Dead-End Job

The body of evidence in Gilpin County shows why Colorado's coroner system may need to be resuscitated.

On a cold afternoon in January 1995, the parents of 43-year-old Denver securities lawyer Daniel B. Matter reported to Denver police that their son was missing and probably suicidal. Matter struggled with manic depression, and while his mother was visiting from Florida to keep him company after the holidays, he'd failed to show up for work on January 13, missed a doctor's appointment and hadn't returned home in the evening.

That night, a Colorado State Patrol trooper found Matter's blue Volvo north of Black Hawk at the intersection of Colorado highways 119 and 46, just down the road from the Gilpin County Justice Center. Sheriff's deputies and state troopers searched the area around the car and found Matter's frozen body in the forest north of the intersection. Matter had walked into the woods, put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

As is usual in a suicide, the police called Gilpin County Coroner Dick Allen to investigate, but Allen, a former Central City mayor and businessman with a reputation for being hard to find, said he couldn't come and told the police dispatcher to call Don Treese, the deputy coroner. Treese arrived at about 8:30 p.m. He examined the body to try to determine how long Matter had been dead and took the deceased's car keys from his pocket -- all routine procedures.

Octavio Diaz
Arapahoe County Coroner Michael Dobersen has tried to set standards for coroners in Colorado.
John Johnston
Arapahoe County Coroner Michael Dobersen has tried to set standards for coroners in Colorado.

But something about Treese's demeanor was bothering Gilpin County sheriff's sergeant Kent Edlund. For instance, when Edlund began taking pictures of the body, Treese told him what to photograph. The two men bickered, and "I advised Treese I had done a crime scene or two and I would...choose my own shots," Edlund wrote in his report.

Finally, Edlund put his finger on it: He suspected Treese was drunk.

While Edlund sat in a patrol car waiting for investigators from the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office -- he'd called them in to look at a suspicious blood trail that turned out to be nothing more than "blowback" from the gunshot wound -- he told state trooper Scott Hernandez that Treese smelled strongly of alcohol. "I was not happy with some of the things that Treese had done on the crime scene that also led me to believe he was drunk," Edlund wrote. The two officers agreed that they would ask Treese to do some roadside sobriety tests, but because of the unusual circumstances, they decided to wait until the Jeffco investigators arrived.

While they were waiting, however, Treese walked up to the patrol car asking for a flashlight. He said he wanted to show the suicide scene to Vince Hennigan, the other deputy coroner and owner of the Hennigan Funeral Service in Idaho Springs, where Gilpin County's autopsies are performed.

Edlund told Treese to wait for the investigators. At that point, "[Treese] became authoritative and asked who's in charge of the scene...and I told him that I was," Edlund wrote. "I told him that it wouldn't matter if we waited for the DA's office to get there, and he became argumentative about things. We argued about the scene control, and I finally told Treese that I felt he was drunk and asked if he would blow into Trooper Hernandez's PBT [portable breath tester] to verify my observations."

Treese then told Hernandez that he'd had a few drinks earlier in the evening, according to Edlund's report, and voluntarily submitted to roadside tests, but not to the breath test.

In his own statement, Hernandez noted that Treese's speech was slurred and his eyes were bloodshot. "I explained that I had seen him drive up to the scene and needed to make sure he could drive safely," he wrote. "Mr. Treese said he understood. He also said he understood this was a separate situation from the deceased person. It was made very clear that this had only to do with him driving."

Treese failed the roadside tests, though, and Hernandez arrested him for Driving While Alcohol Impaired. "Because of the other existent circumstances, I decided to wait for the DA investigator," Hernandez wrote in his report. "I wanted to discuss the situation with the investigator prior to leaving the scene...I explained why I was waiting and Treese said he understood. While waiting in my patrol car he explained that he knew what had happened with the suicide. He wrote notes on a piece of paper pertaining to the...scene."

When the DA's investigators arrived, they told Hernandez to handle the situation like he normally would, so the state trooper took Treese to the Gilpin County Sheriff's Office, and during the drive, "Mr. Treese said, 'What ever happened to professional courtesy,'" Hernandez wrote. At 10:20 p.m., almost two hours after he was arrested, Treese agreed to take a breath test, which revealed a legal breath-alcohol concentration of .079. "While I was doing paperwork, Treese said he felt the only mistake he made was not having someone drive him to the scene," Hernandez wrote.

The charge was ultimately reduced to reckless driving, and Treese was ordered into an alcohol-education program. But his stint as deputy coroner -- and his arrests on the job -- didn't end there.

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