Essex County coroner story sparks reactions

2 other coroners say they aren’t lazy; county board mulls possible action

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw, of Bloomingdale, poses beside his Chevy Tahoe with “coroner” license plates in downtown Saranac Lake. This vehicle is his own, which he paid for, along with all his coroner equipment and training courses; the county didn’t pay for it. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

Two Essex County coroners and the county Board of Supervisors are responding, in different ways, to a Dec. 1 Enterprise article, in which county Coroner Frank Whitelaw referred to his three colleagues as “lazy,” saying he is fed up with taking calls he thinks they should handle and is almost ready to quit.

County Attorney Dan Manning said he and the Board of Supervisors are currently researching legislation to rectify issues in the coroner system. The specifics aren’t clear at this time.

The board has occasionally discussed concerns regarding work ethic and procedures among the coroners since as far back as 2008. Because it’s an elected position, however, changing how coroners operate is tough.

The coroner’s job is to respond to unattended deaths. If someone finds a person dead or someone suffers a deadly injury in public, a coroner will respond to declare the manner of death, manage the paperwork and possibly transport the remains to a hospital. But if a person dies under medical supervision, such as in a hospital, a coroner wouldn’t be called. The job pays $4,400 a year in Essex County, plus some expenses. (Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said a coroner would not be called if a person dies at home with people present.)

There are four coroners in Essex County: Whitelaw of Bloomingdale, Walter “Smitty” Marvin III of Elizabethtown, Kellie Valentine of Moriah and Paul Connery of Ticonderoga, whose spot will soon be filled by Jay Heald of Elizabethtown, who ran in the November election.

Marvin’s defense

While reporting for the Dec. 1 article, the Enterprise was unable to contact the other three coroners. Connery’s phone number in the Essex County directory has been disconnected. Valentine didn’t respond to a voicemail on her landline, and Whitelaw and others say she often doesn’t answer or return calls. Marvin doesn’t have an up-to-date number in the directory, and he spends the winters in Florida ever since he sold his funeral home to Heald three years ago.

After the article’s publication, however, Marvin and Valentine contacted the Enterprise to provide their sides of the story. Marvin also submitted a written commentary in response to the article. It ran Friday on the Enterprise Opinion page.

“I have been a funeral director for 30 years and a coroner for 24 years and every newspaper, NYS Trooper and County official seems to know how to get in touch with me,” Marvin wrote. “As a matter of fact, I was on the phone discussing a coroner’s call with a trooper when I was notified of this article. Further, to use hearsay and conjecture to label the other three coroners (who have, combined, seventy plus years’ experience in this field without any previous problems of note) as lazy individuals not doing our jobs and to drag another’s legal issues out into the public based on one person’s opinions is just shoddy, petty journalism.”

Marvin said he received 15 coroner calls in the 2018 and was able to respond to 12 of them. He later said 15 calls in not an unusual number for a coroner to handle in a year.

Whitelaw’s personal logs show he has responded to more than 40 calls in 2018, and that 11 were in areas closer to other coroners’ Essex County homes. He said he responded to more than 60 calls in 2017. Valentine said she isn’t sure how many she’s gone to this year and does not keep logs. Connery could not be reached for comment, so it’s unclear how many call he has responded to in 2018. Whitelaw previously said Connery hasn’t attended a call in more than a year. The county doesn’t keep track of coroner calls.

Valentine’s defense

Valentine is a licensed funeral practitioner and previously worked under Marvin. In a phone interview, she said she was taken aback by Whitelaw’s comments and insisted she is not lazy. On top of her coroner duties, she said she works as an assistant for the Moriah Central School District, runs her own cleaning business and cares for her three teenage children.

“That was the part that most offended me,” Valentine said. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m not lazy. I don’t know where he came off saying that.”

She admitted that sometimes it is hard for her to respond to coroner calls and that she doesn’t have the best cellphone service at her home.

“It’s a hard job to be available for 24/7,” she said, “and we know that. The county is big, and that’s why we have four coroners. We’ve helped each other in times of family issues.”

She, too, said state and local police know how to contact her when they need her.

Valentine said she doesn’t think the coroner workload is too much.

“In the past three weeks, I’ve had six calls,” she said, “but then sometimes a month might go by when you don’t have any.”

Valentine said there have been deaths closer to her home for which she never received a call, even though she thinks she should have. Instead, state police called Whitelaw.

He said that is true. In April, Derek Sprague, brother of county District Attorney Kristy Sprague, was killed in a fight outside a bar in Moriah. Whitelaw got the call to pick up the body, not Valentine, despite her living in the same town as the death.

“State police didn’t want her,” said Whitelaw, a retired state trooper. “They wanted me because of my crime scene investigation background and care for evidence.”

