The new owner of Valley County’s only funeral home immediately noticed something odd. No bodies were coming into the facility in McCall, the county’s designated morgue.
Then he started receiving some disconcerting phone calls.
“We were getting calls from families wanting to know where their loved ones were. I didn’t have any clue where the bodies were,” said Scott Carver, who took over as Heikkila Funeral Home director on Dec. 1 and with his wife, Nicole, became its new owner Jan. 2.
Then came calls from the county Sheriff’s Office, from county prosecutors. And finally, a call from Idaho State Police, who told Carver they had launched an investigation.
As that investigation progressed, Carver said, he finally learned what had happened.
Valley County Coroner Nathan Hess, Heikkila’s previous funeral director, had apparently stopped taking the bodies to the county morgue after he was fired from the funeral home on Nov. 11.
But there is no other morgue or funeral home in Valley County. So where was Hess taking the bodies?
“He was keeping the bodies at his home in the coroner’s truck and transporting them to Boise,” Carver said.
And those close to the situation allege other concerns: that Hess may not have completed required training, that he improperly received at least one personal payment from a Boise-area funeral home, and that he used the county truck for other personal errands.
Neither ISP nor Valley County officials will discuss the investigation. That includes Valley County Prosecutor Carol Brockmann, who on Aug. 23 filed public corruption charges against Hess — no longer the county’s active coroner.
Hess, 41, faces two rare misdemeanor counts of “using public position for personal gain.”
Hess faults the county, his former boss and ISP
According to the criminal complaint filed with Hess’ charges, on Jan. 16, without permission from the county, Hess used his county-issued truck to transport a dead person from Valley County to a Boise-area funeral home. The funeral home paid Hess a $400 “removal fee” since it did not have to go to Valley County to get the body. That’s not an unusual payment for a funeral home to make for delivery of a body, though it is not normally made to a coroner.
Additionally, from Nov. 15, 2016, through April 7, Hess allegedly used his county-issued vehicle for personal transportation using fuel purchased by the county.
The complaint says Hess’ actions are a violation of a state law that prohibits a public employee from using “public funds or property” for their own financial benefit.
Hess’ arraignment is currently set for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 3 in Valley County before 4th District Magistrate Judge Lamont C. Berecz. Each misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year in jail.
Hess, in a written statement to the Statesman, does not appear to deny those two allegations. He cites a lack of training or help from county officials, personal circumstances beyond his control, and the former funeral home owner firing him and selling the business “out from under me” as contributing factors to the decisions he made.
He also accuses ISP of misleading him.
State police began investigating the case April 6 at the request of Valley County Sheriff Patti Bolen. The investigation is still ongoing, ISP spokesman Tim Marsano said, and the agency does not comment on pending investigations.
Hess resigned as coroner “effective immediately” on May 18.
“It has been my honor to serve Valley County,” he wrote in an email sent to the three county commissioners. “However because of circumstances I do not wish to disclose I am unable to continue my services as coroner of Valley County and implore my resignation be accepted.”
Hess told the Statesman he resigned to avoid having charges brought against him.
“I was interviewed by ISP earlier this year who informed me that it was a misdemeanor but as an elected official there was a clause that stated that if I was to resign then no charges would be brought up against me.
“… So I resigned, this obviously turned out to be a lie because a couple of weeks ago I was served with papers stating that two misdemeanors were being brought up against me,” he wrote, referring to the two public corruption charges.
Marsano would not say what investigators told Hess, but said, “we are unaware of any such ‘clause.’ Furthermore, ISP does not have authority to make such a statement to somebody under investigation. We are an investigations agency and we submit our findings to prosecuting attorneys so that they can make charging decisions.”
‘Imagine the animosity I harbored’
For more than three decades, Marvin Heikkila owned the funeral home in McCall and served as Valley County’s coroner.
When Heikkila retired as coroner mid-term in July 2012, the county commissioners appointed Hess. Hess ran unopposed in the November 2014 election and was elected to a four-year term expiring in January 2019. He continued to work as both funeral home director/mortician and coroner.
He told the Statesman he had planned to purchase the funeral home from Heikkila. That plan came to an end when he was fired from the funeral home after working there for seven years.
Hess, 41, says Heikkila fired him because Hess’ state-required mortician’s license had expired.
In Idaho, all morticians and funeral homes must be licensed annually. County coroners, though, do not have to be licensed.
“Because of a computer error, my license lapsed,” Hess said in his written statement, “an error that took me 10 minutes to fix and get my license back but that was the excuse used to fire me.” Hess’ license, which expires annually in July, has since expired again on July 4.
After he was fired, Hess said, he told the county commissioners he needed to find a new location for the county morgue and the coroner’s office — also housed at the funeral home.
Hess said the commissioners told him there was not a county building available to use for a morgue and office. He also said the commissioners told him “to continue doing business with my previous boss or to figure out the situation myself,” he wrote. “I was told that families had to use Heikkila Funeral Chapel and that I wasn’t allowed to refer families to other funeral homes.”
Valley County commissioners designated Heikkila Funeral Home as the county morgue more than 15 years ago, according to Brockmann. The county pays rent to Heikkila for housing its morgue and coroner’s office.
