Originally created 06/13/05

Coroners use volunteers to stretch dollars



SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Keith Plexico was all set to spend the week after Christmas with his family when a plane crashed in Spartanburg County and his pager buzzed.

It wasn't long before it buzzed again and Mr. Plexico's vacation from his job as a service manager at a car dealership would have to wait. He spent most of the next three days in the hills near the North Carolina state line, helping the county coroner's office collect evidence to help determine why the plane crashed, killing the pilot.

And he did it all free.

Mr. Plexico volunteers as an investigator for the Spartanburg County coroner's office. Coroners say they couldn't do their jobs without volunteers.

"The majority of coroner's officers across the state are grossly underfunded," said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, who also serves as the president of the South Carolina Coroners Association.

In many counties, the animal control department gets more money than the coroner, whose job can determine whether someone goes to prison for years or a family collects life insurance. Coroners also set public health priorities, such as reporting which diseases are the biggest killers in the state. Mr. Watts' office gets $1 million a year.

"It's still less than the dogcatcher's budget, and I'm one of the fortunate ones," he said.

Lloyd Ward makes $16,000 as Barnwell County coroner, so he supplements his salary with a full-time job at Savannah River Site.

"I may end up going a week or so with nothing going on," said Mr. Ward, who has been coroner for 12 years. "The next two weeks I may end up burning vacation at SRS so I can do my job here."

One of Mr. Watts' goals is to persuade the Legislature to make the coroner's position a full-time job in every county. He estimates that two-thirds of South Carolina's 46 counties consider it a part-time position.

"You don't have a part-time sheriff. You don't have a part-time clerk. You don't have a part-time solicitor. But you can have a part-time coroner," Georgetown County Coroner Kenny Johnson said. "I think that unfairly diminishes our role in some people's eyes. It's a full-time job. You're on 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Aiken County's Tim Carlton is a full-time coroner, but he has part-time assistants.

Mr. Johnson's office has a budget of about $100,000. His salary is about $37,000, and he pays a part-time deputy $3,000 a year. He wanted to increase the deputy's pay to $5,000, but the county council turned him down.

The Georgetown County sheriff makes twice as much as Mr. Johnson. The Barnwell County sheriff makes four times what the coroner makes, while sheriffs in Jasper, Abbeville and Newberry counties make about five times as much, according to data from the South Carolina Association of Counties.

When Fairfield County Coroner Joe Silvia first ran for office 28 years ago, "it was just a job nobody wanted."

He made $2,000 a year back then in a job many saw as clerical - just signing death certificates. At the time, many coroners ran funeral homes and did little to investigate suspicious deaths.

"We've got better at investigating and got better qualified people to be in the office," said Mr. Silvia, who gives part of his $18,577 salary to his chief deputy.

He was given $53,781 this fiscal year to investigate all unattended deaths in the county, along with several other deaths considered suspicious. It costs nearly $800 to have an autopsy performed, and that will increase to almost $900 soon.

In comparison, the Fairfield County sheriff's office gets about $1 million a year.

"The coroner's office is an office people don't want to care about," Mr. Silvia said.

But what they do is important, said Mr. Watts, who recalled a case a few years ago in which an elderly woman with diabetes, a history of heart disease and a recent stroke was found dead in her Richland County home.

Paramedics and caregivers thought she had died from a heart problem.

"But we investigated and found she had been strangled and raped. You don't think of those things with a 76-year-old woman, but you can't rule that out without investigating," Mr. Watts said.

He didn't think twice about further investigation because he had the money and the time, but some coroners with a tight budget or a busy week might take the word of the paramedics and family.

"Those are the ones that terrify me," Mr. Watts said.

Louisiana is the only other state in the Southeast that uses a coroner system similar to South Carolina's, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other states use medical examiners either as a substitute or supplement for elected coroners.

North Carolina has a little of both, said Dr. John Butts, the state's chief medical examiner.

Each county has at least one appointed medical examiner. Some in larger counties are paid a full-time salary, while those in smaller counties make $75 a case, Dr. Butts said.

The state funds more than 60 percent of North Carolina's system. Coroners in South Carolina are heavily dependent on local money.

"I'd love to have more money - we need more money - but our system works inexpensively," said Dr. Butts, who estimates the medical examiners' statewide budget at about $6 million a year.

Volunteer Ken Toney and his wife take separate cars when they go out so he can respond to a call immediately.

"I've seen half of a lot of movies," he said.