County’s newest medical examiner focused on giving families answers

EVERETT — Dr. Daniel Selove takes a methodical, thoughtful approach to his job.

As Snohomish County’s newly appointed medical examiner, his work is a matter of life and death. Life, because he can provide answers to survivors who want to know how and why a family member or friend died. Death, for what the dead — his patients — can teach the living about avoiding disease, accidents and violence.

“It’s so rewarding what I do, talking to a family and being able to answer their questions,” the soft-spoken Selove said.

Selove started his job June 15. He oversees a staff of 13, including an associate medical examiner, death investigators, and administrative staff. The office is set to hire two more investigators soon.

Formally, he refers to himself as a forensic pathologist. His duty, as he views it, is explaining death.

The medical examiner assumes jurisdiction when the reason a person died is unnatural or unknown. The county morgue got involved in 886 of the 4,692 reported deaths in the county last year. That included the 43 people who died during the Oso mudslide, 34 traffic deaths and 15 homicides.

Turmoil thrust Selove into the leadership role at an office that’s gone through two management shakeups in the past year. He has no prior managerial experience. Now, he oversees autopsies and pathology, death-scene investigations and administrative duties.

“I had no illusions this would be a cakewalk,” he said. “I know there’s a risk of spreading myself thin.”

Selove grew up in West Virginia, then finished high school and college in Virginia. He earned his medical degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville and moved to Everett in 1994, a couple of years after completing his residency. He still lives in the same Everett home he and his wife bought shortly after moving here.

Selove started as a part-time associate medical examiner in Snohomish County. At the same time, he was consulting on death cases in a number of Washington counties. He left the county position in 1998 to consult full time, working with funeral homes, coroners offices, attorneys and doing occasional private autopsies for families.

He called them “fascinating, rewarding years.”

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said he’s been impressed by Selove during the 20 years they’ve worked together.

“He takes his job very seriously,” Miller said. “He’s very prepared. He’s very objective.”

Miller has seen the pathologist in action performing autopsies for the county coroner and as an expert witness.

“One thing I’ve learned about Dr. Selove is that he’s there to tell the truth, regardless of whether it’s the prosecutor or the defense asking the questions,” Miller said. “That’s the thing I admire the most about him, is that he’s only interested in providing the truth to the jury.”

Yakima County Corner Jack Hawkins called Selove “probably the best forensic pathologist in the Northwest.”

“He’ll do a wonderful job,” Hawkins said. “I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Selove, except that I don’t get to use him anymore.”

Selove came back to work for Snohomish County full time in October.

Initially, he was picking up the case load from Dr. Norman Thiersch, who had just resigned from his 16-year run as medical examiner. Staff morale had been an ongoing problem during Thiersch’s tenure. He had been named as a defendant in two employee lawsuits that the county settled.

The changes came as County Executive John Lovick’s administration was trying to reorganize the morgue by appointing a non-physician administrator to take charge. They hired Dan Christman away from his job as a Bothell police sergeant to perform that role. A nationally recognized expert in blood spatter, Christman had worked for 10 years as a death investigator in the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office before becoming a cop. His time there overlapped with Selove’s.

A majority of the County Council disagreed with Lovick’s approach and nearly cut Christman’s job from the 2015 budget. Instead, they gave Christman a few months to come up with a restructuring plan. At the end of April, a majority of the council rejected proposals that would have kept Christman in charge, either as the office’s sole director or sharing responsibility with the medical examiner.

Council members pointed to state law and county code, which say the office must be run by a doctor certified in forensic pathology. They also said having two leaders would create friction.

That left Christman without a job. He’s set to leave next week. Some death investigators who worked under him, as well their union, praised his efforts to turn things around in the workplace.

Selove agrees with them.

“We would’ve done a better job if Dan was here, but we’re going to move on,” he said, pledging to keep staff morale a priority.

He’s also determined to work with the Snohomish Health District and schools to bring attention to preventable accidents and disease. The heroin epidemic and recent rise in teen suicides are trends that deserve more attention.

Selove describes himself as an optimist. In most professions, that would be unremarkable. But in his line of work, all cases involve the sad fact of death.

“That’s not the end of the case,” he said. “The end of the case is helping the family by providing answers for them and hopefully helping them with their grief.”

He considers that a privilege.

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

Stats

Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office: 2014 by the numbers

*Reported deaths: 4,692

*Cases investigated: 886

*Autopsies: 358

*Homicides: 15

*Traffic fatalities: 34

*Accidental deaths (including 43 victims of the Oso mudslide): 387

*Suicides: 117

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