Inventory check exposes theft

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Charlena Graham, a former deputy coroner, was fired by Coroner Grover Tuten after being arrested on theft charges.

Established procedures tripped up a deputy coroner charged with stealing a dead woman's gift cards, Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said Thursday.

"It's just plain stupid," Mr. Tuten said of the suspected in-house theft.

At a morning news conference, Mr. Tuten spelled out the checks and balances in place whenever there's a call about a dead person.

Every time 911 receives such a call, three agencies respond -- the coroner's office, the sheriff's department and the county's ambulance service.

By law, his officer is responsible for the body and all of the person's property, Mr. Tuten said. The coroner or his assistant takes a written inventory of all of the belongings, and the sheriff's deputy takes his own written inventory. In addition, the person who transports the body takes an inventory of all possessions, Mr. Tuten said. Any theft would be obvious by checking the inventories, he said.

Charlena Graham, 43, is the former deputy coroner accused of theft. Allegedly, she stole several gift cards after responding to a New Year's Eve call for a woman who committed suicide.

Mr. Tuten said the woman's family members called the sheriff's department after realizing gift cards they had given to her for Christmas were not in the possessions returned to them. The cards were listed on the coroner's inventory, he said.

Sheriff's investigators told The Augusta Chronicle on Wednesday that evidence against Ms. Graham includes videotapes of her using the gift cards at local stores.

"(The evidence) was enough that when they put the handcuffs on her yesterday, I fired her," Mr. Tuten said.

Ms. Graham, who worked in law enforcement for at least a decade before joining the coroner's staff four years ago, had no prior complaints about her conduct, Mr. Tuten said.

He believes the Dec. 31 incident was an aberration. In his 30 years with the coroner's office, this was the first theft charge against a member of the staff, Mr. Tuten said.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.