Coro­ner says pickup im­proper trans­porter

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - BILL BOW­DEN

An ef­fort is un­der­way to get the New­ton County coro­ner a work ve­hi­cle.

Coro­ner Cody Mid­dle­ton said he oc­ca­sion­ally has to use his per­sonal pickup to trans­port bod­ies to the Boone County morgue in Har­ri­son.

They’re put in blue body bags, then care­fully placed in the bed of his gray 2011 Chevy Sil­ver­ado.

But it just doesn’t look right, Mid­dle­ton said.

“It is very dis­re­spect­ful,” he said.

Mid­dle­ton said his pickup doesn’t have a camper shell. He said he’s had to trans­port bod­ies in his truck “a hand­ful” of times since be­com­ing coro­ner in 2012.

“I only trans­port some­body in my ve­hi­cle if it’s an ab­so­lute have-to case,” Mid­dle­ton said.

“That is def­i­nitely not a pre­ferred method or mode of trans­porta­tion,” said Kevin Cleghorn, the Saline County coro­ner and pres­i­dent of the Ar­kan­sas Coro­ners’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

Cleghorn said he’s heard

of coro­ners us­ing their own ve­hi­cles to trans­port bod­ies, but he didn’t know any of them were trans­port­ing bod­ies in open pickup beds.

Years ago, a coro­ner was trans­port­ing a de­ceased per­son in a body bag in the bed of his pickup when an Ar­kan­sas state trooper stopped him for speed­ing, Cleghorn said. The coro­ner had a hard time ex­plain­ing why he had a body in his per­sonal ve­hi­cle.

“Truth­fully, that could be con­strued as abuse of a corpse,” Cleghorn said. “That’s bor­der­line eth­i­cal abuse. That’s not right. What if it was rain­ing, in­clement weather or some­thing like that? If it’s a homi­cide case, that body is ev­i­dence. You sure don’t want ev­i­dence trav­el­ing in the bed of an open pickup. What hap­pens if he has an ac­ci­dent?”

If the death is sus­pi­cious, Mid­dle­ton said he makes sure a sher­iff’s deputy fol­lows his pickup to the morgue in Har­ri­son.

Chris Villines, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ar­kan­sas Coun­ties, said he was sad to hear about the sit­u­a­tion in New­ton County.

“I know our coro­ners are rev­er­ent and try to do ev­ery­thing they can to re­spect the folks they are re­spon­si­ble for, but I guess in this case you have to make do with what you have and this is all you have,” he said.

Ap­par­ently, it’s been hap­pen­ing for a while in New­ton County.

Sher­iff Keith Slape said he has twice seen New­ton County coro­ners trans­port bod­ies in open pickup beds, but that was be­fore Mid­dle­ton be­came coro­ner.

“It’s just em­bar­rass­ing to the loved ones,” Slape said.

Clin­ton Daniels, a for­mer New­ton County jus­tice of the peace, wit­nessed one of those trans­ports re­cently.

“They han­dled him in a pro­fes­sional way, but it didn’t suit me,” Daniels said. “I just think it would be bet­ter if it was a ve­hi­cle that was en­closed. If it was pour­ing down rain, it would even look worse.”

Daniels went to the New­ton County Quo­rum Court meet­ing Oct. 1 and re­quested a work ve­hi­cle for the coro­ner’s of­fice. He de­scribed Mid­dle­ton’s pickup as a “farm truck,” ac­cord­ing to the New­ton County Times.

Quo­rum Court mem­bers sug­gested buy­ing a sur­plus sport util­ity ve­hi­cle from the state, ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle.

Mid­dle­ton said he spoke with War­ren Camp­bell, county judge of New­ton County, on Wed­nes­day.

“He said he was work­ing on it,” Mid­dle­ton said. “I’ll take that with a grain of salt.”

Mid­dle­ton said he re­quested a ve­hi­cle a cou­ple of years ago but noth­ing hap­pened. He said he didn’t know Daniels was go­ing to go be­fore the Quo­rum Court on his be­half.

