Hundreds of autopsies done in Pearl while Biloxi morgue sits empty

Terrence Packer of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab crosses the crime scene tape where a body was discovered in a Bay St. Louis neighborhood in March 2009. MBI is one of several state agencies with an office at the same complex as the regional morgue in Biloxi.
Terrence Packer of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab crosses the crime scene tape where a body was discovered in a Bay St. Louis neighborhood in March 2009. MBI is one of several state agencies with an office at the same complex as the regional morgue in Biloxi. Sun Herald File

Wanted: An associate medical examiner to perform autopsies for six South Mississippi counties at a regional morgue that has sat empty since it was built in 2010.

That’s not the way the state job posting reads, but it’s a position coroners and police hope will be filled — and the sooner the better.

Bodies from deaths of suspicious or unknown causes have been driven to Pearl, which is 3 to 3½ hours from the Coast, since Dr. Paul McGarry died Jan. 10, 2015. He was a state-designated medical examiner and forensic pathologist who had performed the region’s autopsies at each county’s expense for more than 30 years.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office performed 239 more autopsies in 2015 than in the year before McGarry died, state numbers show. It’s unclear how many of those came from South Mississippi.

Some of the area’s coroners and police agree having a regional pathologist again would provide autopsy results more quickly; save time for criminal investigators; and give them and grieving families information they want to know.

“It’s causing delays and everybody knows that, but I don’t believe it’s hindering justice,” Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said.

“Every bit of this comes down to funding.”

Hargrove said he has a good working relationship with the state office, but looks forward to having a forensic pathologist for the region.

Ad for the job

The morgue, referred to in the ad as the Mississippi Medical Examiner’s Gulf Coast Laboratory, was built as part of a state Department of Public Safety complex off Mississippi 67. It’s unclear if the position is being advertised nationally.

McGarry never had a chance to use the morgue because there was no money to run it. After his death, the state Legislature approved a DPS line item to pay for a pathologist, an assistant and a clerical worker for it.

So why hasn’t a medical examiner been hired?

The opening is listed on the Mississippi State Personnel Board website. It says the job pays $190,000 a year.

The median pay nationwide is about $250,000, Bureau of Labor statistics show.

Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn said two doctors have been interviewed for the post in the past year, “but both turned the job down due to the high volume of cases and relatively low pay.”

Hargrove said he and LeVaughn discuss the status of the hiring process every time they talk.

“They don’t have the money they need to run that office up there,” Hargrove said.

State understaffed

LeVaughn said according to a 2014 study by the the National Association of Medical Examiners, Mississippi should have 12 forensic pathologists.

But the state has only three pathologists to handle autopsies for its 82 counties.

“Dr. LeVaughn is just as frustrated as we are,” Hargrove said.

The state caseload grew from 1,378 autopsies in 2011 to 1,710 in 2015, LeVaughn said. That’s an increase of nearly 25 percent.

The number of autopsies increased 16 percent, from 1,472, in the first year South Mississippi had no pathologist.

“Bodies are released, in the majority of cases, the same day the autopsies are conducted with the diagnosis, cause of death and manner of death,” LeVaughn said.

Hargrove said he no longer attends autopsies because of the drive time. He said he prepares a packet with all information he’s gathered, including pictures of victims, their locations and injuries, and a pathologist calls him if there’s a question.

He said the chief medical examiner and two of his pathologists did come to Harrison County to help with a death investigation after a fatal helicopter crash. They do what they can, Hargrove said.

He and the Coast’s two other county coroners said they don’t send as many bodies for an autopsy as they used to.

The way it used to be

“It’s just a whole new ballgame,” Jackson County Coroner Vicki Broadus said, “and it has its negative effects.”

In the past, an autopsy would take 3½ hours or longer and the results were known, she said.

“We used to be able to walk out of an autopsy suite, inform the family, type up a death certificate, send it to a funeral home and the insurance company if the family had insurance, and boom, it was done,” she said.

“Now, when we send a case to Jackson, we don’t know when we will get all those results back. I’m not saying days or weeks now. It’s taking months to get all that we need.

“The state office is underfunded and I’m assuming they’re doing the very best they can do. But it has a negative effect on our work, getting a result. We can’t get death certificates in a timely manner for insurance companies. Law enforcement needs it for cases to go to a grand jury. The families want to know.”

The state charges a county $1,000 for an autopsy plus $150 for the use of the facility and a transport fee of about $650, she said.

“It’s not any one person’s fault, but it just can’t keep on this way.”

Not all unattended deaths get autopsy

Pascagoula Police Chief Kenny Johnson said he’s disappointed the state no longer does autopsies on all unattended deaths. For instance, the state declined to do one on a homeless man found dead behind a Dollar General in the city because the man had a bad medical history, he said.

“No signs of foul play, no noticeable injuries,” Johnson said. “We were very surprised when the request for an autopsy was denied. It’s not what we were used to. We’re not comfortable with making assumptions.”

And in cases of possible suicide, the trajectory of a bullet could rule out suicide, he said.

Johnson said he no longer sends an investigator to attend an autopsy because of the time and costs.

“We have a regional morgue here and it’s not being used,” he said. “We spent the money, we built it. Now it’s time to staff it.”

Autopsy takes up a CSI’s day

Lt. Detective Christopher De Back, a Biloxi police investigator, said his agency sends the crime-scene investigator to attend an autopsy.

“You’re losing that person for the whole day, and it costs the city for the gas,” De Back said. “Sometimes the autopsy is the next day. Sometimes we’ve got to wait our turn in line. It would speed up things if we had a pathologist here.”

In previous years, McGarry would call CSIs, even at 2 a.m., to say he would be starting an autopsy in two hours. He was quick about it, De Back said. And if bones were found in a field, McGarry would show up.

“We were really, really blessed to have Dr. McGarry,” Broadus said. “He knew what he was doing and he was the best of the best.”

Annual autopsy numbers

Autopsies performed by the state Medical Examiner’s Office:

2010: 1,378

2012: 1,420

2013: 1,421

2014: 1,471

2015: 1,710

Mississippi Department of Public Safety