Coroner Story: Cooperation

No dead bodies in this story. Though I felt like one at times. But I’m not dead yet.

I got a call, a message to the clinic where I was a daily, struggling family doctor in our small town. The prosecuting attorney wants me to come visit him.

I quickly racked my brain about my recent coroner cases. None I thought might be under consideration for prosecution. Had I missed something? Big gulp. Maybe a big oops here. I let his office know I’d be up to visit this late afternoon, after my last patient.

The courthouse is up on a tall hill overlooking our town. It has 1970’s architecture, so it is low, not tall and imposing. But there is the hill.

Close to the end of the day for county workers, so there was a spot in the parking lot. I slid the rusty Hilux in between a couple 4WD pickups.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s office is on the main floor. The secretary asked me to wait so I sat down. It was past five, so she must be getting overtime, I thought. Or maybe she did four tens. Maybe they didn’t come in until 9AM so they weren’t due to be off the clock. My mind jumps around like this when I’m nervous.

There was a picture of a barn on the wall.

James came out to get me. Big smile and handshake. He was in his second term in this elected position. I had just been appointed three years back. Both he and I would be on the ballot this coming fall. We all need to know our places. He brought me into his office, and I sat down. So did he. Behind the big desk.

There was some chit chat, then he got down to it. “I’m your attorney. As a county elected official, I represent your interests. So, I need to speak with you about your job as coroner and its obligations, your duties.”

“Yes?” Finally. Somebody is going to explain just what the heck I should be doing. I felt some relief.

He adopted a lecturing tone that seemed pretty natural for him. “Idaho code requires that you cooperate with other investigating agencies as part of your duties.”

Maybe I rolled my eyes. I hope I didn’t. I could see where this was headed. “I haven’t been cooperative?”

James looked down and shifted his elbows onto the desk. His voice was now softer. “I have heard from our sheriff that you aren’t always eager to investigate deaths that are brought to your attention.” Here he paused.

“If this is about his idiotic call to me about the landslide down in Juliaetta, yeah, that was bullshit. He calls me out with no information, no instructions to bypass roadblocks, and then when I get down there, there are no dead bodies, nothing to investigate. He called me out on a late Sunday evening on a wild goose chase. What part of me going to that bullshit scene does he call noncooperative?”

James shifted a bit.

“Or is there some other dereliction I have committed? If you ask me, he’s the one not cooperating. He isn’t sending detectives to scenes of unexplained deaths. Did he mention the one out past Bovill? Look, he’s got the budget. He’s got the personnel and the resources to investigate and document, keep evidence. He’s the one should be leading on these, not me. I got squat.”

James looked me in the eye. “This is all news to me. He said you weren’t cooperating, so I said I’d speak with you.”

I just shook my head. Not cooperating.

James did the big sigh and spread his hands wide. “I know you are busy. You run your practice and all. But maybe this would be better if you and him had a talk. Make some time and you sit down with him. It is indeed in the Idaho law that you should cooperate in your investigations. But relationships take time.” He beamed, the peacemaker.

I reflected. My spat with our sheriff down on the Potlatch River blow-out was the only time I had any direct contact with our fellow elected officer. The people put us here. “You’re probably right. I’ll meet with him.”

James beamed. “It would be best that way, since you outrank him and all.”

“What do you mean?”

James chuckled. “I guess you don’t read all the statutes about your duties. You are the only one who can arrest the sheriff. And if for some reason he is incapacitated, absconds, or is arrested, you become the acting sheriff.” He was goddam grinning at me.

“No way.”

“Yes way. It’s the law.”

He chatted me out. With his hand on my shoulder he offered, “I’ll have my clerk look up the sections of Idaho Code that pertain to your office and duties. You should be familiar with these statutes. We’ll get those to you. This will save you all the searching around.” He almost winked.

Did he know there was some ambiguity here? Did he know the depth of my ignorance? Probably both. I chatted on out. I had met the prosecuting attorney and left feeling a fool. But that is my nature. The Hilux awaited.

The folder of photocopied Idaho Code came to me in a couple days. I read the Articles and Sections and Chapters. Could they possibly make it more confusing? From my reading it seems nobody in an elected position wants me, the county coroner, to know how I’m supposed to do my job, at least in the twisted, arcane laws they write.

