funeral home without conducting a complete autopsy, newly released records show.
Two weeks later, routine toxicology tests concluded that the 7-year-old died with a lethal amount of what appeared to be an over-the-counter painkiller in his system.
Monroe police are investigating the death as a potential manslaughter. Their investigation has been complicated by the absence of an autopsy.
"The detective is still working it, gathering information," Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said this week.
Child Protective Services first called Monroe police at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 30, notifying them of the boy's death, Willis said. The child, identified in court papers as "A.J.," was brought in just after 4 a.m. to Valley General Hospital's emergency room in Monroe. Doctors noted that the boy appeared to be in the early stages of rigor mortis and pronounced him dead a short time later.
Records recently obtained by The Herald show that 12 hours passed between the time of death and the time when the county medical examiner released his body to a Lynnwood funeral home. The boy's body was at the county morgue for nine hours, according to the records.
During that time, the county medical examiner classified the boy's death as "low suspicion." Monroe police detectives were told there was no evidence of neglect or abuse and the medical examiner's investigation was being closed, court records said.
Detectives say their records show they only learned of the boy's death three hours earlier, and were in the beginning stages of trying to piece together the circumstances. Yet they were concerned enough over what they knew about the family's history to contact the medical examiner's office and request an autopsy.
Detectives had investigated the child's father in 2010 for neglecting and mistreating his young sons, both with severe developmental delays. During that probe, the boys were removed from the home for three months. The father eventually pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment.
The detective who investigated that case contacted the medical examiner's office on the afternoon of Jan. 30. He requested an autopsy, explaining the family's history with state social workers, Willis said.
When he was told no autopsy was going to be performed, he relayed that information to his supervisor. A detective sergeant placed a second call to the medical examiner's office just before 4 p.m., Willis said. The sergeant spoke with associate medical examiner Dr. Stanley Adams, again requesting an autopsy and explaining the circumstances of the previous police investigation.
The sergeant was told there would be no autopsy.
About 20 minutes later, the boy's body was released to a representative from a funeral home in Lynnwood.
"Based on our conversations, we believed the body was going to be released. We did not know that it would be the same day," Willis said.
There are no state policies to tell forensic pathologists exactly when to perform autopsies. Death investigators must rely on their training and experience to make the right call.
The medical examiner, Dr. Norman Thiersch, is the county's highest-paid public employee. He reports to Executive Aaron Reardon.
On Thursday, Reardon's office suggested that police and social workers did not adequately convey their concerns about the boy's death.
"I believe Monroe police had information that we didn't have," Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson said. "They were privy to some information that medical examiner didn't have."
The pathologist in this case did a thorough external examination of the boy and didn't discover anything that would have given reason to notify Monroe police, he said.
Whatever police shared about "A.J.," it wasn't of sufficient concern to conduct an autopsy, Haakenson said.
Reardon's spokesman, Christopher Schwarzen, also said that CPS was called by a medical examiner investigator at 7:30 a.m. to notify the agency of the boy's death. The county's investigator asked if there was any history of abuse or neglect and was told there wasn't, Schwarzen wrote in an email.
The investigator told the person contacted at CPS to call back if there were any concerns, he said.
"Our case notes don't agree that we ever told anyone that there wasn't any CPS history," said Thomas Shapley, senior director of communications for the state Department of Social and Health Services. Instead, the notes document that concerns about the past child abuse were conveyed to the medical examiner's office, he said.
It is difficult to know what the medical examiner's own records show.
Records generated by medical examiners and coroners as part of a death investigation generally are exempt from public disclosure under the law. The Herald requested related records, that were not part of the investigation but documented what happened at the office that day. The county recently provided seven pages of documents, all heavily redacted.
The records show that a medical investigator first logged the boy's body into the morgue at 7:20 a.m. -- about 40 minutes before the end of the investigator's shift. A second investigator released the body at 4:20 p.m., about five minutes after she admitted another body into the morgue.
A separate record shows that Adams, the pathologist, signed off on releasing the boy's body. There is no time stamp.
The morgue log for January shows that of the 14 bodies received that month, all but three were kept at least 24 hours. Besides "A.J.," quick cases involved middle-aged men and no indication of police investigations.
The medical examiner also released four pages described as "confidential notes" and dated Jan. 30 through April 4. They are so heavily redacted that little more is revealed beyond the agencies involved in the case: Monroe police, Child Protective Services, the Washington State Patrol and the medical examiner's office.
The first note, written the day the boy died, includes mention of the pathologist plus a Monroe police detective and CPS. It is unclear if that single note documents the calls Monroe police placed to the office. No time is listed.
The next entry appears to have been made more than a week later, at 8:45 a.m. Feb. 9. The lengthier note was initialled by Adams. Three more notes were made that same day. Two were from another investigator and there was a second note from Adams.
Monroe police say they were notified Feb. 10, the next day, that lethal amounts of salicylates had been found in "A.J."'s blood. Salicylates are common in aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs.
The toxicology tests determine the presence and amount of drug in the blood, not how it was ingested. That mystery might have been answered by an autopsy.
The same morning police learned of the toxicology results, they were told that the boy's body already had been cremated. They attempted to speak with the boy's father but he declined, explaining that he'd laid his son to rest earlier that day, court papers said.
"I don't like where this is going," the man reportedly told the detective.
Earlier, the man told investigators that he awoke about 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 30 and felt like he needed to check on his son. He told the detective his son was ash white. He said he thought the boy may have had a seizure, so he decided to take him to the Valley General Hospital emergency room in Monroe, court papers said.
The father allegedly reported that the boy was breathing and alive when they left their home for the hospital, about two miles away, but the emergency room doctor said when they arrived, the boy appeared to be in the early stages of rigor mortis.
CPS received a 4:40 a.m. call from the hospital. A social worker was investigating the case by 10 a.m.
CPS faxed police information about the death in the morning, and a social worker followed up with a phone call in the afternoon. The investigation was swiftly assigned to a detective.
"Of course, we would have liked to have been notified when the boy was brought into the hospital, but we weren't," Willis said. "In a police investigation, the first hours are critical for gathering a lot of information."
The detective assigned to the case knew the family's history because of his 2010 investigation into allegations of neglect and abuse involving "A.J." and his older brother. State social workers have been called to investigate concerns involving the family at least as early as 2005, records show.
Concern about the "A.J." investigation has prompted meetings between the medical examiner and local police, Haakenson said.
"The medical examiner always wants to work with law enforcement and fully cooperate with all police," he said.
Reporter Rikki King contributed to this story.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;
Story tags » MonroePoliceMedical Examiner

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