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Dead-End Job

Octavio Diaz

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.

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.

In August 1996, a Denver motorcyclist died in a crash on a notorious bend of Colorado Highway 119 known as Dead Man's Curve. When Treese arrived, state troopers noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of alcohol, according to an affidavit written by trooper James Senecal. Treese was arrested but refused to perform sobriety tests, becoming "very antagonistic," according to the police report. The case was ultimately dismissed because Treese's lawyer successfully argued that state troopers didn't have probable cause to arrest him in the first place.

Eventually, Treese did lose his job, though. "It's my understanding he was fired," says Phyllis Bennett, who was elected in 1998 to replace Dick Allen as county coroner. "As a fact, he showed up on coroner's calls intoxicated."

Bennett doesn't think much of Allen, either. "Nobody could ever find him when they needed him," she says. "The only reason [county commissioners] approved a budget for a deputy is that nobody could ever find [Allen]."

Gilpin County Manager Donna Martin won't talk in detail about Treese's problems but says the police accounts of his behavior "speak volumes."

"Yes, there were things that made us concerned," she adds. "Were there some things that we were very, very uncomfortable with? Yes. If there was a possibility for us to charge somebody with wrongdoing, did we do it? Yes. We looked at our options, what we could do, what we couldn't do."

One thing Gilpin County officials couldn't do was fire Treese or Allen.

Allen was an elected official, and elected officials in Colorado have complete discretion over hiring and firing decisions in their offices. Nor could county officials question either man's credentials, since the state doesn't require coroners or their deputies to have any medical training whatsoever. Treese's occupation, for example, is listed in law-enforcement paperwork as "bartender/deputy coroner." When he wasn't looking into death scenes, he was running his own construction business and slinging drinks at the Central City Elks Club.

To qualify for a job as coroner, one simply needs to be a registered voter.

"When I was out campaigning against term limits [for county coroners], you should have seen the looks on people's faces when I told them that was the only requirement," says Dr. Michael Dobersen, the Arapahoe County coroner and the vice president of the Colorado Coroners Association.

For the last few years, Dobersen has been trying to improve the quality of the state's coroners. In 1998 he led an effort to overturn term limits for coroners in Arapahoe County, saying that dedicated, highly qualified coroners -- Dobersen is one of only eleven forensic pathologists in the state -- are hard to come by and shouldn't be booted out of office just because of term limits. About 30 of Colorado's 63 counties don't have term limits for coroners, he says.

That same year, the state coroners association proposed a state constitutional amendment that would have mandated training for all coroners after they're elected. Dobersen went before the Senate Committee on Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions to propose the law. "The legislature just threw us right out. They thought that was about the worst idea they'd ever heard," he says. "The people we were working with were conservative and didn't want to see any more restrictions imposed on an elected position. We pretty much got handed our hats."

Although training for coroners isn't required, the association, which uses membership dues to pay for its programs, holds optional educational sessions that most coroners do attend.

And while Gilpin County's Martin says it's commendable that all of Gilpin County's coroners have asked for that training after being elected, she doubts that twenty hours of instruction can really give them the knowledge they need. "To try to get someone in the coroner's office with the education, the skills and the background to deal with what they're presented is difficult," she says. "I just think they need education.

"I question whether they can tell whether someone's dead, to be honest," she adds. "I mean, think about it."


Don Treese is a small, well-spoken man with shaggy gray hair and a gray beard. He won't talk about the details of his two on-the-job arrests, but he points out that in neither case was he convicted of DUI. He also denies that he was ever drunk while investigating a death scene and says he doesn't know why he was fired.

 

Unfortunately, on March 15 of this year, he was again arrested while working for the state -- this time during a three-week stint as a maintenance worker for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Treese was driving a snowplow down the same stretch of Highway 119 where he'd been arrested before, when he was stopped by a state trooper who charged him with operating an unsafe commercial vehicle and DUI.

Treese pleaded guilty on October 18 to a reduced charge of reckless driving, and a Jefferson County judge handed down a ninety-day suspended jail sentence and ordered Treese into alcohol-education classes. (Treese had told the judge earlier that he had contracted hepatitis C while working on Gilpin County's volunteer ambulance crew and had quit drinking as a result of the potentially life-threatening disease.)

Treese met Dick Allen in the early 1980s, when Treese got a job at the Lost Gold Mine, Allen's Central City gift shop and tourist attraction. Both were members of the Central City Elks Lodge, and both worked on the volunteer ambulance crew. Allen ran for the coroner's job for the first time in 1986, and soon after, he took Treese on board as deputy. Since then, both men have been active in the tiny but tempestuous world of Central City politics.

In addition to being the county coroner, Allen served on the city council and then as mayor from March 1992 until December 1993, when voters initiated a recall and booted him out of office. County Clerk Jenny Nowak says she no longer has a copy of the ballot listing the reasons for Allen's recall but says it had to do with the politics that went along with the introduction of gambling into the former mining towns of Central City and Black Hawk in 1991. "Anytime changes that big are taking place in a community -- especially a community this small -- people get upset, and sometimes they have to find somebody to blame," says Nowak. "I think that's what was going on there."