The New­ton County coro­ner’s of­fice is bud­geted $7,500 a year, said Mid­dle­ton, and $4,600 of that is his salary. New­ton County, pop­u­la­tion 8,330, has four deputy coro­ners. They get paid $50 per death they work, plus mileage.

Mid­dle­ton said the coro­ner’s of­fice has an old Chevro­let Sub­ur­ban, but the trans­mis­sion is go­ing out and the ve­hi­cle hasn’t been driven in five years.

Ninety per­cent of the time, the fu­neral home trans­ports the body, Mid­dle­ton said. But some­times the fam­ily hasn’t de­cided on a fu­neral home or fam­ily mem­bers are hard to find.

Mid­dle­ton said Coff­man Fu­neral Home will trans­port and hold bod­ies for him, even when a fam­ily has yet to de­clare the fu­neral home they plan to use.

“It’s a hit-and-miss on ev­ery case,” Mid­dle­ton said. “If Coff­man is tied up and they can’t come, it’s hit and miss.”

Al Til­ley, the owner of Coff­man Fu­neral Home, said it is based in Har­ri­son and is the only fu­neral home with a phys­i­cal pres­ence in New­ton County.

“We do the ma­jor­ity of the busi­ness there so we help Cody out when we can,” Til­ley said.

He said Coff­man Fu­neral Home has a “cool­ing fa­cil­ity” for stor­age in Har­ri­son.

Mid­dle­ton said the Boone County coro­ner’s of­fice oc­ca­sion­ally trans­ports bod­ies for him, but some­times they’re not avail­able. The New­ton County coro­ner’s of­fice doesn’t have a morgue, so those who die in New­ton County are some­times taken to the morgue in Har­ri­son, 19 miles north of Jasper, which is the New­ton County seat.

If the state Crime Lab­o­ra­tory is go­ing to in­ves­ti­gate a sus­pi­cious death, the body is usu­ally kept at the Boone County morgue un­til a ve­hi­cle ar­rives from Lit­tle Rock, Mid­dle­ton said.

Ker­mit Chan­nell, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Crime Lab, said bod­ies shouldn’t be trans­ported in open-bed pick­ups.

“No. 1, you have to con­sider the re­spect of the de­ceased,” he said. “If I had seen that and I was a fam­ily mem­ber, I would be out­raged.”

Then there is the preser­va­tion of foren­sic ev­i­dence.

“There’s a po­ten­tial for los­ing ev­i­dence,” Chan­nell said. “These are cases we want to make sure are han­dled prop­erly.”

Danny Smith, who was New­ton County coro­ner for four years in the mid-2000s, said he had to use his per­sonal 2003 GMC pickup to trans­port bod­ies two or three times when he was coro­ner, but he had a camper shell on the back of his truck.

“I wouldn’t want my fam­ily mem­ber to be hauled in the back of a truck that’s open,” he said.

Smith said the coro­ner’s of­fice needs a pickup with a camper shell on the back. That way, there is sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the driver’s com­part­ment and the cargo.

The ve­hi­cle needs to be four-wheel drive so it can travel the rugged back­roads to re­mote lo­ca­tions, Smith said. Some coro­ners have used their own four-wheeldrive ve­hi­cles to trans­port bod­ies be­cause that was the only way to get to them, he said.

“A sta­tion wagon or just a two-wheel-drive Sub­ur­ban ain’t go­ing to cut it,” Smith said. “Some of these places are so far back the hoot owls are wink­ing at the chick­ens.”

Mid­dle­ton agreed that a four-wheel-drive pickup with a camper shell would be the best op­tion. Re­cov­er­ing the bod­ies of peo­ple who died while hik­ing or rock climb­ing in moun­tain­ous New­ton County can be ar­du­ous.

“We have a lot of climbers in New­ton County,” Mid­dle­ton said. “Some­times you can’t even get a truck there. Some­times you can’t even get an ATV there.”

In Searcy County, just east of New­ton County, Coro­ner Doug Mor­ri­son said his of­fice doesn’t have a ve­hi­cle, but he hasn’t had to trans­port a body in his per­sonal ve­hi­cle in the two years he has been coro­ner.

“So far, we haven’t got­ten into that sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “So far, the fu­neral home has done all the pick-ups.”

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