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OBITUARIES : Dr. Ronald N. Kornblum, 1933 - 2008

L.A. County coroner had low-key style

September 27, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Ronald N. Kornblum, a nationally recognized expert on chokehold deaths who served eight years as Los Angeles County coroner until he resigned amid charges of poor management and an escalating caseload, died Tuesday at his home in La Canada-Flintridge after a long illness, his family said. He was 74.

Kornblum succeeded Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the colorful veteran coroner who was demoted in 1982 over charges of mismanagement and exploiting his office for personal gain. Kornblum improved the efficiency and professionalism of the medical examiner's office but said his job became more difficult as homicides rose countywide, pressing his department's resources to the breaking point.

He left the job in 1990 after an independent management audit found unsanitary conditions and poor oversight that allowed misconduct by some employees. When he quit, he said that he had performed the job "as responsibly as possible, in a climate of continual turmoil and upheaval."

During his tenure, Kornblum handled a number of high-profile autopsies, including those of actors William Holden, John Belushi and Natalie Wood, singer Karen Carpenter and writer Truman Capote.

He had a low-key manner and was averse to publicity, qualities that set him apart from the flamboyant Noguchi, who called himself the "coroner to the stars."

Born in Chicago on Dec. 5, 1933, Kornblum was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UCLA who earned his medical degree in 1959 at UC San Francisco. He worked in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, as a Navy medical officer from 1960 to 1961.

When he returned from overseas, he pursued his medical residency at Santa Clara County Hospital, where he discovered that he enjoyed diagnosing illnesses more than treating them. He decided to specialize in pathology, eventually narrowing his interest to autopsies. He moonlighted for the Santa Clara County coroner's office.

In 1966, he accepted a job working under Baltimore's top forensic pathologist, Dr. Russell S. Fisher. He was Maryland's deputy chief medical examiner in 1974, when he moved to California to become Ventura County coroner.

In 1980, Noguchi hired him as Los Angeles County's chief of forensic medicine. At Noguchi's request, he began to clean house and dismissed several part-time doctors who he found lacked professionalism. He also introduced new efficiencies to cut in half a backlog of 300 to 400 bodies awaiting autopsies.

He became acting coroner when Noguchi was suspended and was formally named to fill the position after Noguchi's legal appeals for reinstatement failed.

Kornblum earned high marks as a forensic pathologist recognized for his knowledge of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and fatalities involving Taser guns. Frequently consulted as an expert on chokehold deaths, he testified in the so-called Preppie Murder case involving the 1986 strangulation of a young woman in New York's Central Park.

He remained coroner until a 300-page audit in 1990 depicted his department in disarray. Among the problems cited were dead insect larvae in the morgue, a body that had decomposed because it had been misplaced, backlogs that resulted in bodies not being embalmed for weeks, and a double-billing scam in which coroner's office employees allowed funeral homes to charge the county and the federal government for cremating indigents.

"Kornblum was a great pathologist but not a great administrator. The job may be too much for one person," then-L.A. County Supervisor Ed Edelman said after Kornblum announced in April 1990 that he was quitting.

The coroner agreed that administration was not his strength. "I'm a scientific person," he told The Times before he stepped down.

County supervisors later voted to divide the coroner's job into two positions -- an administrator and a chief pathologist.

Kornblum worked as a consultant until he had a stroke in late 1997.

He once said he wanted to change the public image of the coroner.

"Everyone thinks of a coroner walking with a limp; he's got a humped back, he's covered with blood," he said in 1988. He said that image was no closer to reality than the version popularized in the long-running TV drama "Quincy, M.E.," in which actor Jack Klugman played a Los Angeles County coroner who was a medical examiner, action hero, Sherlock Holmes-style sleuth, judge and jury all rolled into one. "Life," Kornblum said, "isn't like that."

Kornblum is survived by a sister, Meta Reistad of Napa; and two brothers, Alan of Solvang and Edward of Le Grand, Ore.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. today at Crippen Mortuary, 2900 Honolulu Ave., La Crescenta. Memorial donations may be sent to Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of autism and supports research. For information, visit www.autismspeaks.org.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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