Problem-plagued county morgue gets new oversight

EVERETT — Snohomish County has hired a police supervisor with a strong forensics resume to continue reforms at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Dan Christman, a sergeant with the Bothell police department, is scheduled to begin his new county job Tuesday. One of Christman’s first tasks will be restructuring the morgue, where management problems played into a half-million-dollar settlement the county reached last year with a former death investigator. A similar lawsuit brought by a different female investigator still is pending.

The office weathered criticism in the recent past over the handling of autopsies and a child-death investigation in Monroe.

Christman is “very well regarded in our law enforcement community,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “Many, many law enforcement officials in our county and around the state know Dan Christman, and if they don’t know him personally, they know his reputation.”

The office has 14 employees and a budget of a little more than $2.2 million.

Christman will assume the title of deputy director. He’ll be taking over for Dennis Peterson, a retired police chief Ericks contracted in February to shore up the county morgue’s administration. He also was hired to recommend long-term improvements.

Peterson’s tenure began just weeks before the March 22 Oso mudslide. Medical examiner’s staff worked long hours to identify the 43 victims and received praise from many family members for their professionalism and sensitivity.

Christman’s salary will be similar to the $10,000 per month Peterson was earning, Ericks said.

“His job will be to take the talented staff we have there now and help them meet their goals,” Ericks said.

Ericks, a former Bothell police chief, hired Christman at that department about 15 years ago. Christman also has worked as a medical death investigator in Idaho and Washington, including for years at the Medical Examiner’s Office he will now help lead. He’s developed expertise in blood-spatter patterns and runs a forensics consulting business. He’s also a forensics instructor at the state’s police training academy.

Since 1998, the county morgue has been under the management of Dr. Norman Thiersch, a forensic pathologist.

County code specifies that the county executive must hire a physician certified in forensic pathology to run the morgue.

That code was drafted when the county switched from a system with an elected coroner, who need not be a doctor or forensic expert, to a medical examiner’s system run by a forensic pathologist, Ericks said. Part of Christman’s job will be making recommendations about reforming that structure, and possibly dividing up the administrative and scientific components of the office. Some offices around the country use a hybrid system.

Personnel problems during Thiersch’s tenure include a high turnover among death investigators. Two recent lawsuits about workplace conditions named him as a defendant, including one the county settled with a former death investigator a year ago for $495,000. That suit centered on claims of workplace retaliation against a female employee. It accused Thiersch and the county of subjecting her 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 case. A damage claim filed before Hollis’ suit sought $750,000 in damages.

Other problems predate the lawsuits.

In 2012, Monroe Police detectives questioned why a pathologist who reports to Thiersch declined 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 2010, at the insistence of the County Council, a consultant was hired to look into management, employee morale and workplace behavior at the morgue. Staff for Aaron Reardon, then county executive, had earlier submitted a report suggesting there was little room for improvement.

Since becoming county executive last year, John Lovick’s office has taken a more hands-on approach to changing how the office is managed.

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

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