The Pitkin County Coroner has been in the news a lot lately. 2014 is on pace to be a year with more deaths than usual in the county. There has been a high profile murder, several recent suicides, a couple of accidental skiing deaths and several lethal drug overdoses. The cases have all come across the coroner’s desk. APR's Roger Adams reports.
“The coroner is responsible for determining the cause and manner of death; cause being, you know, head injury, chest injury, gun shot wound and whatever.”
Pitkin County Coroner Steve Ayers.
“The manner would be accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined, natural, etc. So that’s statutorily the coroner’s job.”
Ayers has been Pitkin County’s coroner since his predecessor Don Davis decided to run for sheriff against Bob Braudis in the 1980’s and lost. Ayers was deputy coroner at the time and was then appointed to replace him. He is an emergency room physician by training from Oklahoma and did his first death investigation while working trauma in Tulsa – a lot of gun and knife deaths there he says. By comparison to Tulsa, Pitkin County’s annual death rate is miniscule.
“It fluctuates but, around 30 or less.”
An obvious reminder that he is no longer in a major city where deaths are counted by the dozen or by the hundreds is the Pitkin County Morgue. The the cooler holds just one body.
Still, Ayers has been busy so far this year. Already, in just over three months, there have been 14 deaths he has looked at. Ayers is also an emergency doctor at Aspen Valley Hospital and he works out of a cramped book filled office in the emergency room. Titles like, Gray’s Anatomy and Emergency Medical Procedures line the shelves. Ayers has four deputy coroners working with him. In most cases he or one of the deputies goes to a death scene along with the police or the sheriffs.
“We’ll usually, almost always go to the scene, sometimes the body ends up here in the hospital or its not feasible to go to the scene.”
Like in an avalanche death or a high altitude death where a climber has fallen.
“So, we’ll do out basic scene investigation, gather information from the police, witnesses, family. And then the next step is really that we determine pretty quickly is whether or not that person needs an autopsy.”
Ayers and his staff don’t do autopsies. Instead when they arrive on scene they examine the body take some vital measurements.
“For example, a suicide; we may examine the body and determine that all the facts are there and we don’t need an autopsy. In those cases our deputy coroner or myself will do the body exam, draw blood and fluids for toxicology and we’ll do all that ourselves. If they need an autopsy then we don’t do anything to the body. We leave it as is…”
And the body is taken to Grand Junction where the coroner there is also a forensic pathologist, trained in dissecting corpses to determine manner and cause of death. In fact, only fifteen of Colorado’s 64 counties have forensic pathologists as coroners. These pathologists assist the other coroners in smaller counties.
Once the reasons for a death are known, details are provided to settle legal issues, solve crimes and answer questions for grieving survivors. It might sound odd, says Ayers, but the focus of a coroner isn’t just on dead bodies.
“The real job of the coroner is not about the dead its about the living. If we do our job right we can answer questions for the family, we can answer questions necessary for insurance, we can gather data and information that doctors or automobile manufacturers can use to make the world a safer place. “
There are also some duties and responsibilities one might not connect to a coroner. Coroners are in effect part of law enforcement. They have arrest powers; they can issue subpoenas and convene inquests with jurors. If someone refuses their subpoena a coroner has the authority to hole them in contempt and much like a district judge to put them in jail. Ayers, who became coroner when Bob Braudis was sheriff, says the powers often became a source of jokes. The humor is in the fact that much of Ayers’ power comes from the old west from state statutes written more than a century ago when Colorado became a state.
“Its archaic, I mean the coroner is the only county official that can arrest the sheriff. And should the…(laughs)…this used to be a fun and game thing with Braudis and I cause we’re good friends and we had this running thing like, ‘who’s gonna arrest who.’ If the sheriff has to be arrested on a county warrant, the coroner is the only one who can do that.”
Ayers seems happy in his job. He talks with excitement about the third phase of the hospital’s expansion plans. The emergency room will grow in size to provide more space for patients and in the process the coroner will get a larger area too. That means less cramped office space for the five staff and a morgue with a cooler that holds more than one body. At the same time, Ayres has grown weary of some aspects of being a coroner.
“Some time ago I quit wanting to go to scenes. I just has seen enough dead people and would be happy if I never had to be at another death scene.”
He still handles the big cases and what he calls the tricky ones but he now spends most of his time running the administration of the coroner’s office making sure all the examinations are documented correctly. In all but three of Colorado’s counties, the coroner is elected. Pitkin is one of three so-called home rule counties where the job is an appointed position. Later this year Garfield County will hold an election to replace the current coroner. Next week we’ll look at that race and find out what, as voters, we need to know when choosing the person who investigates deaths in the county.