Essex County coroner fed up with ‘lazy’ colleagues

One winters in Florida. Another disconnected his phone. Another is hard to reach. Yet each gets paid the same, and there’s no oversight

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw, of Bloomingdale, poses beside his Chevy Tahoe in downtown Saranac Lake in September 2017. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

“Lazy” is how Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw described the other coroners in his county.

“There is no work ethic, to put it bluntly,” he said.

The accountability of coroners has been occasionally discussed by the Essex County Board of Supervisors since 2008, and even though the board and people like Whitelaw would like to see some changes, none have come to fruition. It’s like a never-ending conversation. Now Whitelaw is so frustrated he’s threatening to quit. He said he has his resignation letter written.

Coroners respond to accidental and unattended deaths. If a person finds a dead body or someone suffers a deadly injury in public, a coroner will respond to declare the death and possibly transport the remains to a hospital. But, if a person dies in his or her home with family members watching, or in a hospital, a coroner wouldn’t be called.

After retiring from the state police in 2012, Whitelaw began working as an Essex County coroner in 2013. In that time he’s logged 255 calls, of which 38 were in areas closer to another coroner’s home. Granted, there are no specific jurisdictions for coroners; they just cover the county in general. This is one of Whitelaw’s many complaints with the current set-up.

Whitelaw is based at his home in Bloomingdale, in the northwest corner of Essex County, and he generally covers the Tri-Lakes area. But on plenty of occasions he’ll have to transport a body from Elizabethtown, Minerva or Chesterfield, all closer to where other coroners live. The other coroners — Paul Connery, Walter Marvin III and Kellie Valentine, all with backgrounds in funeral home directing — are based in Ticonderoga, Elizabethtown and Moriah, respectively.

From 2013 to 2016, Whitelaw handled only a few cases outside of the Tri-Lakes each year, which he said he didn’t mind.

“It was only a few back then, so it wasn’t much of a hassle,” he said.

That number grew in the next two years, though.

In 2016, Whitelaw went to 16 calls outside of his regular area, and 10 in 2018. Most of the calls were in the town of Chesterfield, which is only 20 minutes away from Marvin’s Elizabethtown home but an hour and ten minutes from Whitelaw in Bloomingdale.

Whitelaw said Marvin is hard to reach because he’s often absent from New York and down in Florida. Marvin also doesn’t have a phone number in the 2018 Essex County directory, just a post office box. A phone number for him in Florida was busy when the Enterprise called.

According to a 2011 article from the Press-Republican newspaper in Plattsburgh, North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said Marvin was struggling with the same issues Whitelaw faces today.

The Enterprise called Valentine and left multiple messages, but didn’t receive any response.

“Kellie just isn’t available a lot,” Whitelaw said. “I’m fielding calls from the Department of Health, the New York State Violent Death Reporting System, (Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital), asking me how to get a hold of her because when they call, they say it goes to voicemail.”

Connery could not be reached for comment, either. His phone number listed in the directory — the one the Essex County and Ticonderoga clerks confirmed as his contact information — has been disconnected.

“It’s been well over a year now since he’s actually taken a phone call to go to a coroner case,” Whitelaw said of Connery. “Somebody actually had to go to his house to get him to go to a case once.”

County Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Preston, I-Wilmington, said he wasn’t aware Connery’s listed number is no longer in service.

“I know he’s gone into hiding since his DWI charge,” Preston said.

State police charged Connery with driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, after determining he had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.12 percent — 0.04 above the legal limit — in Crown Point during the spring of 2017. He did not receive a suspension from his coroner position and later plead guilty to driving while ability impaired.

Connery did not run for re-election this November. That position will be filled by Jay Heald of Elizabethtown.

Heald, a funeral home director in Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, will start his term as coroner on Jan. 1. He said he has spoken with Whitelaw about the lack of availability among the coroners and agrees with his stance, but wouldn’t comment further.

“I’m not entirely knowledgeable of the policies for the position yet, and I don’t feel comfortable commenting before I take office,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m not even sure what we get paid.”

Heald said he ran for the position because others had suggested it and he felt there is a role he’d fill.

If none of the Essex County coroners can be reached, Franklin County Coroner Ron Keough of Saranac Lake is usually called to pick up a body. However, Keough said he hasn’t been called since Whitelaw became a coroner.

Logging call data is not a requirement for Essex County coroners. Whitelaw does it of his own volition. He fills out the date, case number, decedent, cause of death, manner, location and whether there was an autopsy for each body he attends to. Whitelaw said he’s not sure if other coroners in Essex County fill out logs, but he would like it to be a standard practice.

