A life of death: The role and election of Routt County coroner
September 1, 2010
Steamboat Springs — The county coroner is not required to carry a gun, wear flashy sunglasses and make pithy one-liners at crime scenes. And the county coroner does not spend hours in a lab poring over forensic evidence to tie suspects to a crime like in popular TV shows.
What the Routt County coroner does requires a lighter touch and more empathy as he notifies the families of car crash victims and suicides and makes determinations on the cause of 40 or so unattended or suspicious deaths each year.
"All the cases I deal with are basically unattended deaths where somebody dies in their home or somebody dies in the emergency room after they've been brought into the emergency room, or if they haven't been in the hospital for more than 24 hours," coroner Rob Ryg said.
The coroner is the person who signs the death certificate identifying the manner and cause of a death. The manner would include car accident, suicide, natural death or homicide, while causes are things like blunt-force trauma to the head or a heart attack.
The coroner talks to the doctors or the deceased person's physician in cases of unattended deaths to determine whether there is an obvious cause — for example if the person was in late-stage cancer and the doctor expected the death. If there is no immediate cause, Routt County sends the body to one of three regional pathologists for an autopsy. Ryg sometimes attends the autopsies or otherwise gets the reports to make the final determination. The county pays for all autopsies.
The harder part of the job, Ryg said, comes when it's time to talk to the families.
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In a place like Routt County, with a small population, it also can be a very personal job.
"In a small town like this where I'm on my way to a scene and I'm wondering if this is somebody I know … it becomes a little more intense if I know the person and therefore I know the family members I'm going to contact," Ryg said.
It's even more difficult in suicides, he said, for several reasons.
"All the suicides are difficult, and we've had five this year already, and they're all very graphic and all very intense," he said. "It's always very dramatic to have to go to the family members and tell them that their loved one has taken their life."
The coroner is on call 24 hours a day for any death investigation and is routinely called to car crashes in the middle of the night or in bad weather.
The coroner is paid $33,100 per year, County Manager Tom Sullivan said.
The salary is set by state statute and there is no limit or regulations on the number of hours worked.
Ryg said a typical death takes about four to five hours to go to the scene, talk to the family members and finish all required paperwork. It can take much longer if the cause of death is not immediately apparent.
Ryg has been the county coroner for seven years. For the first time this fall, he will be challenged for his job. Routt County Search and Rescue member and spokesman Darrel Levingston and former firefighter Kevin Nerney will be on the ballot in November in a bid for the position.
Ryg is running as a Republican, Levingston as a Democrat and Nerney as an unaffiliated candidate.
In a typical year, there are only a few contested coroner's races across the state, but there are more than 20 this year.
Levingston has spent more than 17 years with Routt County Search and Rescue, oftentimes dealing with the distressed families of lost people, and he said he has some plans to make the office more proactive.
"I feel the coroner's office has a chance to be very proactive in many areas," he said, including suicide prevention. "Suicide is this 500-pound gorilla in the county that nobody wants to acknowledge, and the numbers are staggering."
Levingston said his experience working with Search and Rescue outreach programs gives him the experience to work with other agencies to help reduce the number of suicides.
Levingston has raised far more in the campaign than his competitors. A finance report showed he raised $1,179.97 by July 15. He didn't have any contributions during the next reporting period, according to the reports, but he said he has recently raised another $900 from a birthday fundraiser.
The money will go toward advertising and yard signs around town, he said. He also has a website at http://www.levingstonforcoroner.com.
Levingston said he does not plan to go door to door or call people during dinnertime — campaigning efforts he said he's not comfortable with.
Ryg's finance reports show he has spent a couple hundred dollars of his own money for advertising and banners, and he said he plans to do some campaigning in the coming weeks.
"Right now, I'm trying to keep it on a low-key basis and do enough," he said. "I'm not going in with no campaigning, but I'm probably going to be on the lower end of campaigning and try to do some things maybe in the newspaper before the election and have some signs here and there."
Ryg said he is running on his experience.
He has conducted more than 250 death investigations in his career and earned an extra statewide coroner certification after attending conferences and attending at least the seven required autopsies — enough to view all of the official manners of death.
Nerney wanted to join the race because he wants to give back to the community and offer support for grieving families, he said.
That's also something Levingston and Ryg said they would be good at.
Nerney said he plans on ramping up the campaign, including buying signs and fundraising, in October.
The last day to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 3, and ballots will be sent out beginning Oct. 12.
Election Day is Nov. 2.