Medical examiner’s autopsies scrutinized

Two complaints about how the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office handled bodies across nearly a decade have prompted reviews by top county officials.

The complaints surfaced six years apart, a period in which the county medical examiner performed about 2,300 autopsies. The latest development came this week, when the County Council requested documents to see whether the office of County Executive Aaron Reardon adequately investigated an anonymous complaint about the condition of bodies arriving at a local funeral home from the medical examiner. A KOMO-TV report that aired Monday suggested bodies are being “mutilated” during autopsies.

Some information in the report warrants scrutiny, Council Chairman Dave Gossett said Tuesday.

“Based on what we find, we will decide what the next step should be,” Gossett said. “We’ve got to find out the facts first.”

No decisions are expected until at least next week.

The Medical Examiner’s Office received unrelated negative attention last year, when one of its investigators showed up under the influence of alcohol to process the scene of a quadruple fatality caused by a drunken driver. The county fired the investigator, but Snohomish County prosecutors closed the drunken-driving case against him without filing charges, citing insufficient evidence.

The County Council in August received the most recent complaint about how the Medical Examiner’s Office handles bodies. It was an anonymous online message that purported to come from a person who claimed to help run one of the county’s largest funeral homes.

The council forwarded the complaint to Reardon’s office, which oversees the medical examiner.

One of Reardon’s executive directors, Peter Camp, decided to have Karras Consulting, a Olympia firm already helping the county search for an associate medical examiner, confidentially survey the county’s funeral parlors to see if any backed up the anonymous complaint. Only one of seven funeral homes gave negative feedback, Camp said, while the others were positive.

Specific complaints focused on autopsies not always being performed by a pathologist and damage that made embalming difficult. But the office also won praise for “phenomenal service,” improvements over past years and fostering good working relationships with the funeral homes.

Based on his review, Camp said he saw no reason to take action against medical examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch or his staff because, “The complaint from the one funeral home was about one body, one time, that was tempered with positive comments.”

Thiersch, a pathologist who has worked as the county’s medical examiner since 1998, oversees an office with a dozen staff members and an annual budget of nearly $1.9 million.

Thiersch’s work figures in every murder case in the county, and he is highly regarded as a forensic witness. As an example of Thiersch’s professionalism, Camp pointed to his work preserving evidence from a woman’s 1993 murder in Yakima County, where he was working at the time. Earlier this month, the suspect was sent to prison for life.

Gossett said the council decided it needed to review the funeral-home survey because an e-mail update Camp sent failed to detail the negative comments. Instead, the e-mail only said the feedback was mostly positive, with some concern about medical examiner staff being overworked.

The county in 2003 also received a letter from a Port Townsend funeral director, complaining about damage to arteries in the neck of a deceased Mukilteo man after an autopsy. That damage made it almost impossible to embalm the body, he wrote.

Thiersch replied to the funeral director, nearly seven years ago, saying he had “taken appropriate action in response.” The medical examiner said his office follows standard autopsy procedures and that it is sometimes difficult to avoid damaging a body during dissection.

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

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