Cases mount without deputy

In the next couple of weeks, Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten is hoping to fill a deputy coroner position that has been vacant since the recent firing and arrest of Charlena Graham, who is accused of taking gift cards from a suicide victim.

In the meantime, Mr. Tuten says he and Chief Deputy Mark Bowen, his only other assistant, are doing the best they can with the cases they have.

"We'll be able to handle it for a while," he said. "But really we already need somebody."

The coroner's office is tasked with investigating any death that's unattended by a physician, excluding hospice situations. It investigates homicides, suicides and deaths of those in police custody, and it is responsible for notifying family members.

Mr. Tuten said that without Ms. Graham, his office now handles a caseload that typically would require three or more people.

"For now, we're handling things," said Mr. Tuten, a retired Augusta Police Department training sergeant who has worked for the Richmond County Coroner's Office in some capacity for more than 30 years.

Mr. Tuten said he would like to fill the position with someone who has extensive police and emergency management training experience.

He said he also has no reason to place more emphasis on background checks.

"In support of Ms. Graham, from the time she was hired with the Augusta Police Department in 1993 until 2008 she never once had anything in her records that indicates she was guilty of anything," he said. "It was an opportunistic moment, and she had a momentary weakness."

Until her position is filled, the Richmond County Coroner's Office will operate with just Mr. Tuten and Mr. Bowen for a county of about 194,000 people. In the past year, Mr. Tuten's office has handled 1,134 cases.

In comparison, Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said his office has two assistant coroners, two part-time, on-call coroners and an administrative support employee. Aiken County has about 152,000 residents, according to 2006 Census figures.

In Columbia County, which has nearly 107,000 residents, Coroner Vernon Collins is assisted by two deputy coroners.

Leaders in all three counties say they're happy with their respective coroners and staff.

"Grover is very cognizant and cost-effective," said Augusta City Administrator Fred Russell of Mr. Tuten. "I haven't had any complaints about how he does his job."

The Richmond County Coroner's Office is finding support from fellow coroners, with Mr. Carlton offering assistance to Mr. Tuten's office should caseloads become unmanageable.

Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or tim.cox@augustachronicle.com.


CORONER STATS

RICHMOND COUNTY: Coroner Grover Tuten, one deputy coroner, one temporary administrative assistant; 1,134 cases in the past year; 2008 budget -- $389,840

AIKEN COUNTY: Coroner Tim Carlton, two assistant coroners, two part-time, on-call coroners and an administrative support employee; 1,036 cases in the past year; 2008 budget -- $435,521

COLUMBIA COUNTY: Coroner Vernon Collins, two deputy coroners; 198 cases in past year; 2008 budget -- $107,999


ANNUAL SALARY STATS

RICHMOND COUNTY

Coroner Grover Tuten, $66,199.90

Deputy Coroner Mark Bowen, $56,513.83

Former Deputy Coroner Charlena Graham, $38,616.99

AIKEN COUNTY

Coroner Tim Carlton, $63,979.73

Chief Deputy Corner Darrell Ables, $56,715.17

Deputy Coroner Jeff Smith, pay range of $42,336 to $59,270

COLUMBIA COUNTY

Coroner Vernon Collins, $16,000.08 plus car and cell-phone allowance

(Mr. Collins has two assistant coroners who are paid $175 per call. They are on call on a 24/7 basis)

Sources: Richmond, Aiken and Columbia County government officials