Valentine said the coroners don’t often keep in contact with each other: Sometimes she and Connery would take training classes together, or she would speak with Marvin because they’re former co-workers, but she rarely interacted with Whitelaw.

Whitelaw took his complaints to the county Board of Supervisors in 2016, to no avail. He said he never tried contacting the other coroners about his complaints.

“I figured any amount of communication wouldn’t matter,” he said. “It’s not going to keep people out of Florida. It’s not going to make them pick up their phones more.”

Valentine said if Whitelaw had called her, she would’ve been open to discussing issues.

Whitelaw challenged

In follow-up emails, Marvin suggested contacting funeral home directors, police and government officials to comment on his character and professionalism as a coroner.

State police declined to comment, saying they’d prefer to take a neutral stance on the matter.

One of the funeral home directors Marvin recommended, John Kelly of Schroon Lake, said he’s had a good working relationship with all the coroners, but problems have arrived with Whitelaw. He explained how one time Whitelaw transported a body from Newcomb to the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake to get a death certificate signed. Kelly said a physician’s assistant on the scene, Kevin Bolan of the Newcomb Medical Center, wanted to sign the death certificate, but Whitelaw wouldn’t let him.

According to New York state Education Law, medical doctors and nurse practitioners can sign death certificates. If signed at the scene of a death, the body would not need to go to the hospital or have an autopsy; a funeral home could take it directly. PAs can sign certificates, too, with an MD’s supervision, and the doctor doesn’t need to be physically present. Article 131-B, Section 6542, Subsection 2 says, “Supervision shall be continuous but shall not be construed as necessarily requiring the physical presence of the supervising physician at the time and place where such services are performed.”

Bolan said he’s signed death certificates in the past with the approval of his supervising MD, Russel Rider.

“It’s, unfortunately, an aspect of my job,” Bolan said in a phone interview.

Whitelaw transported the body to AMC, which Kelly found unnecessary. Kelly later had to pick up the body in Saranac Lake, just over an hour’s drive away from his funeral home in Schroon Lake. (Clarification: An earlier version of this article said Whitelaw was unsure of the law at the time; he says he was believed he was right.)

Kelly and Whitelaw’s working relationship hasn’t been the best since.

Whitelaw said doctors in Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh would have told him if he were unnecessarily transporting bodies.

“The object is to determine a cause and manner of death,” he wrote in an email. “The priority is not to get a death certificate signed and get the funeral service going. That is the focus of a funeral director, not a coroner.”

County mulls action

A day after the Dec. 1 article was published, St. Armand town Supervisor Dean Montroy contacted Whitelaw to listen and provide help.

“I’ve known Frank for a while,” Montroy said, “and he’s a Bloomingdale resident, so I figured I’d try to step in and help him out.” Bloomingdale is in the town of St. Armand.

A group of county officials were supposed to meet Whitelaw Monday to discuss the state of the coroners, but he was busy with a death call in Crown Point — about 65 miles from his home but only about 10 from either Valentine or Connery.

Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said he’s noticed some issues with how the coroners operate for a while, and he doesn’t think fault lies on specific individuals.

“We’ve got coroners spread through out the county,” he said. “Geographically, we’re set up pretty good. You wouldn’t think there would be problems, but there are.

“I don’t think it’s a question of who to blame,” he continued. “It’s not any one person. It’s the system entirely.”

Scozzafava also reiterated what many county officials have said in the past, that it’s hard to get around the obstacle of coroners being elected.

In a previous interview, board Chair Randy Preston of Wilmington said he’d like to see some changes to the coroners, but he wasn’t sure what could be done. He said the board will likely rely on research provided by Manning.

North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said there have been problems with the coroners for years.

“I think Frank Whitelaw does a good job and is a hard-working individual, and others may not be,” he said. “It places demands on one when others should be involved.”

He also mentioned it isn’t easy to make changes regarding elected officials, but he’s happy the county is looking at regulating them.

“In the private sector, if you don’t do your job, you’d get fired,” he said, “but it doesn’t work like that in politics and government positions.”

Willsboro Supervisor Shaun Gillilland, who’s set to take Preston’s position as chair next year, said he and Manning are still in the data-gathering phase of the situation and not yet sure what they would like to change, if they even can.

“I don’t have anything specific yet,” he said in a phone interview. “From Frank’s quotes in the newspaper, he’s not happy with how things are going. Right now, we’re investigating county law and what the rules are for management and regulation of coroner duties. We’re going to be talking to other counties, law enforcement and a couple of the hospitals in the area. Frankly, it’s been very eye opening.”

Read the Dec. 1 story here: Essex County coroner fed up with ‘lazy’ colleagues