Also in 1993, Allen and his store were evicted by the landlord after Allen failed to pay rent. He was then investigated by the Jefferson/Gilpin County DA's office because some items from the store were apparently missing. No charges were ever filed, however.

Allen, who is currently a night-shift slot-machine mechanic at the Central Palace Casino in Central City, says he fired Treese immediately after his second arrest. "The first time he got into it with the state patrol, I decided just to let it go, but the second time was a little too much," he says.

But Treese says that Allen is the one who went to scenes while intoxicated. And although Allen denies ever being drunk while he was on the job, he does admit that, "Oh, yeah, a couple of times I had a few drinks before I went to scenes. There were times I called my deputy because I'd been drinking and said I couldn't go."

Although he doesn't list any occupation at the moment, Treese, who has lived in Gilpin County since 1980, was the chairman of Central City's planning commission from March 1993 until October 1999, and in contrast to some Gilpin County residents who staunchly oppose growth, Treese says he favors moderate expansion. In addition, Treese ended up leading a successful 1998 recall of three town aldermen who had made the decision to fire a city manager without consulting anyone else. That effort was opposed by Bill Russell, another former Central City mayor and publisher of the local Weekly Register-Call. Treese claims that a full-page spread featuring his mug shot and copies of his drinking-and-driving tickets that ran in the Register-Call's September 1, 2000, edition were in retaliation for the recall.

"It's their use of a tool they control to slander my character," he says.

Debra Krause, the paper's editor, denies that the Register-Call had any political reason for publicizing Treese's arrest record. "We have a problem with Don, because every job he has, he gets caught with DUI. That's the problem we have with Mr. Treese," she says. "And we don't even know what his stance on growth is. That's a good excuse, though."


Despite the lack of mandatory training for coroners and their deputies, Dr. Tom Henry, president of the Colorado Coroners Association and Denver County coroner says he doesn't get many complaints about the state's system of death investigation. The most common gripe he hears is that people have trouble tracking down coroners to come to death scenes. For the most part, the system works pretty well, he says, adding that since the pay is typically low and the job can be somewhat gruesome, only people who truly want to be coroners go to the trouble of running for office.

 

Furthermore, doctors don't necessarily make better coroners than laypeople do, he says: "Just because you've got somebody with an 'M.D.' behind his name doesn't mean you're going to get high-quality death investigations." The best coroner Henry says he's ever known was a South Dakota funeral-home director.

Roughly two-thirds of Colorado's coroners do have a medical background, though; they're former or current doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, pharmacists and dentists, among other things. And if an elected coroner and his deputies aren't doing a good job? "Hopefully, that's where the elective process works," Henry says.

Colorado, Indiana, South Dakota and Idaho are the only four states that elect county coroners and have no educational requirements for holders of the office. Other states rely on district coroners or medical examiners, or have systems that incorporate both medical examiners and coroners.

Idaho state representative Margaret Henbest says the county coroner system in her state is outdated and ineffective. "It would really be a good idea to bring our law into the 21st century. Essentially, our code has not been substantially changed since the 1800s, and it was based on territorial law," she says. A pediatric nurse who is worried that Idaho's high rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome may indicate that coroners are failing to explore other possible causes of infant death, Henbest has pushed for a state medical-examiner system in which a governor-appointed commission would choose a forensic pathologist to train coroners, perform autopsies and develop protocols. Her bill has been shot down twice, however, opposed by elected coroners and legislators reluctant to create a new level of bureaucracy.

Henbest says her constituents have come to her with "horror stories" about coroners, though, such as the man whose murdered daughter's body remained where it was found for days before the coroners showed up. Henbest has also heard of a case in which a coroner failed to look into the death of an older man whose new wife claimed he died as a result of a heart attack. Soon after the man's cremation, his wife was extradited to another state for murder. "It left his children wondering, 'What really happened to Dad?'" Henbest says. "It's absolutely tragic to hear these stories, because the family has no peace." She plans to try again for a state medical-examiner system.

In Colorado, Dobersen says that while a state medical-examiner system would make the office of coroner more legitimate in some people's eyes, he doesn't think it's feasible to make substantial changes here. "It would be nice to have a medical examiner in every county, but there aren't enough of us," he says. "The [current] system does work, but obviously, no system is perfect. A lot of times it takes a big high-profile mess-up to call people's attention to [a system's shortcomings]." And despite the Gilpin County situation, he adds, "I guess we haven't had that."


Phyllis Bennett says she decided to run for Gilpin County Coroner after hearing complaints about the way Allen and Treese were handling death investigations. "Well, why not?" she thought to herself. "You don't have to be a physician or a forensic pathologist. Any layperson can run for the job."

