Coroner's office plays vital role in county

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 10/6/17

ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — When it comes to investigating deaths in Baldwin County, no one single agency plays a more integral role than the Baldwin County Coroner’s Office.

As of Sept. 27, there …

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Coroner's office plays vital role in county

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ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — When it comes to investigating deaths in Baldwin County, no one single agency plays a more integral role than the Baldwin County Coroner’s Office.

As of Sept. 27, there were 462 death investigations in Baldwin County over the past year (cases are counted through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30).

While the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office is involved in about 80 to 90 percent of all death investigations and only the Baldwin County District Attorney can order an autopsy performed, all cases in Baldwin County are investigated by the Coroner’s Office.

“Our main job in the Coroner’s Office is to determine a cause and means of death,” said Baldwin County Coroner Stan Vinson. “When you call the Coroner’s Office, you will get somebody, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are the only office in Baldwin County besides law enforcement that does that.”

And while there are hundreds of law enforcement investigators that cover Baldwin County, the Baldwin County Coroner’s Office accomplishes their task with just four investigators, Vinson, chief deputy coroner Dr. Brian Pierce, deputy coroners Troy Dyess and Daren Montgomery and office administrator Brandy Byrd.

“When you call during the week, you will most likely get Brandy and it’s her job to contact one of us,” Vinson said. “On weekends, we rotate being on call.”

As the one who is in the office the most, Vinson said, Byrd also takes on the main task of dealing with victims’ families.

“She does a great job working with them and being patient with them,” Vinson said. “A lot of people don’t realize that it is not our job to make arrests or to conduct a criminal investigation. We have to maintain a certain distance from the cases we deal with. It’s just the nature of the job. But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that these are people that we’re dealing with. We have to respect them and the families who are almost always dealing with a loss of some kind.”

Many investigations can be handled with a simple phone call, Vinson said, but others, such as the body that was found in a car behind a dentist’s office in Bay Minette, can be more complicated.

The initial focus, Vinson said, is to gather as much information as possible, interviewing investigators on the scene, examining the scene and the body itself and collecting evidence for examination.

“Everything has to be carefully collected and care has to be taken not to contaminate evidence,” Vinson said.

For nearly 30 years, examinations were conducted by County Coroner Huey Mack Sr. at his business, Mack Funeral Home in Robertsdale. But when Mack decided to retire and Jim Small was elected coroner in 2006, the problem arose as to where examinations could be conducted and where bodies could be stored.

“When Huey Mack retired, we set up temporary offices at the Central Annex in Robertsdale,” Vinson said. “It soon became very clear that was not going to work.”

So it became Small’s mission to have a facility built where examinations could be conducted.

“This facility was his dream,” Vinson said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t quite get to see it finished.”

Both Small and Mack died in 2009, the same year the new facility opened. The 1,750 square foot facility, located on County Road 54, is named the Huey A. Mack Sr. Building and was dedicated to both Mack and Small.

It includes office space, a room for evidence storage, an examination room and cold storage that can hold up to 15 cases. And while it does include space to perform autopsies, Vinson said, but does not currently have the equipment necessary at the facility.

“Currently any autopsies that have to be performed are done at the Alabama Forensics Lab in Mobile,” Vinson said. But the state does not currently employ a forensic odontologist, so cases like the one in Bay Minette where dental records are required to identify the body have to be referred to the FBI facility in Quantico, Virginia.

“It can be a challenge,” Vinson said. “Baldwin County is so spread out. If I get a call in Little River at 2 a.m., that’s an hour-and-a-half drive up there and back, plus at least another hour for an on-site examination and there is no cell service up there to call for assistance. It can certainly be a challenge.”

While the department is small, they do have resources at their disposal, including being part of Baldwin County’s Major Crimes Unit, and they can call on the assistance of the State Mortuary Response Team (SMORT) or the Disaster Mortuary Services Team (DMORT) on the federal level.

“People think of a mass casualty event as 50 or more,” Vinson said (the interview was conducted before the mass shooting event in Las Vegas over the weekend), “but really a mass casualty event is defined as more casualties than you can handle and for us that is about 10 to 12. More than that and you will overwhelm our system and we will have to call for help. Fortunately, we do have resources at our disposal if that should ever happen here.”

Vinson, who served 16 years as deputy coroner under Mack and Small, was appointed to fill Small’s term in 2009 and was elected to the position of County Coroner in 2010 and 2014.

“I have decided not to seek a third term,” he said. “By the time the new coroner takes over I will have 29 years and I feel like that is long enough.”

Pierce, who has served as deputy coroner since 2010, is currently running for the position of County Coroner.

Pierce said whether or not he is elected to the position of chief coroner, he is focused on the future of death investigations in Baldwin County.

“Over the last four years we have grown from 353 to 410 to 456 to 462 this year,” he said. “I can see that number easily getting to 500, if not next year then the following year. I think it’s all just a product of the growth this area is experiencing and as opportunities for growth expand, our job is going to get tougher.

“I think it won’t be long before we will have to start doing autopsies here, and that means hiring a medical examiner and additional staff to go with him,” he said.

Whatever the future holds, Vinson said, the County Coroner’s office will continue to play an important role in the service of Baldwin County’s residents.

“We may not be the first responders, but we are most often the last responders to any situation,” Vinson said. “We have to keep in mind that our main objective is always to serve the people of Baldwin County and we’re going to continue to do what we can to ensure they get the best we can give them.”