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When it opened in 2011, the Medical Examiner’s office at the Gulf Coast Crime Lab in Biloxi had everything: two autopsy stations, a cooler to store bodies before and after exams, and a digital x-ray system.
The only thing missing was an actual medical examiner to perform the autopsies. Six years later, Mississippi’s chief medical examiner says the state is no closer to finding someone.
“It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula. “So we the state paid to build the facility, and we’re paying to keep the thing running, and it’s not being used to its fullest capacity which doesn’t make any sense.”
And until the state hires someone, all bodies in the state must make the trip up to the Medical Examiner’s office in Pearl, outside of Jackson. Sometimes other things do as well.
On a recent afternoon, Christie Simmons, the office administrator, flagged down Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn in the hall outside the morgue in Pearl.
“Jim Faulk is about losing it on the phone,” she said, referring to the coroner in Hancock County. “A stomach just washed up on the beach.”
LeVaughn stopped and looked at her, amused. Although a body had been pulled from the sound a day earlier, body parts, especially internal organs, are significantly more rare.
“He’s not sure if it’s human remains,” she said. “He wants to know if he should send it up here.”
LeVaughn shrugged. If there’s any chance the remains are human, state law requires the medical examiner’s office to process them. “Sure, he can do that.”
She paused. “Well, there’s the issue of the smell. He said it smells pretty bad.”
LeVaughn considered this as she continued. “So should he pack it on ice? Or he said he could stretch it out.”
“Stretch it out? Why would he do that?”
LeVaughn made a face. “This is why we need someone on the coast.”
But that doesn’t seem to be a possibility anytime soon. In February, the state actually got close to hiring someone. Contracts were signed, a Mississippi medical license was obtained. But weeks before the New York-based doctor was set to start, he backed out.
“And it’s like, here we go again,” LeVaughn said. “We’ve been through this before and it’s always the same thing.”
That same thing, according to LeVaughn, is actually two things: a low salary coupled with an extremely high caseload.
Currently, the advertised salary is $190,000 a year. While this is within range of many entry-level jobs posted on the website for the National Association of Medical Examiners, LeVaughn said, the coast pathologist needs enough experience to run his own office. The mid-range posted for those salaries is closer to $235,000 a year.
But the biggest impediment to hiring someone is, according to LeVaughn, the same reason someone is so desperately needed on the coast: caseload. In addition to LeVaughn, Mississippi employs two other medical examiners. This is just one-fourth the number that the National Association of Medical Examiners recommends for Mississippi’s caseload.
“Even going back to when I was a prosecutor, caseload was an issue. And it seems like it’s gotten significantly worse,” said Wiggins, who spent seven years with the district attorney’s office before running for the state Senate in 2011. “And, again, it’s something we in the Legislature need to be addressing because public safety and protecting victims are a core function of government. And if we’re not giving (the Department of Public Safety) the tools they need, then we’re not doing right by the citizens.”
That caseload reached nearly 1,700 last year, and LeVaughn estimates that approximately 300 of those cases come up from counties along the coast.
The irony in all of this is that transporting bodies 160 miles from the coast to Pearl is not cheap, either. Ferrying one body from Gulfport to the office in Pearl costs Harrison County $540 round-trip according to County Coroner Gary Hargrove. If the coast sends 300 cases a year, that’s a annual price tag of more than $160,000.
But there are other costs, too. If the case going up is a homicide, Hargrove said, investigators travel with the body to observe the autopsy. The trip from Gulfport is three and a half hours, each way.
“So you’re also looking at a loss of manpower for an 8-hour day, whereas if you were doing an autopsy down here they would be able to stop in and then return to their job,” Hargrove said. “So it delays us getting our job done, delays the pathologists getting things done in a timely manner. And it impedes the law enforcement from doing their job. So it’s kind of a trifold issue.”
“We need someone on the coast. That’s the bottom line,” LeVaughn said. “But I’m not sure when we’ll have them.”
In the meantime, the medical examiner’s office on the coast does get occasional use. If a big enough event happens, such as the collision between a freight train and casino bus in March, the medical examiners will travel to the coast and work from the lab there.
Or, LeVaughn said, if a body isn’t expected to fare well in transit, he or one of the other doctors might conduct their exam down there.
Considering the stomach, LeVaughn grinned.
“That’s one of those things that might give me a reason to go down to Biloxi,” he said.