Ex-police chief brought in to lead shakeup at county morgue

EVERETT — A management shakeup has begun at the Snohomish County morgue, where the administrators have called in a retired police chief to fix long-running problems.

Dennis Peterson is starting work this week at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. The former Lake Forest Park police chief’s duties will include running day-to-day operations as well as exploring long-term changes.

“His job is to look at every corner of the operation and tell me what we need to change — or to improve or repair, expand or contract,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “The supervision of the investigators will be under Dennis Peterson. Everyone in the office will report to him.”

That includes Dr. Norman Thiersch, the forensic pathologist who has run the office since 1998. Ericks said Thiersch will remain in charge of autopsies and pathology work.

“I think we have some very amazingly talented young people as medical investigators,” Ericks said. “Dr. Thiersch, within the profession, is well-regarded as a wonderful pathologist.”

The office commands an annual budget of about $2.2 million. The bulk of its 14-member staff are investigators.

Peterson retired last year from his law-enforcement career, which concluded with a 12-year run leading Lake Forest Park’s police department. Before that, Peterson was a supervisor with the Marysville Police Department. He also did some part-time work for the Medical Examiner’s Office he’s now being asked to reform.

“He’s very highly thought of around here,” Lake Forest Park city administrator Pete Rose said.

Peterson is set to receive a salary of about $10,000 per month. Ericks said his tenure will be open-ended, but could last up to several months, depending on what needs to be addressed.

The money for the position is coming from a vacancy left by the office’s former chief death investigator, who resigned in October.

Personnel problems, including high turnover, have persisted at the county morgue for years, with the county and Thiersch named as defendants in two recent lawsuits about workplace conditions.

In September, the county settled a lawsuit with a former death investigator for $495,000. That suit centered on claims of workplace retaliation. It accused Thiersch and the county of subjecting the female employee to sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and failing to accommodate a disability.

In December, another female investigator from the office sued the county and Thiersch over similar allegations of gender discrimination and retaliation. The new lawsuit describes a gruesome autopsy scene, nearly identical to one in the previous lawsuit, in which Thiersch is accused of pulling “the heart and lungs from a cadaver so as to splatter blood on plaintiff’s face.”

The plaintiff, Deborah Hollis, is being represented by the same Seattle attorney who handled the earlier suit. A damage claim preceding Hollis’ suit sought $750,000 in compensation.

The legal cases are just the latest management headaches at the county morgue.

In 2012, the office found itself under scrutiny after Monroe Police detectives questioned why a pathologist declined requests to perform an autopsy on a 7-year-old boy who died of an apparent overdose of aspirin or similar medication. A criminal investigation focused on the parents. It never led to charges in part because of a lack of potential evidence from an autopsy, records show.

In 2011, one of the medical investigators resigned amid allegations that he stole prescription pain medications seized during death investigations.

In 2010, at the insistence of the County Council, a consultant was hired to look into management, employee morale and workplace behavior. Staff for Aaron Reardon, then county executive, had earlier submitted a report suggesting there was little room for improvement in the way the morgue was being managed. The current County Executive, John Lovick, was appointed to replace Reardon in June.

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

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