Special Assignment: Autopsy Pending

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, May 15, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW) -- Losing a loved one is hard enough without all the financial and emotional burdens that come with it. Now that Augusta has lost its medical examiner, bodies must be sent to the GBI Crime Lab in Atlanta for an autopsy.

It's an expensive trip that makes the journey to closure that much longer. It's a job with a six figure salary and with plenty of work, but several qualified applicants have declined the position, and their reason didn't have anything to do with the job. Now, it's leaving some families in a painful waiting game.

"That's the worst sight I've ever seen in my life," remembered grieving boyfriend James Ford.

Grief is a process. Denial. Anger. Depression. For James Ford, that process started the morning of March 10.

"We were together about 11 years, and I found her dead in the bedroom back there," he pointed.

At 57 years old, his girlfriend Janet had died. But from what? He didn't know. More than 9 weeks later, Ford still doesn't know.

"They wanted to do an autopsy, so they sent her to Atlanta," he said.

"If we don't know the cause of death, or we have a problem figuring it out or if it's a suspicious or violent death, the medical examiner will do an autopsy to help us determine it," Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen said.

Up until October of 2013, autopsies could be done locally at the GBI Crime Lab on Phinizy Road in Augusta. After Augusta's medical examiner retired, the local position has not been filled. Now all those loved ones are sent 140 miles away to the GBI headquarters in Atlanta to get the answers they need.

"It's putting a big burden on the family to start their grieving and closure process," Bowen said.

Bowen says the trip to Atlanta causes a painful waiting game that could potentially be avoided if the Augusta position was filled.

"You got 16-20 weeks this family has got to wait to get a death certificate to take care of any financial needs, start their closure process with knowing what happened to their loved one and moving on with their life," he described.

If the weight of a death isn't heavy enough, as Ford tries to close this chapter, he's forced to open up his wallet to take care of all his girlfriend's expenses, including the $12,000 funeral for the woman he loved.

"The insurance company won't pay the funeral home for the funeral. I can't pay her bills off without a death certificate," Ford said.

Bowen says those necessary answers and the documents that come with it would come faster with a medical examiner in Augusta instead of trying to solve a mystery cities apart.

"We try to communicate by phone and photos, computer, whatever we can do, but it's not like being there talking with the medical examiner himself," Bowen admitted.

Besides the burden on the family, sending bodies to Atlanta is becoming a burden to the taxpayer.

"It's somewhere around $250 per trip. One way," Bowen said.

With 50 bodies already transported this year, that's more than $12,000 spent in just the first half of 2014.

However, the GBI says they're not to blame.

"Often GBI medical examiners or the crime laboratory will be blamed by a local agency or coroner or prosecutor or whatever about delays in a case, saying there's a backlog in the crime laboratory, or it takes six months to get an autopsy report," GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. "Statistically that is not the case. We do the vast majority of our work within 90 days."

Out of the small pool of qualified applicants to be a medical examiner, four have been interviewed. Zero have accepted the Augusta position.

"Here's the thing. We have done everything that we can to get a medical examiner in that office," GBI Public Affairs Sherry Lang said.

Even though the GBI does autopsies for 152 of the 159 Georgia counties, they say their backlog is among the lowest it's ever been and they've advertised for the Augusta position. They say the problem is that no one wants to live in Augusta.

"We have found qualified and credentialed applicants, but they all prefer to live in the metropolitan Atlanta area," Lang admitted.

So, James Ford will keep waiting for answers and for closure.

'You keep thinking about it every day. You wait on those people to do what they have to do. You can't get it off your mind," he said.

The GBI performs around 3,000 autopsies a year. Because of that volume, they said it's important to fill the position, and they couldn't wait any longer for someone who's willing to live in the Augusta area. So, they have filled the open position, but it will remain in Atlanta.

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