Shakeup begins at troubled county morgue

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Executive’s Office quietly has begun a reshuffling of employees at the county morgue, including plans to hire a manager to oversee operations and staff.

The chief medical investigator at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office was let go Oct. 25 and his position was eliminated as part of the overhaul, county spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said.

The restructuring is “something that’s been considered for a while,” Hover said. “A lot of things factored into that, deciding how best to organize this office and how to provide the best services we can with the resources we have.”

County Executive John Lovick’s office has yet to decide which employees would report to Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch or to the new manager, Hover said. Thiersch manages the office and its forensic work. The new manager likely will be promoted from within.

News of the restructuring comes weeks after the county paid out a half- million-dollar settlement over workplace retaliation allegations involving Thiersch. A former investigator said that Thiersch became angry during an autopsy and forcefully flung a cadaver’s heart and lungs into a pool of blood, causing blood to splash on the employee.

In a 2006 case, a different employee complained that Thiersch threw a pair of forceps down on a cutting board when he became frustrated during an autopsy.

Under Thiersch, the Medical Examiner’s Office has come under fire for a number of missteps in recent years, including a mishandled death investigation into a child’s drug overdose in Monroe in 2012. The 7-year-old boy’s body was never autopsied despite the urging of police detectives and a history of neglect in the child’s family. A criminal investigation focused on the parents 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 drugs seized during death investigations. In 2010, a consultant who was hired by the county to look into complaints at the Medical Examiner’s Office reported problems in management, employee morale and workplace behavior. The year before, an investigator was fired after being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on his way to a fatal collision scene.

The Medical Examiner’s Office received accreditation a couple of years ago, and the restructuring is part of ongoing improvements, Hover said last week.

The new manager likely would handle the department’s scheduling, hiring, budget and personnel, Hover said. Thiersch still would report directly to the county executive’s office.

“We’re not adding more people to the office,” Hover said. “We’re rearranging things.”

The department has 14 full-time employees, mostly medical investigators, and an annual budget of $2.1 million. The office conducted 391 autopsies in 2012.

The chief medical investigator who was let go in October received two weeks’ pay in lieu of two weeks’ notice, according to a human resources letter provided by the county.

The $495,000 settlement earlier this fall came after a woman who’d previously worked as an investigator filed a lawsuit accusing the county and Thiersch of retaliation, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and gender discrimination. Her suit included the allegations regarding the blood splashing incident.

In the settlement, the county admitted no wrongdoing, and the former investigator agreed not to file additional claims. Both sides also agreed not to discuss the settlement publicly.

Many of the reported issues at the Medical Examiner’s Office happened during the years Aaron Reardon was county executive. He resigned in May.

Lovick, who was sheriff before, took over as county executive in June. The Medical Examiner’s Office is the second county public-safety department to get an overhaul under the new administration.

When he was still sheriff in March, Lovick had requested an outside team of experts to assess operations and medical services at the Snohomish County Jail. Eight inmates have died at the jail since 2010, including two deaths involving young people whose families have pending claims alleging mistreatment.

New Sheriff Ty Trenary has hired an on-call doctor as part of an ongoing review of jail operations and safety.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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