In addition to working part-time at the Coyote Creek Casino, Bennett had held a job in the county welfare office and served as a bailiff in the county court. Her interest in being coroner stemmed in part from her experience on the county's volunteer ambulance crew, where she had once worked alongside Allen and Treese. But she also felt that the office needed an overhaul. "I thought that somebody needed to bring this coroner's office into the twentieth century before it was over," she says. "It's a shame that our county needs to be a laughingstock before somebody sees that changes need to be made."

Bennett says her campaign was low-key: She put up some posters, spoke at a few meetings, and won the race by about 200 votes. After taking office, she printed up a leaflet explaining the coroner's duties and held an open house for people curious about her job. "A lot of people have absolutely no idea what a coroner's responsibilities are," she says.

According to information put out by the Colorado Coroners Association, "The investigation of a death by the Coroner's Office is an extremely important function as it is done by an independent agency who does not work for the law enforcement agency, the physician, the nursing home, the hospital, the prosecution or the defense, but works on behalf of the deceased to obtain the truth about their death."

 

The coroner's office is responsible for determining the cause of death in situations where it may not be clear-cut: suicides, traffic accidents, deaths that occur within 24 hours of admission to a hospital or nursing-care facility, industrial accidents, and a number of other situations spelled out by state law. Coroners or their deputies pronounce death, figure out the time and cause of death, investigate death scenes, take custody of bodies and identify them, notify the next of kin, issue death certificates, and keep records in case insurance companies, doctors or investigators need them.

But the hardest part of her job so far, says Bennett, has been straightening out the mess Allen and Treese left behind. "I think they were sloppy about everything they did," she says. Treese and Allen didn't have an office, so they worked out of their homes or garages, where they kept records from death-scene investigations. Bennett says she had to repeatedly ask Allen for his files before the Jefferson/Gilpin County DA's office eventually began an investigation into the way Allen had handled the records. Allen finally handed over his files and was never charged with any wrongdoing. (He says there was a delay because he had to get them all together.)

When she finally got the records, Bennett says she found that they were spotty at best: Twenty of the 127 deaths that Allen and his deputies dealt with had no corresponding files whatsoever. Bennett can't even find a file for the Matter suicide Treese was investigating when he was charged with driving while impaired. Some of the files contain only scraps of paper bearing cryptic scribbles, she says, including the one from the 1996 motorcycle accident Treese was investigating when he was again charged with driving while under the influence. And other files are completely empty. (Allen suggests that their contents might be in the possession of former deputy coroner Hennigan in Idaho Springs.) "I find it extremely frustrating when people call for information and I have a file that looks like this," she says. "The coroner needs to do their job. That's the thing: It's a heck of a more important job than anybody would ever realize."


Triena Harper, the lead investigator at the Jefferson County Coroner's Office, says the problems surrounding Allen and Treese are simply flukes that couldn't have been prevented by more stringent requirements for Colorado's coroners. "One just doesn't have anything to do with the other," she says.

In fact, Harper, who has been with the Jeff-co coroner's office since 1982, says she's "extremely" happy with Colorado's system. "One of the very best things is that all death investigations are kept at a local level," she says. As for rural coroners, "They ought to get all the praise there ever was. A lot of them do it just because they're good people."

Bennett can point to one reason why Allen and Treese might not have given their duties top priority: low pay. "They didn't have a hell of a lot of incentive," she says. Bennett and her deputy, Steve Siegrist -- a local medic whom Allen hired as deputy coroner in 1996 after Treese was fired and who stayed on for Bennett's term -- each get $3,000 per year, and Bennett gets an additional $500 each month for office expenses. But during Allen's term, he and his deputies were initially paid on a per-body basis, and then later in a lump sum of $300 a year.

Denver coroner Henry agrees that low pay for rural coroners is a problem. That's why the coroners association plans to return to the state legislature during its next session to ask the state to regulate coroners' salaries. Most of Colorado's elected officials are paid according to a state-prescribed system based on population, but the salaries for coroners are set by commissioners in every county.

"What different coroners are paid in different jurisdictions runs the gamut," he says. In heavily populated areas such as Denver County, coroners have full-time jobs and are paid accordingly (Henry makes about $200,000, and Dobersen makes about $185,000; both are pathologists with medical degrees). In rural areas like Gilpin County, however, where the coroner's office handles only about twenty cases per year, coroners often are paid very little.

But Donna Martin, the Gilpin County manager, says that although Bennett's doing a good job, she doesn't want the state telling counties how much to pay their coroners. Counties don't want to pay for coroners who don't have the background to do their jobs, she explains. "I personally don't feel the coroner system is of much value."

Bennett, on the other hand, hopes the state does decide to regulate her salary. She says she's tired of wrangling with county commissioners for money. "They make you feel like you're begging for things," she says.

 

Even if there are no reforms to Colorado's coroner system, though, Bennett says she will do the best job that someone without medical training can do. "Anybody who dies in my county gets reported [to me]," she says. "I don't do any guessing. If some seventy-year-old keels over and his wife and family say he's been sick, I don't care. I still investigate it."


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