Marathon Co. taskforce plans to present cost estimates later this year as more forensic pathologists are expected to retire

Evidence(WSAW Emily Davies)
Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 7:21 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The Marathon County Regional Morgue Taskforce is anticipating being able to present cost estimates to the county board within the year to create a regional morgue.

The taskforce met this week and is in the process of conducting a space-needs analysis to determine exactly how much space it would need to accomplish and construct the facility.

The county’s medical examiner, Jessica Blahnik said the need for a regional morgue was identified in Marathon County in 2014 when the county began to notice a steady increase in drug-related deaths. There was also a shortage of forensic pathologists to be able to conduct investigative autopsies.

Blahnik said the cases not only increased, but the complexity of cases increased, which meant more cases needed forensic review rather than just clinical or anatomical review. Forensic pathologists have the same training as clinical and anatomical pathologists, but then have an added fellowship training to understand investigative needs and clues.

“We were seeing more drugs show up in toxicology and (in) cases that we weren’t necessarily expecting it to be where it definitely highlighted the issue,” she said.

The county created the taskforce in 2017 which found a regional morgue to be feasible for the county to create and the taskforce has been working to get more solid estimates and plans ever since.

“The need is very evident for the region that we have over 20 different counties in the region interested to utilize our services, along with a few counties in the upper peninsula of Michigan that have expressed interest,” Blahnik stated.

The county is still determining exactly where to place the morgue, but Blahnik said they plan to make it a teaching facility. They hope to partner with the Medical College of Wisconsin and offer the ability for agencies that utilize the medical examiner’s office, like law enforcement and first responders, to be able to also receive training there. They also plan to have a trauma-informed family room designed so families can be interviewed or go over results in a setting with families in mind. Currently, families have to speak with forensic pathologists over the phone because there are not any locally performing those investigative autopsies.

There are five agencies with forensic pathologists: Fond du Lac County, Dane County, Waukesha County, Milwaukee County, and UW-Madison. In total, there are about 12 forensic pathologists for the whole state. Marathon County will send forensic autopsies first to UW-Madison or Fond du Lac and if available and necessary, Blahnik said they have planned with Milwaukee County on contingency. If necessary, they also have identified partners in Minnesota to assist, though Blahnik said she did not anticipate needing to go out of state currently.

Adam Covach is the chief medical examiner and forensic pathologist for Fond du Lac County. About 80% of his cases are from outside of his county. He did about 380 autopsies last year, which is far over the best-practice recommendation of the annual number of autopsies per forensic pathologist. On the low cap end, he said pathologists are recommended to do no more than 250 and strongly advised not to do more than 320. However, Covach said the need is great around the state, with as many as four to five more pathologists needed to meet the recommended caseload.

That need is expected to increase. The more loaded the forensic pathologists are, the harder it is for them to be able to get autopsies and their reports done in a timely fashion.

“There are times where we have told people on a Monday, we are booked out through Thursday,” Covach said, though currently, that is not often the case. The concern is that will become more common when other forensic pathologists retire.

“The average age of my profession is like 55-60 and there is a big-time retirement cliff coming,” he said. “What I don’t want to see happen is, OK, we’re good for four or five years and then everybody retires, and then we’re in the exact same spot, probably a worse spot, because autopsies from year to year just keep going up and up and up.”

He has also noticed drugs being a cause for an increase in the need. For example, in 2019 just for Fond du Lac County, he said there were nine drug overdose deaths. In 2020, that more than tripled to 29 deaths. He noted, the pandemic may have played a factor, but the increase in overdose deaths has been happening for years.

The final report, Covach said, could be completed as early as a month or less but when he is especially busy, it has taken two months or longer for him to complete the full report.

The need for forensic autopsies ultimately impacts law enforcement investigations and families involved. Marathon County Sheriff’s Office Cpt. Greg Bean said they typically have been able to get an autopsy scheduled and completed within the same day or next of a discovered death currently. He explained law enforcement holds the scene until it is complete.

“We know if we’ve found items of importance at the crime scene based on the results of the autopsy,” he said.

A prime reason for that is evident in a 2006 case. Bean said a husband called a funeral home stating that his wife had died and needed to be transported. The sheriff’s office came to investigate, finding a clean home with no clear evidence as to how she died even after spending a day and a half investigating.

“The forensic pathologist pulled a piece of an Easter bunny plate out of her throat,” he stated.

In 2006 the ears from a bunny plate were found during an autopsy of a woman reported dead in...
In 2006 the ears from a bunny plate were found during an autopsy of a woman reported dead in her home. Her husband was ultimately convicted of her murder and had cleaned the house, making the autopsy critical for investigators to determined what had happened to her.(WSAW Emily Davies)

After they were told that, they were able to find the plate, which the husband had hidden. Bean said even if the husband had not hidden the plate, a broken plate may not have been an obvious piece of evidence without the autopsy.

An autopsy can also help investigators determine whether someone’s death was a homicide or suicide, which is not always apparent, even after an autopsy in some cases. That, of course, impacts how law enforcement continues investigating the case.

The longer it takes to have an autopsy done, the longer law enforcement must secure the scene of the death, the longer the investigation takes, the longer people have to remain out of the scene which is sometimes a home, and the longer loved ones have to wait for at least some answers as to why their relative or friend died. This also impacts law enforcement’s abilities to perform other duties and can cause overtime costs depending upon the staffing available at that time.

All of the agencies that utilize these services are hopeful that a regional morgue in Marathon County, which is expected to add to the number of forensic pathologists in the state, will be able to help with the caseload. Covach said he hopes it inspires more people to become forensic pathologists, though admits many who are intrigued by the field currently ultimately choose to go into the private sector because the wages are not competitive (though Covach noted he feels well compensated for his time and talents). He said if there are any federal or state wage incentives, that could quickly change the minds of people who feel they cannot go into that field due to student loans, having kids, and other major expenses.

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