Killer-tracking plan is snarled by lack of money

By CATHY LOGG

Herald Writer

EVERETT — A revolutionary program proposed in Snohomish County that would link death investigations nationwide and help track serial killers is comatose and only likely to be revived with an infusion of federal money.

Snohomish County was scheduled to be the national hub for the new program, but it has stalled. Instead, the national center will be based out of Texas, and a regional hub has been started in Kitsap County.

Snohomish County Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch said the problem is money. The FBI hasn’t yet said how much money the county will get, or when.

Staffing problems haven’t helped either. Thiersch fired his chief medical investigator, Paul Moskvin, who was to oversee the program.

But staffing and money aren’t the problems, Moskvin said. Thiersch got cold feet and wanted to stop the program after he signed an agreement to work with the FBI, Moskvin said.

Thiersch, who declined to discuss Moskvin’s termination, maintains that the program isn’t dead, but he won’t move forward without federal money. He did not specify how much money he wants or how it would be used.

In the meantime, a computer provided to the county by the FBI sits idle, no work is being done and dozens of volunteers are wondering what is going on.

The idea behind the whole thing was to develop software that would standardize death investigations. Medical examiners nationwide would then input their investigations into a database that could be linked with the FBI to help find serial killers.

The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) tracks homicide investigations in an effort to identify serial killers.

The medical examiner component will provide the FBI with information that will enable investigators to look for patterns and spot previously unrecognized homicides, put a name to many unidentified bodies, enhance the missing children’s network, and increase tenfold the ability to investigate suspicious deaths, said John Graham, a criminal justice instructor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Moskvin and medical investigator Louis Smit had developed the program and suggested it to the FBI, which embraced it eagerly.

Thiersch noted in a letter to FBI Unit Chief Art Meister in February that the program had gained extensive congressional support, including from Democrats Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks as well as firm support from local and regional officials.

Meister described the program as being "of incredible importance to the criminal justice system and the public it serves."

But, Moskvin said, Thiersch’s enthusiasm for the program waned, and he even suggested "pulling the plug" on it after all the arrangements had been made and Moskvin and Smit had met with numerous government officials.

Thiersch notified Moskvin on Sept. 15 by letter that "all activity associated with ViCAP stops immediately. I want the program shut down."

Thiersch asked Moskvin to resign, and fired him when he declined, indicating in a letter that Moskvin’s "relationship with the office no longer meets the department’s needs."

"I was shocked," Moskvin said.

Since January, he and Thiersch had been discussing reorganizing the office to accommodate the joint program with the FBI, as well as contracts between Thiersch and other Puget Sound counties to provide death investigations and consultations. All of those things would provide the county with revenue.

Thiersch got a salary increase this year and county authorization to hire a second pathologist based on those contracts, Moskvin said. The two had reassigned many of Moskvin’s daily duties to others to free his time for all of the programs and projects in the office, he said.

Graham is developing a curriculum for a reserve medical examiner death-investigation program. Such training will lead to a college certificate and, eventually, an Associate of Applied Arts and Sciences degree in forensic investigations. Graduates will input data into the FBI’s database for Texas officials, as reserves would here for Thiersch.

Snohomish County has a new, state-of-the-art medical examiner’s facility that was to serve as a regional center for expertise in death investigations with seven other counties, many of which have elected coroners rather than trained medical examiners.

The county was set to become the national hub for the ViCAP-medical examiner program, and Graham’s college and the Nueces County Medical Examiner’s Office were chosen as sister sites. Since the program has stalled, the others have gone ahead with their plans, despite the lack of input from Thiersch’s office.

Similarly, Kitsap County now is a regional hub and will provide special ViCAP training to a large number of agencies in December.

"We can’t do (the ViCAP-medical examiner program) with current funding," Thiersch said. "Our involvement in that is going to depend on the level of funding that we get, and that could mean more positions."

He said, however, that his goal is to connect his death investigation program to ViCAP.

"If you could get all the medical examiners to tie into ViCAP, that would provide a tremendous database to the FBI for identifying patterns of death and help identify trends," Thiersch said.

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