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S.B. County Morgue Thrown on Defensive With Complaints

Two supervisors find a stench and stacks of bodies. A coroner calls it temporary and normal.

September 15, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

The San Bernardino County coroner's office was forced to defend itself Tuesday after two county supervisors made surprise visits to the morgue and said they found foul odors and more than a dozen bodies stacked on tables in a hallway.

A coroner's official defended morgue management, giving several reasons why the bodies could have been temporarily moved out of a refrigeration unit and into a hallway. Assistant Coroner Edward "Bud" Harter said it is also possible that some of the corpses were moved to clean the unit or were on their way to a mortuary.

"At any given time there are bodies in the hallway," he said.

As for the odors, Harter said it comes with the job: "Every morgue is going to have every kind of smell."

The latest controversy was triggered last week when a deputy coroner complained to labor union leaders about crowded conditions at the morgue, said Jim Erwin, president of the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Assn., the union representing deputy coroners.

Erwin said the deputy complained that more than 100 bodies were crammed into a refrigeration unit that is designed to hold 50 bodies. He said that when he and other union representatives called the coroner's office to request an inspection, they were turned down.

The union's spurned request triggered an article in a local newspaper over the weekend, which got the attention of county Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who visited the morgue Monday with Supervisor Bill Postmus.

Hansberger said he was troubled that all the bodies in the hallway were put away after he called several of his board colleagues to come see the morgue. Hansberger insisted the morgue's problems are caused by poor management, not a lack of space.

"I personally saw no facility problems," he said Tuesday.

Hansberger said he had a "vigorous discussion" with Coroner Brian McCormick after his inspection. But Hansberger said he is not sure what, if anything, the supervisors can do to impose changes because McCormick is an elected official with independent authority over his agency.

The complaints of overcrowding were not the first for the county morgue. Last summer, members of the county's grand jury said they made unannounced visits to the morgue and reported an offensive stench and saw several bodies stacked two or three to a table.

McCormick strongly denied the grand jury's allegations. In recent years, McCormick and his staff have complained that the county's booming population has resulted in a huge increase in autopsies and investigations performed by the coroner's office while staffing has remained about the same.

Since 1988, the coroner's office said, its caseload has increased 83%. San Bernardino County grew by nearly 300,000 people, or 21%, from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Harter confirmed that the 630-square-foot refrigeration unit contained 100 bodies, partly caused by a spike in deaths after the Labor Day weekend. He added that the coroner's office is drafting plans to expand the morgue about 2,500 square feet.

After Hansberger learned about the overcrowded conditions Friday, he said he asked that County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer visit the morgue. Uffer made an unannounced visit Monday and called Hansberger, suggesting that he take a look for himself.

Hansberger said he and Postmus dropped by the morgue Monday afternoon and found an "offensive" scene and a disturbing odor.

Hansberger said he saw at least 15 bodies in opaque yellow bags, stacked on rolling tables in a hallway. He also said he saw three bodies stacked on one table. Hansberger said he believes all the bodies could have been stored in the refrigerated room if McCormick had installed shelves to increase capacity.

Hansberger then called for other board members to visit the morgue. But he said that when Supervisors Paul Biane and Clifford Young arrived, all the bodies had been put away.

On Tuesday, Deputy Coroner's Investigator John Keeping urged the Board of Supervisors to hire more staff to help reduce the extreme workload. In an interview later, Keeping said the coroner's office has only 10 deputy coroners, each investigating 600 to 1,200 deaths per year.

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