County medical examiner resigns after rocky tenure

EVERETT — Dr. Norman Thiersch, who presided as Snohomish County medical examiner for 16 years, resigned from that job this week, leaving his reputation for forensic prowess intact even as he remained the focus of repeated complaints and lawsuits regarding his ability to work with others.

Thiersch was the county’s highest-paid employee, earning a $208,774 salary. He reported directly to County Executive John Lovick.

His last day in the office was Thursday, but he has vacation to use and his tenure with the county doesn’t officially end until Nov. 26, said Rebecca Hover, spokeswoman for the executive’s office.

Thiersch’s departure came through a confidential separation agreement, she said.

He remains subject to subpoena to testify as a witness in any criminal cases he helped investigate.

Thiersch supervised 14 employees and a budget of a little more than $2.2 million. His departure seemed all but inevitable after Lovick’s office early this month hired Dan Christman, a well-regarded former Bothell police sergeant with a strong forensics background, to help manage the agency as its deputy director.

Lovick’s office made clear that part of Christman’s job would be to address persistent workplace management troubles.

Thiersch is respected by police and prosecutors, who have long relied on him as an expert witness.

Paul Stern, a 30-year veteran of the county prosecutor’s office who has taken numerous homicide cases to trial, said he is sorry to see Thiersch go.

“I have worked with every medical examiner Snohomish County has had, and Dr. Thiersch was, by far, the very best,” he said. “He is smart, thorough, objective and accessible. He was the ultimate professional at his craft.”

The praise was not universal.

There was high turnover among death investigators under Thiersch and in recent years, complaints about employee morale. It became so tense that in 2010, the County Council insisted that a consultant be hired to examine workplace behavior at the morgue. Staff working for Aaron Reardon, then county executive, earlier had submitted a glowing report suggesting there was little room for improvement.

He was named as a defendant in lawsuits about workplace conditions. The county settled one lawsuit with a former death investigator a year ago for $495,000. The case accused Thiersch of subjecting the woman to sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and failing to accommodate a disability. The county in December was sued by another female investigator, who again accused Thiersch of discrimination and retaliation. A $750,000 claim for damages was filed.

Both of those lawsuits accused Thiersch of losing his temper during autopsies and roughly handling internal organs, causing blood to splash onto his assistants.

Thiersch’s office also dismayed Monroe police who in 2012 questioned why a pathologist refused to perform an autopsy on a 7-year-old boy who died of an apparent overdose of aspirin or similar medication. No charges could be brought in the case, in part because of a lack of potential evidence that likely would have been gathered during an autopsy, records show.

Lovick’s deputy executive, Mark Ericks, is Bothell’s former police chief. He hired Christman at that department about 15 years ago.

Prior to joining Bothell police, Christman had worked as a medical death investigator in Idaho and Washington, including years in the Snohomish County office he now helps lead. Christman is an expert in blood-spatter analysis and operates a forensics consulting business. He’s also a forensics instructor at the state’s police training academy.

The county code specifies that the medical examiner’s office must be run by a physician certified in forensic pathology. Part of Christman’s job will be to make recommendations about reforming the current medical examiner structure, and, Ericks said, possibly dividing up the administrative and scientific components of the office.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews

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