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A Coroner Leaves No Corpse Behind — and That's Stirring Up Problems

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Frank Whitelaw - DEREK BROUWER
  • Derek Brouwer
  • Frank Whitelaw

With the right equipment, it is not especially difficult to load a corpse into a Chevy Tahoe, as Frank Whitelaw gladly demonstrated in a busy mall parking lot in Plattsburgh, N.Y., this month. He has outfitted his SUV with a wheeled metal gurney that slides behind the driver's seat.

"We get a running start and load it," he said, thrusting the gurney up a short ramp in one swift motion, its legs collapsing to fit. "Easy-peasy."

Whitelaw's gurney, rated to hold 900 pounds, is his second in six years as an elected coroner in Essex County. His first one, rated for 600 pounds, broke from overuse. "I was getting a lot of grossly obese people," he explained.

The mostly rural county, contained entirely within the Adirondack Park boundaries, does not generate many human corpses, let alone bear-size ones. But a high proportion of its dead have ended up in Whitelaw's Tahoe, wearing down his equipment — and some people's patience.

The problem is not how Whitelaw treats the bodies. He maintains the most well-equipped coroner's wagon the region has ever seen, full of investigative gadgetry that most other coroners wouldn't know how to use.

The issue is how often the Bloomingdale, N.Y., resident breaks out his gadgets. The offbeat coroner is unusually zealous about his morbid work. The county has four elected coroners, but Whitelaw responds to most of the calls and approaches each one with an investigative eye. Whitelaw believes he has a sacred duty to tell the final chapter of each person's life story. But by taking charge of so many cases, he's also taking business from funeral home directors, who believe they're entitled to the cash to be made by transporting the dead.

"We never had a problem in this county until Mr. Whitelaw said he would do things the way he wanted," said John Kelly, who has owned a funeral home in the town of Schroon Lake for the past 54 years. "He began what I call the 'Whitelaw Removal Business.'"

The days of Whitelaw's Tahoe transport may be numbered. In response to complaints about the county's coroners, the Essex County Board of Supervisors this month will mull new rules designed to rein them in. The changes, in Whitelaw's assessment, would reduce his role to that of the Munchkin coroner in The Wizard of Oz, who merely pronounced that the Wicked Witch was indeed dead.

Unlike Vermont, which has a state medical examiner's office, most counties in New York elect coroners to handle unattended and suspicious deaths. The state required no training for its coroners until 2017, when the state legislature mandated a one-day introductory course. Essex County has just 40,000 residents but elects multiple coroners to cover its 1,900 square miles. Like the Munchkin, they pronounce a person dead on the scene, but they also order autopsies and make arrangements for removal of the body, which, by state law, only licensed funeral directors or a coroner's designee can transport.

In many jurisdictions, the coroner position is still "sort of an afterthought," said Scott Schmidt, president of the New York State Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners. In Essex County, it has long been a side gig for local funeral directors and doctors.

Whitelaw is dead serious about the role. At 58, he's retired from the New York State Police, where he was a veteran of the forensic unit, and he approached his new job in late 2012 with an investigator's instincts. The only coroner in Essex County professionally certified to conduct death investigations, Whitelaw actively participates in the evidence gathering that coroners rely on to determine whether a death was natural, accidental, by suicide or homicide. His Tahoe holds a Tyvek suit "for really gruesome scenes" and a chemical suit in the unlikely event that he needs to help extract a body near toxic substances. He collects toxicology specimens — a task most elected coroners leave to a physician — and uses a specialized device to take fingerprints from shriveled skin. Whitelaw also packs a probe thermometer to help him estimate how long someone has been dead and a roll of crime-scene tape, just in case the cops run out.

"You can do very minimal on this job, or you can go pedal to the metal," he said. "I go pedal to the metal when I need to."

Whitelaw has a mix of hard and soft edges. Tattoos peek out below his shirtsleeves, but he wears thick-rimmed oval glasses that pinch against his nose. His words tend to oscillate between crass and empathetic. He plays guitar in a hard rock band, Sonic Boom, that performs KISS cover songs every winter for a charity event dubbed KISSmas. (Whitelaw impersonates Paul Stanley.)

The coroner role enables Whitelaw to harness his compassionate side, too. For instance, he goes out of his way to prepare a body for a family viewing at the morgue, propping the deceased's head up with a pillow.

