‘Kind of nerve-wracking’: Augusta family waits for closure months after death

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 6:37 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT)- Dozens of families across the CSRA are waiting for closure, specifically autopsy results or even a death certificate.

When your loved one passes, there is not much you can do without a death certificate, like claim life insurance.

From dying of natural causes to homicides waiting to be solved, Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen says cases are backlogged, starting at the GBI crime lab in Atlanta.

The number of pending reports has almost doubled in recent years.

Documents from the Richmond County Coroner’s Office show 77 pending autopsy cases from the coroner’s office, which leaves 77 families all searching for one thing.

16-year-old Nathan Hibbitts went to sleep with one thing on his mind four months ago, passing his driver’s test.

“Tuesday night, he practiced parallel parking for about 20 minutes because he had his test Thursday. So that was the last thing he did. Over and over until he mastered it,” said his mother, Keri Hibbitts.

Nathan never made it to the DDS.

“You go to bed, a healthy 16-year-old. Then you don’t wake up the next day. Just not knowing what happened is kind of nerve-wracking,” said his dad, Wesley.

His parents wonder if their faith-driven football player had a seizure.

“That’s just our assumption. That’s the only thing that makes sense to us,” said Wesley.

He’s only ever had one before two years ago.

“It was pretty traumatic because he didn’t know what was happening. He (Wesley) just happened to hear him up and getting ready for work,” said Keri.

Now 118 days later, they still don’t know if that’s what happened.

His name is on a list of pending autopsy cases that are only getting longer.

Bowen said: “Our cases have increased a good bit. Naturally, the autopsies have increased.”

With a massive five to seven-week backlog from the GBI crime lab, Bowen has people as young as 28-days-old to 87-years-old waiting for answers.

“Getting the medical examiner’s is the problem. They always tell us that there are not that many in the United States of certified forensic pathologist. When they are able to get one and then train them, it takes a couple of years to get and train,” said Bowen.

Families are left with loose ends that could stay this way for months on end.

Keri said: “If you’re waiting on insurance, most companies need a death certificate. It can hinder paying bills or if you have to pay for the funeral. If you need the cash from the life insurance, it prevents you from being able to get all that. But really just the closure. It doesn’t bring it back they died, but helps with the grieving process.”

As for the Hibbitts, they’re clinging to faith during the wait.

“Our faith is the one thing that’s carried us through this, our faith and God because God is good. No matter what what happens in life, God is good,” said Wesley.

The GBI is funded for 18 medical examiners, but they have eight openings. Until the shortage of medical examiners catches up to the demand, the backlog doesn’t look to be going anywhere.