Maybe they think I should know my responsibilities since the people elected me. If so, I’m beginning to lose some faith in our democratic institutions, from the perspective of an appointed county coroner who has now learned I can arrest the sheriff. But the voters will decide soon. Maybe I am unfit. Would they know?

In the meantime, I asked to meet with our sheriff. I had said I would, so I did. It took some back and forth and I had to cancel a couple patient appointments, money out of my pocket. He’s on the taxpayer’s dime. But I guess he was pretty busy. He fit me in.

The sheriff’s office is in same the county courthouse as the prosecutors. I knew the place well, since I was also the doctor for the jail, which was in the basement below the courtrooms and the sheriff’s office. I had been there many times. Getting that job is another story. I’m sure our sheriff knew this since the county sent me a meager monthly check for my oversight. I was cheap. Maybe he saw that as a weakness. I’m jumping around in my mind as I nervously wait.

 I sat in the reception area as requested by the uniformed female deputy. She was attractive. My thoughts again bounced around to too many places as I took my seat. No magazines, some wanted posters on the far wall, it was before smart phones, so I just sat there and looked around. A few desks with just the pretty deputy right here in front of me. And then the door to the sheriff’s office behind. Walls covered with metal file drawers on all sides. Back in the far southern corner was a door to the detective’s room. I had been there once to talk with Earl. I didn’t see him, nor many coming and going. It was pretty quiet.

The sheriff came out to get me. He greeted me warmly with a handshake, but I could see a tall deputy in his office. I was invited to enter. The tall guy was the same asshole from the Juliaetta mudslide. He stood with his broad shoulders and erect posture at the east window. I went to introduce myself and shake his hand, but he dropped both hands to assume the position of attention and looked off into the not real distance. Like he wasn’t to be acknowledged.

“I just asked Deputy Dobbin to join us as an observer.” The sheriff offered. Observer?

“So, Coroner Hawthorne, what brings you to our humble office?”

Lob. “I thought it would be best if we met in person, not at a scene, to improve our sense of cooperation.” Lob with spin.

“Yes.” He folded his hands and looked down at his very big desk between us. “And how could we cooperate better?” Deputy Dobbin rested his attention pose a bit, though he didn’t assume parade rest.

No point further dancing. “Sheriff, you have all the resources, detectives and equipment and evidence security to investigate suspicious deaths. I got nothing. So, when a death is suspicious you should be assigning your resources. If you want just the coroner to be investigating suspicious deaths in this county, I’m afraid we could miss something. We are required to cooperate in Idaho Code. I am here to ask for your cooperation in death investigations.”

He smiled and shook his head. “You are suggesting I spend taxpayer money on cases that you should be investigating. How does that serve the public?”

I hope I didn’t roll my eyes, but I might have. “Deaths sometimes need investigation. I’m very comfortable with my role. But sometimes, having a sheriff’s detective involved really helps. Can’t you see that?”

He shook his small balding head again and smiled down at his huge desk. “I’m hearing here that you just don’t want to do your job.” Here he looked at me directly. Deputy Dobbin came to his full height off to the east.

So, cooperation might just be off the table I assumed at this point. “I’ll do my job, if you’ll just do yours.”

Deputy Dobbin interjected his commanding tone I had heard down in the canyon. “The Sheriff is clearly doing an excellent job.”

But I was looking at the small balding man behind the big desk. He was moving his fingers around in a circle on the clean desktop. “I serve the county taxpayers. If we spend their tax dollars on death investigations that are your responsibility, then we have less money to protect them from the bad guys. If you’d do your job, we’d all be better served.”

“Can you give me an example of when I should have investigated a death that I didn’t?”

Here he smiled and looked at me directly. “I’m not here to criticize your performance. And I don’t believe you are here to criticize mine either. You said cooperation was the goal. So, let’s cooperate. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”

He wasn’t dismissing me, but almost. So, I took what I expected was my last shot. “Sheriff, you have the resources for good investigations. I don’t. If a death needs that level of investigation, I would appreciate you authorizing those resources. I don’t want to be left out on my own. I’m afraid we could be doing the citizens a disservice.”

He was standing and coming around the big desk. Again, I was shocked that he was shorter than me. He was smiling, like he had won this duel. “I’m sure you will do your job, just as I have sworn to do mine.”

I left the office knowing this was not going to work out. I felt like a weak pissant to his authority. Welcome to this democratic institution. I knew I had failed to persuade.

Our cooperation was dead.

Manner of Death: ineptitude

Cause of Death: weakness

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.