Coroner invites investigation

A Ways and Means public hearing was held on July 29 in Elizabethtown with regard to the proposed law that will govern coroners in Essex County. This was the third hearing. Progress is being made. The process is not neat or pretty. I have attended and spoken at all of the hearings and will continue to do so until there is a final draft and it becomes law. 

One disturbing thing that arose during the last hearing was when Schroon Lake funeral director John Kelly asked that his letter of testimony be placed on record. He was present but would not speak. The letter was read aloud by the county attorney to all who attended. In that letter, Mr. Kelly alleges that I have been running an illegal body removal business by removing bodies in non-coroner cases while charging the county for those removals. He has been making this claim for some time and spreading that claim around to other funeral directors and to anyone who will listen. I guess if you say it enough and to enough people, it becomes truth. He recently made the same allegation to Seven Days news in Burlington, Vermont, after they interviewed me for an article. He also alleges that I have been illegally procuring toxicology samples from decedents. He has urged the county to investigate me.

In light of his public allegations, I have requested the county investigate these claims, and I have offered to provide all of my records from every case I have investigated since Dec. 7, 2012, when I responded to my first case. I find it interesting that he has never been able to offer evidence or facts to support his claims. I recall two cases he protested about in the past, claiming they weren’t coroner cases, even though they were. In one of those cases, he left me an extremely nasty voicemail, making a veiled threat. I promptly filed a report with the Bureau of Funeral Directing (within the New York State Department of Health), which I’m sure displeased him. Needless to say, he won’t be coming to dinner at my place anytime soon. He’s had an ax to grind for some time.

Let me make it clear when remains are to be taken to a secure morgue:

1. When there will be an autopsy

2. When the remains must be held, pending contact with a primary care provider in hopes they will sign a death certificate without the need for autopsy

3. When the circumstances surrounding the investigation dictate the remains should be held.

If I make contact with the person’s physician from the scene and they feel the person died from known medical issues that could have resulted in death, most times the doctor will agree to sign the death certificate, issuing the cause of death. It is still my job to investigate and then issue the manner of death. At that point, the remains are released to a funeral home and I am done. I do not remove the body in those cases. The funeral home does. Until such time, the body is in the custody and control of the coroner. The funeral home has no authority with the body until released by the coroner. 

What constitutes a coroner’s case? Homicide, suicide, accidental, unattended natural deaths and unexplained deaths. Even in cases of unattended deaths where, after contacting the physician, they agree to sign the death certificate, it’s a coroner case. If law enforcement responds and the coroner responds, it’s a coroner case. It’s a coroner case until the doctor and the coroner sign the death certificate and the remains are released to a funeral home. Not every coroner case is an autopsy case.

Illegal procurement of toxicology samples? Medico-legal death investigators are allowed to do this. I’m certified as an MLDI three times over. I do draw samples, when it is prudent, as I have been trained to do.

The county is seeking to remove the authority for coroners to remove and transport remains for coroner’s investigations. State law allows it, and we have been doing it forever. I’m fighting it because to have coroners do removals in coroner investigations, it’s more convenient for the family and law enforcement. It also ensures continuity of evidence. Mr. Kelly has been pushing for the new section of law for the county, which will allow only funeral directors to do the removals in coroner cases. I have proposed the county reduce the coroner rate to $150 per removal, which is half of what we make now (cutting my own throat). The county is looking to pay funeral directors $400 per call. I wonder why Mr. Kelly would want the contract with the county? Having done 10 funeral services in the last seven months, he should be raking in tens of dollars. I can’t imagine why he would want that $400 per body removal from the county. At the end of his testimony letter, he eagerly offers to contract with the county and help draw the contracts. How altruistic of him.

Had these accusations not been made public, I’d let it go and not respond to the drivel of a bloviating buffoon who engages in schmuckery first degree and blowhardation second degree. Since he put it out for the world to hear and see, here I am … again. I’m getting kinda puked out on constantly seeing my name in print (just like you), but when I’m in the right and the fight is brought to me, I won’t back down or lay down. 

Francis W. Whitelaw, D-ABMDI, C-MDI, is an Essex County coroner and lives in Bloomingdale.


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