Taking a long time to pick up a body puts law enforcement and emergency medical services at a disadvantage.

“Depending on the protocols, you could have police and emergency services tied up waiting for a coroner to get there,” Whitelaw said. “Now, if something else happens with a living, breathing person, they’re kind of stuck. They can’t go.”

This is also tough on the deceased person’s family members if they happen to be at the scene of the death, according to Brendan Keough, who is the funeral home director in Saranac Lake, as well as local fire chief and Ron Keough’s son.

“It puts the family in a tough spot,” he said, “having to wait around with the cops and EMTs, calling different coroners.”

Brendan said he doesn’t have much contact with the other Essex County coroners, just Whitelaw.

“The coroner is a critical job,” he said. “I understand Frank’s frustration, but it’d be a shame to see him go.”

Other than a basic 101 course, the coroner position doesn’t have many requirements.

With the intensity of the current opioid crisis, Whitelaw said updated coroner training is necessary. Deadly drugs such as fentanyl and the even more dangerous carfentanil are new obstacles for which police officers, EMTs and coroners need to be prepared. The drugs tend to take up space in a cut batch of heroin, but fentanyl is hundreds of times more potent and addictive, and carfentanil is pretty much poison to humans. It’s used as a tranquilizer for large animals such as elephants and rhinos. Whereas heroin and morphine affect just the user, fentanyl and carfentanil can incapacitate and even kill bystanders through respiratory failure — for example, police responding to an overdose victim.

“There have been cases around the country where responding police officers need to be Narcaned on the scene because they’ve gone in to shock,” Whitelaw said. Narcan is an antidote for opioid overdoses. It’s regularly carried by those responding to medical emergencies.

Whitelaw said the training seminars plus mileage would come out to about $850 for each coroner.

“Not a drop in the bucket for the county budget,” he said. Essex County pays each coroner $4,400 a year.

Also, the county doesn’t pay for coroner equipment or vehicles.

The problem that Whitelaw, the Board of Supervisors and Essex County as a whole run into is that the four coroners are elected positions. Eliminating or changing the duties and requirements of an elected position takes plenty of research, lawyers and time that nobody seems to have.

Whitelaw wrote a letter to the board in February 2016, expressing his frustration with unreliable county coroners and how there are no standard practices, policies or procedures for the job. He suggested assigning geographic areas of coverage and having a county dispatch call coroners. He said coroners need to be physically present to determine a death, that coroners need to document the deaths they determine and that they should be given minimum training offered by the New York State Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners.

On other occasions, he also recommended removing positions.

“I would cover the whole county myself,” Whitelaw said. “At least that way it would be fair.

“If I’m the only coroner and I’m only getting paid $4,400 a year, I’ll still do it. But when there are four corners being paid, and they’re still snug in bed or on a golf course in Florida, then I have a huge issue with that.”

Essex County Manager Daniel Palmer responded to Whitelaw’s letter that March.

“I certainly understand your frustration, but as I have indicated in the document to the Board, it would be difficult for the Board to adopt specific rules which did not run afoul of the statutory provisions of (County Law) Article 17-A,” which restricts what counties can do to elected coroners.

Preston also echoed this sentiment in a phone interview.

“They’re elected officials, which leave us very little in terms of options,” he said, “but what Frank is saying is very true. They don’t do a lot but expect the paycheck. There might be a way to fix the issues, but I don’t know the answer. I would have to research it more.”

Preston said the same situation came up when the board wanted to remove positions from certain county planning boards.

“Peopled hired attorneys, and we found out that we legally could not do it,” he said. In this case, however, he said, “Elected officials are taking the pay and not doing their job, and in my opinion, it’s criminal.”

Despite the idea that elected positions can’t be changed, Article 17-A, Section 671, Subsection 2 says, “The coroner shall perform such additional and related duties as may be prescribed by law and directed by the board of supervisors.” The language is a little bureaucratic, but essentially, Whitelaw believes this gives the board authority over how the coroners operate.

“That flies in the face of the excuse that I’ve been given by the county,” he said

Essex County’s yearly budget is close to $100 million, so what it spends on the four coroners is not even close to 1 percent of the county’s expenditures. The impact to the taxpayer is so minute, Preston said, that’s why many people don’t often question what’s going on with the coroners.

Though he said he has a passion for the job, Whitelaw has already typed a resignation letter.

“It just needs to be signed and dated,” he said. “Right now, I can’t say when I would hand it in. I love the work, and I don’t want to leave it. But at the same time, I don’t want to be, basically, used and abused.”