For Ada County coroner, a delicate dance with death

Three Republican candidates are vying for the often-delicate job

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comMay 5, 2014 

Not long after Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg went public with his decision to retire, he received a card in the mail.

A woman whose husband was killed in a motorcycle crash in the late 1970s sent the outgoing coroner an overdue thank you for his caring touch in her moment of despair. At the time, Sonnenberg was a deputy coroner, and at the beginning of a long career.

"I think I've prayed for every person that's come through my office," said Sonnenberg, who freely admits to having wept with family members at times during his 36 years working in the coroner's office - 30 of those as coroner. "I don't think; I know I have prayed for every deceased person."

While many have appreciated Sonnenberg's personal touch, some have been slow to forgive the need for an autopsy, as in the case of a child who died at a day care. For years, the coroner received a card that said this:

"Another year has come and gone. My daughter is still dead, and, unfortunately, you are not."

The primary role of the coroner's office is to determine cause and manner of death. Investigating deaths while working with law enforcement, families, the media and general public is a delicate dance.

In Idaho, county coroner is an elected position that has no requirement of medical training; forensic pathologists employed by the office do autopsies. About a quarter of the state's coroners are funeral home directors, Sonnenberg said. Each term lasts four years.

When poorly managed, coroner and medical examiner offices across the country have contributed to innocent people being convicted and murderers going free, a yearlong investigation published in 2011 by ProPublica, Frontline and NPR concluded.

Three men with very different professional backgrounds are running for coroner in Ada County's Republican primary: Robert Karinen, a supervisor in the coroner's office; Michael Chilton, a former Ada County sheriff's deputy who is now a teacher and business owner; and Matthew Townsend, a cook with restaurant management experience. The winner will face off in November against a Democratic write-in candidate, Carol Stirling.


One of the misconceptions about the coroner's office is that it's busiest during headline-making homicides or high-profile deaths. In fact, the office stays pretty busy year-round.

About 2,600 people in Ada County die each year, and 90 percent of deaths require the attention of the coroner's office in some way. More than 2,000 of those who die annually in the county are cremated - and the coroner signs off on all cremations.

The coroner's office is on the Boise Bench in a large white-and-green building at 5550 Morris Hill Road. It has a morgue that can accommodate up to 25 bodies.

The coroner oversees a budget of about $1.7 million and a staff of 17, including seven death investigators.

When there's a death, the coroner's office has jurisdiction over the body, while law enforcement has jurisdiction of the scene. Deputy coroners examine the body, talk to witnesses, contact and interview family members, and review hospital records and other documents.

The coroner participates in a daily meeting, during which the staff goes over cases. Much of his job is administrative: making sure office equipment works, handling contracts with other counties or following up on cases that haven't been resolved.

The Ada County Coroner's Office, which does about 500 external exams and autopsies a year, has one full-time forensic pathologist and one part-time pathologist who comes over from Pocatello every other week. The office does autopsies for 28 counties and the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.

Sonnenberg said those contracts help offset costs for both Ada County and the sparsely populated counties that receive its services. Forensic pathologists are expensive, and there's a national shortage.

Dr. Glen Groben, the county's full-time forensic pathologist, earns about $175,000 a year - almost double what the coroner makes, $89,269. Sonnenberg said the latter would be the starting salary for the new coroner, unless commissioners give raises this year.


Matt Townsend's campaign sign - featuring dripping red paint intended to look like blood - drew attention to the coroner's race, which had flown under the radar. The 28-year-old cook, who previously managed a staff as large as 30, said he's talked to many people who didn't know coroner was an elected position.

"I'm not asking you to vote for me. I'm asking that you pay attention," the anti-establishment candidate said in an April 26 Facebook post about campaign donations.

Townsend told the Statesman he had no issues with how Sonnenberg ran the coroner's office, and there's nothing specific that he thinks needs to be changed.

He said he decided to run for coroner about a year and a half ago because he wants to keep an eye on local law enforcement and be sure they aren't involved in cover-ups.

"I don't feel everyone in government should be on the same team," he said.