"The truth is, aside from sex, death is probably one of the most personal, intimate things we'll ever experience," he said. "Approaching it in that manner — when you're dealing with family, loved ones, friends, whoever — makes you a whole lot better at your job. You actually have a profound effect on people's lives in that horrible moment."

Other coroners haven't always been so engaged. A basic administrative requirement of the job involves filing case reports with the county, but County Clerk Joseph Provoncha said he's struggled unsuccessfully for years to get some other coroners to comply, even offering to retrieve the files from coroners' homes.

Whitelaw keeps a spreadsheet to document details of every call he takes. He's responded to more than 275 Essex County deaths since 2013, the records show, including 62 in 2017, his busiest year.

As Whitelaw's share of county calls steadily increased, he became frustrated that his fellow coroners weren't taking the job as seriously. Late last year, he vented to a reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, calling his colleagues "lazy" and criticizing them for taking the annual $4,400 coroner stipend even though they weren't responding to calls. He threatened to resign if the others didn't step up or the county didn't intervene.

A month later, the county Board of Supervisors decided to draft a local law defining the coroners' duties. The proposal addresses some of Whitelaw's concerns: It beefs up reporting and training requirements and mandates that a responding coroner be physically present to pronounce death. But instead of simply raising the bar, as Whitelaw sought, the latest proposal would also prohibit coroners from transporting bodies or deciding where they should go.

Currently, first responders in Essex County call the coroner who lives closest to the scene. The coroner then decides whether to send the body to the morgue at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh for an autopsy or, if a family doctor is willing to sign a death certificate, to a funeral home. The county pays $300 for transportation of a body to the morgue at CVPH, plus $2 per mile of "loaded travel" and $75 for a body bag. Coroners who haul bodies themselves can make more money by ordering autopsies.

Whitelaw made more than $28,000 in 2017, he said. But Kelly, the Schroon Lake funeral home director, accuses Whitelaw of taking bodies to the morgue when no autopsy was necessary, at higher cost to the county.

"Greed is a vicious thing," he said.

Whitelaw, who has a pension from the state police, insisted he isn't picking up bodies for the money. In fact, he has suggested that the county reduce its payouts to coroners. His reward, he said, comes from the answers and support he's able to provide to the families of the deceased. "It's not from those stupid stipends we get," he said.

The county's proposed solution to the dispute, scheduled for a public hearing on July 29, is to eliminate potential conflicts of interest by requiring physicians to authorize transportation to the morgue in most cases and mandating that a funeral home transport the body.

Board of Supervisors chair Shaun Gillilland said he's heard criticisms over the years about the county's coroners: "We're just trying to construct a law so we don't get those criticisms anymore."

The exclusive use of funeral homes to transport bodies will actually cost the county more money, Whitelaw contended, suggesting to him that the industry has a "political hook" with county officials.

In a rebuttal letter to the Daily Enterprise report of Whitelaw's remarks, fellow coroner Walter Marvin III also seemed to criticize him for making unnecessary transports and, "coincidentally" more money. His stance was less accusatory in an interview with Seven Days, during which he described Whitelaw as "the volunteer fireman of coroners."

"He just dedicates his life and time to this stuff," said Marvin, who has been a coroner for 25 years and is also a licensed funeral home director. "Because of his [law enforcement] background, he thinks this is a much more in-depth investigative position."

"We get a homicide every two decades," Marvin continued, referring to Elizabethtown, where he lives. "We're not creating 'Dateline' episodes up here."

Gillilland said having a coroner with Whitelaw's expertise "probably comes with a tremendous amount of advantage," but he also said Whitelaw may be overstepping his role.

"It's not really in the coroner's job description to do toxicology or take tissue samples," he said. The county, he added, must create a "level playing field" for coroners and eliminate conflicts of interest.

"The law is going to last longer than he's going to be coroner," Gillilland said.

It is hard to envision Whitelaw giving up his post anytime soon. As he displayed his equipment in the mall parking lot, he was interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren — his cellphone's ringtone. The coroner picked up and listened intently to a state police investigator. Emergency responders were stopping CPR on a hiker who'd collapsed on Mount Marcy. The body would be flown from the mountain to an airport. Whitelaw said he'd meet them there. He packed up his gear and rolled out to take the case.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Body Trouble | A coroner leaves no corpse behind — and that's stirring up problems"