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Erik Burgess, Published October 19 2013

Lack of morgue leaves coroner scrambling

FARGO - At first, nothing seems out of the ordinary in Kriste Ross’ home office. The small, cream-colored room with a slanted roof has a desk covered with papers, family portraits hung on the walls, cardboard filing boxes and a small bookshelf.

Then, filed neatly near an old wooden dresser that sits beneath a second-floor window sill, there are the body bags.

Ross is a death investigator and has worked for the Cass County coroner’s office out of her home since 2001. Cass County never has had an official coroner’s office or a county morgue. While Ross doesn’t mind working from home, there are some issues.

“I can’t store bodies in my home, and that is where we are running into problems,” she said.

For decades, the coroner has relied on local funeral homes for that service, to store bodies for days at a time while police investigate possible crimes, and Ross and the one other county death investigator seek out the deceased’s next of kin.

With the county’s population growing, Ross’ workload is bigger than ever, and she said it’s high time the county stops relying on the volunteered “community service” of funeral homes.

The county now has the opportunity to build a morgue by next year in the old Sunmart/CVS building on 25th Street South and 13th Avenue, which is being renovated into Fargo’s public health office and police substation. County commissioners have so far balked at the estimated $600,000 price tag to include the morgue in the renovation project, and Ross thinks they won’t budge anytime soon.

When surveyed by The Forum earlier this month, all five Cass County commissioners said they were still weighing their options and waiting for a construction bid to be finalized for the public health building.

Last month, the county’s coroner subcommittee approved letting Fargo include the 3,880-square-foot morgue as an alternative on that bid, which would let county leaders see a more specific price before pulling the trigger.

City leaders hope to start the $8.7 million renovation on the 58,000-square-foot building by early next year. Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral has said the city will move on with or without the county.

County commissioners are expected to discuss the coroner’s office Monday.

Dr. John Baird, the county coroner since 1983, said the number of deaths he is investigating has gone from 100 to 150 per year to 200 to 250 per year. A county of this size, and one that’s growing every year, needs its own morgue, he said.

“I think it’s getting pretty critical,” Baird said. “As time has gone on, we’ve scraped by, but I have concerns about a number of issues. To do appropriate and adequate investigations and to properly care for bodies of individuals who’ve died, it gets more and more difficult each year to accomplish that.”

Not best practice

As a county death investigator, Ross is charged with examining all unattended deaths in the county to determine cause of death and to decide whether the body needs to be sent to the state medical examiner in Bismarck for an autopsy.

Problems arise without a county morgue.

The deaths Ross investigates are almost always accidents or suspected homicides and suicides, and funeral homes aren’t always able or willing to store the oft-decomposing bodies for long periods of time, Ross said.

The coroner doesn’t have a vehicle, so Ross drives her own car when she is called to the scene of a death. Then the body has to be kept in an ambulance while Ross contacts one of the three funeral homes that act as the county’s morgues: Boulger and Hanson-Runsvold funeral homes in Fargo and West Funeral Home in West Fargo.

If the funeral home can’t take the body or doesn’t want to because of the smell – the bodies cannot be embalmed if they are part of an ongoing investigation – then Ross is left scrambling to find a place for the body. It’s a problem that happens at least once a month, she said.

“We have to put these bodies somewhere until we can make every effort … to get a hold of these families,” Ross said. “That means that somebody’s got to hold a body for us because we don’t have any of those resources to do this on our own.”

Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus said using funeral homes to store bodies needed for criminal investigation isn’t “best practice” and could lead to problems in court if there’s a suspected homicide.

By handing bodies over to funeral homes, the county compromises its “chain of custody,” which is critical in assuring the courts that no one has tampered with evidence – in this case, a body.

“The professionalism of the funeral home isn’t in question … but the fact is, you’ve lost control of the facility where the body is being stored at,” Claus said. “We don’t know everybody who works at each funeral home. We don’t know what their protocol is.”

Claus said there are as many as 10 deaths a year in Fargo that are investigated as if they are homicides.

The coroner’s office works with Fargo police on about 85 percent of its cases, which is why putting them near a Fargo police substation makes sense, Ross said.

‘We need to think’

When surveyed by The Forum this month, all five county commissioners said they were in a wait-and-see mode. Fargo officials should get renovation bids back late this fall for the public health building.

During a subcommittee meeting late last month, Commissioner Chad Peterson balked at the $120 per square foot estimate given to the county by Fargo to include the morgue in the Sunmart/CVS building. The county also would have to pay rent to the city.

Peterson said he doesn’t believe there is the “political will” on the commission to build a morgue for that price because it hasn’t been budgeted for.