Upset by comments that Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney made on proposed gun regulations, Townsend is involved in a recall effort. A fervent gun-rights advocate, he promotes public awareness of open-carry laws by wearing his firearm at every opportunity.

"I like to open-carry because it lets people know you can," he said.

Townsend has had a couple run-ins with local law enforcement that he felt were unwarranted or unnecessarily rough (in one instance, a gun was put to his head, he said). That led to him recording more than a dozen police stops each week. He often refers to police as "road pirates," and has adorned his pickup with "Ada County Copwatch" stickers.

He also sympathized with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's recent dispute over unpaid grazing fees. Townsend set up a account to gather donations to travel to Bundy's ranch, but according to that website has not received any.

Townsend has two misdemeanor convictions, one for reckless driving in 2007 and the other for vandalism in 2004. On the latter charge, he said he struck a shopping cart with his vehicle.


Rob Karinen, forensic supervisor at the Ada County Coroner's Office, said the question he most often gets from the public is "What does the coroner do?" He says TV shows such as "CSI," "Bones" and "NCIS" have warped the public's understanding of the roles of different agencies.

Karinen, 35, speaks regularly at schools and to community groups. He's in charge of the coroner's office college internship program, and he'd like to spend more time providing information to the public on a variety of topics, including death trends such as high suicide rates and the problem of prescription drug overdoses.

"We need to be vocal," he said.

With an eye toward a career in death investigation, the Idaho Falls native worked as a mortician's assistant at a Moscow funeral home during his studies at the University of Idaho. He later earned master's degrees in anthropology and public administration from Boise State University.

He's been at the Ada County Coroner's Office since 2001, when he was hired as a deputy coroner.

A specialist in forensic anthropology, Karinen's office is filled with skeletons. Remains found around the state are sent to him for identification.

Karinen has obtained the highest-level certification available for death investigators. He said he's proud of the investigators he supervises and wants to maximize training opportunities for them.

"We are on the cutting edge of modern death investigation," he said. "Every scene, every time, you follow the same protocols."

He said compassion is important to him, too.

"We're talking about some of the hardest parts of people's lives," he said.

He believes his experience in death investigation and management makes him best suited to be the county's next coroner.

"How can you judge whether investigators are doing the job or not?" Karinen said of those without direct experience in the field. "There's a lot of technical knowledge that goes into running this office.

"I want Idaho to be a leader in the way things are done - professionally, scientifically, objectively."

Karinen reports that he has received endorsements from Sonnenberg, former Ada County Coroner Mike Johnson (now chief deputy in Boise County) and Boise Police Union IBOP, Local 486.


Mike Chilton wants to see the Ada County Coroner's Office be more transparent and communicate better with the public. He said he was surprised when he couldn't find information about the coroner's budget on its website.

"It should be a click away," he said.

Chilton, 46, has an eclectic and well-rounded resume that includes military service (U.S. Marines), law enforcement, firefighting, teaching and the private sector.

Chilton gained experience in death investigation during his 16 years as an Ada County sheriff's deputy. During a recent interview with the Statesman, someone Chilton arrested a decade ago came up and thanked him.

Chilton said he'd like to see the coroner's office collaborate and build a better rapport with other Valley agencies. It operates too much like an "isolated island," he said.

He also believes the office can expedite the process of providing information to families. In cases where there are necessary delays, regular communication with families is important, he said.

"We need to look at ways to make that more efficient," Chilton said. "Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to look at better solutions."

Chilton would like to help bring the Trauma Intervention Program to the Valley. The volunteer group advocates for victims and survivors of traumatic events and their families.

Chilton, currently a teacher in the Meridian school district, has an MBA in finance. He is the sole owner of All American Investments, a tax accounting and management training firm that employs 85 people at seven offices across Idaho.

Because the coroner's role is largely administrative, Chilton believes his business and management experience qualify him for the job.

"The job is to manage people, records and budgets," he said.

Chilton reports that he has received the following endorsements: Longtime public servant Vern Bisterfeldt (previously an Ada County commissioner, Boise City councilman and police captain); and Dr. Bill Morgan, medical director of Trauma Services at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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