“I had to continue doing business with someone who threw me and my family to the side without hesitation and sold the business to a stranger out from under me, so you could imagine the animosity I harbored and my unwillingness to continue business with that caliber of person,” Hess wrote.
After his initial email, Hess would not answer subsequent questions.
Marvin Heikkila would not talk to the Statesman for this report.
If not the morgue, then where?
Hess also did not answer questions about where he stored bodies in his custody if he was not taking them to the Valley County morgue at Heikkila.
County commissioners asked Hess those same questions during a Feb. 13 commission meeting.
According to meeting minutes, “[Hess] explained that he had not been utilizing the morgue at Heikkila Funeral Home and advised that the families typically pick up the deceased individuals which eliminates the use of the morgue.”
Following Hess’ resignation, the county commissioners appointed Carver as coroner.
Prior to moving to McCall, Carver and his wife owned a funeral home in Moses Lake, Wash. Carver said he has worked in or owned a funeral home for nearly two decades.
From Dec. 1, 2016, through May 18 — the day Hess resigned as coroner and Carver was named to the position — Carver said just one body was brought to Heikkila’s morgue. Since taking over as coroner, he said, about six to seven bodies have come to the morgue monthly.
Where were families picking up the bodies at from December through most of May?
“That is a good question,” Carver said. “Where would they pick them up? From his truck at his home? That is very disturbing. That is not appropriate at all.”
Questions of training
A person does not have to have any medical or coroner training to be appointed as or run for coroner in Idaho. A state law enacted in 2010 requires that when a coroner is newly appointed or elected, he or she must attend coroner school within one year. Additionally, each county coroner must complete 24 hours of continuing education biennially.
“When I first moved to McCall I was asked if I would take over as coroner and I agreed, I was sworn in without any type of training, guidance or guidelines,” Hess told the Statesman.
Valley County paid Hess’ dues for the Idaho State Association of County Coroners while he was in office, according to the Idaho Association of Counties. The coroners association sponsors two training sessions a year, in addition to an annual meeting.
Hess reported that he completed 26 hours of continuing education in 2015 and attended the coroners association annual meeting in 2014, according to IAC, which tracks coroner education.
“It doesn’t appear that he attended the required initial training,” said Kristin Cundiff, IAC director of operations. “We only record what is turned into our office, so there may have been more training he attended and didn’t submit anything to us.”
The 2010 Idaho law requiring initial county coroner training and subsequent continuing education does not contain any penalty for noncompliance, said Cundiff.
Valley County provided the Statesman its personnel policy that was in effect when Hess became coroner in 2012. The 52-page guide includes a section prohibiting use of county vehicles for personal use without the permission of county commissioners. But the personnel policy applies to employees only, not elected officials, Brockmann said.
“However, Idaho code does apply universally,” she said — referring to Hess’ new charges.
Hess told the Statesman that at times he had no choice but to use his county vehicle for personal use. In one instance, his personal car was in the shop; he still had to go to Caldwell to see his children or he would lose that week’s visitation per a custody agreement.
“There was no time to ask permission (from the county commissioners) to use the county truck because my car was in the shop. … After this instance I was told not to use the county truck for that. … I was completely unaware it was against the law and considered a misdemeanor.”
Hess also claims he saw county employees take county vehicles for personal use all the time, and he did not know it was illegal.
“Police officers are allowed to use their vehicles for personal use and I have witnessed city and other county vehicles do the same. I would have asked permission but I didn’t have time to call for a meeting (with county commissioners) especially on a Sunday.”
Carver said that on the day he was appointed Valley County coroner, he received a binder detailing the county’s and coroner’s office’s policies. He said he is fully aware of his ethical and legal responsibilities as both a county elected official and a coroner, including the state requirement that new coroners must attend coroner school within one year. Carver says he is going to coroner school this month.
If Hess kept bodies in the coroner’s truck, did that also violate any sort of law?
Under state law, each of Idaho’s 44 counties must have an elected coroner. But for small rural counties, building and operating a morgue is too costly, so they often contract with a nearby licensed funeral home to serve as the county morgue.
If a county has just one licensed funeral home, state law allows the funeral home owner, director or mortician to also serve as coroner.
The next closest funeral homes to Heikkila are in Grangeville, Emmett, and Ada and Canyon counties.
State and federal law mandates how funeral homes and morticians handle bodies. But the actions of which Hess is accused occurred while he was an elected official, not a mortician.
Idaho law addresses how coroners must dispose of unclaimed bodies, handle a deceased’s property or act as substitute sheriff. (Yes, in Idaho a coroner can become acting county sheriff if the sheriff has a conflict.) Idaho law also details how coroners can conduct their own death investigations, including empaneling juries, compelling witnesses and issuing arrest warrants.
But Idaho law does not prescribe how coroners physically handle dead bodies in their custody, nor where and under what conditions those bodies in a coroner’s custody must be stored.
For example, storing bodies at 38 to 40 degrees in a morgue or cooler is an industry standard, not state law, Carver said.
Carver thinks Idaho law should be changed to hold coroners more accountable for remains in their custody. He argues there should be repercussions for coroners who violate the law.
“I think it should be specified in state law that when a coroner takes possession of or custody of remains, that they be placed in a designated county morgue or established facility where the remains are kept secure and safe.”