“We really haven’t spent a ton of time investigating what could be a very expensive project, albeit a good one,” Peterson said. “We need to think about it before we spend a ton of money.”

If the final bids come in closer to $80 per square foot, the commission “may be compelled to look at this much more closely than we are right now,” Peterson said.

Commissioner Darrell Vanyo also is unsure the county can afford putting the morgue in the Fargo public health building, but he said that the current system of relying on funeral homes is doing a “disservice” to the general public.

“We need to step up to the plate and change what has been going on,” Vanyo said. “We’ve grown too big to overlook that area.”

Some office space recently has opened up in the county courthouse, and a majority of commissioners said they would vote Monday to give that space to the death investigators. That would still not provide morgue space.

On Monday, commissioners will also discuss making Ross and the other death investigator full-time county employees, a recommendation approved by the board’s coroner subcommittee. Death investigators are now contracted employees with no benefits.

The county’s proposed 2014 budget bumps the coroner’s budget up to $190,000 from $128,000, an increase that includes higher salaries and county benefits for the death investigators.

The county coroner has operated several thousand dollars under budget 11 out of the past 13 years, not including 2013, according to county records.

Other models, options

Ross is concerned that if the county doesn’t jump on the Fargo project now, building a morgue won’t be feasible for another few years. She estimated she calls a funeral home for assistance 20 times a month and expects that number to increase.

“They’re not getting a dime for it. It’s all volunteer,” Ross said. “But now the commissioners aren’t liking that we would actually have to pay for a facility because we haven’t had to pay anybody to do this in the past.”

County Auditor Michael Montplaisir agreed that the Fargo building is the only immediate option. He said the sheriff wants to look at expanding the jail, but that is a few years out.

County staff looked into what other large regional counties do for morgue services. Minnehaha County, S.D., home of Sioux Falls, uses a hospital to store bodies because that is where the medical examiner is, according to a Cass County report. Hospitals in the Fargo area no longer have morgue services, Ross said.

Burleigh County, N.D., contracts with its ambulance service for $245 a month so bodies can be transported directly to the state medical examiner’s office in Bismarck, the county seat. Ward County, home to Minot, N.D., has a county morgue and contracts with funerals homes to transport bodies to Bismarck.

Grand Forks County recently built a new morgue. Mary Ann Sens, the chairwoman of the pathology department at the University of North Dakota, is the county medical examiner and also performs autopsies for a number of northwestern Minnesota counties, Baird said.

Baird hopes in the near future that Sens will start performing autopsies for Cass County, too.

Ross and Baird argue that Cass, with the largest population in the state, needs its own morgue, but Commissioner Vern Bennett, who heads the county board, said he doesn’t think the county’s size is a factor.

“In fact, being the biggest county in the state we probably have larger, more adequate funeral homes than smaller populated counties,” he said.

Commissioner Mary Scherling said she thinks funeral homes here have the space to continue providing the service. She pointed to the staff report from other counties.

“There certainly are other ways to do it rather than having our own morgue,” she said.

Larry Boulger, owner of Boulger Funeral Home, said his family has been helping the county for more than four decades.

“We feel that it’s a community responsibility,” he said.

When he took over as owner 41 years ago, they might get five or six calls a year. Now they get as many as three a day, Boulger said.

“We don’t take an ad out saying that we want to do this,” Boulger said. “This firm goes back 116 years here, and we’ve always helped people who were indigent or who just didn’t have any means, but you do get to the point where you start overextending yourself.”

Blood kits in basement

Ross dons a black jacket with yellow letters spelling “CORONER” on the back when she arrives at the scene of an unattended death, which occurs once a week, on average. She’s a trained medicolegal death investigator and sports a Cass County badge.

Without an office, Ross has to draw blood, urine and eye fluid at the scene, and bring those samples back to her home, where she labels them on top of the washing machine in her basement.

Ross enjoys her work and is accustomed to the sometimes gruesome scenes. Her father, grandfather and uncle all were funeral directors. On a shelf in her small home office sits a book with a worn, yellow cover: “Daddy was an Undertaker.”

It’s her kids she’s concerned about. When her two young children and their friends pile into her car, they sometimes catch a whiff of the fluid kits, a scent Ross blames on the dog.

“I hate having blood kits in my house,” she said.

That problem could be cured Monday if commissioners approve giving Ross an office in the courthouse. It still doesn’t cure the problem of not having a morgue, Ross said.

If the county doesn’t move forward with the Fargo building, Ross said the problem will only worsen.

But when she gets another call about not knowing where to store a body, she said her solution will become quite simple.

“They can call a county commissioner and ask what to do with it. Seriously,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518