Coroner race in Park County gets messy: Who's dead wrong for the job?

Who wants to be a coroner? More people than you think, now that CSI and its ilk have made death investigation seem like a hip and even lively career choice.

In Colorado practically anyone can apply for the job, which has made for some intriguing races this year. Especially in Park County, where a 26-year-old EMT and a deputy coroner turned massage therapist are trading allegations about inflated credentials, police records and dirty politics as they vie in the Republican primary.

Under the state's current system, elected coroners aren't required to have a medical background or other special qualifications for the job -- other than the ability to hire forensic pathologists to conduct autopsies. Since there are less than twenty FPs in Colorado, most rural counties hire out the work to a very exclusive pool of contractors.

But the elected official is still the one who deals with law enforcement and bereaved families and decides whether an autopsy is even needed -- a situation that's led to some grim controversies, as detailed in my 2009 feature "The Body Shop."

"You just have to be breathing, 21, a registered voter and not a convicted felon to be a coroner in this state," says Joanne Richardson, the Summit County coroner. "I would like to see our system be more professional."

Richardson isn't a pathologist but has a master's degree in forensic science -- and definite opinions about the current race in Park County between Tammy Michelle Davis, a former Summit County deputy coroner, and EMT David Kintz.

Davis worked for Richardson's predecessor from 1998 until early 2003; she now runs a mobile massage therapy business. She claims to be the most experienced candidate in the three-way Park County race, having been involved in what she describes as "hundreds" of death investigations, from motor vehicle accidents to homicides and suicides. (In addition to Kintz and Davis, a former volunteer firefighter is running as an independent for the $33,000-a-year job.) But she says she only decided to enter the race on the eve of last April's Republican county assembly.

"There were five candidates going into the assembly," she says. "I had decided against it, until I read an article in which one candidate stated, 'I want to become the Park County coroner because I'm bored.' So I put a speech together. I have lived here ten years, and nobody has ever heard of me because I've been politically silent."

Richardson scoffs at the claim Davis made in an interview with the Fairplay Flume that she has "conducted" around 400 death investigations. There were only 204 deaths investigated by the coroner during the five years Davis worked in Summit County, Richardson notes, and records indicate Davis was "on scene" for only 26 of them. She was one of several deputies let go when Richardson took office.

"I didn't choose to retain her," Richardson says. "I did a background check on everybody, and I also had them take a knowledge assessment. I kept only one of the deputies."

Davis says there is "bad blood" between her and Richardson because she backed the incumbent, her boss David Joslin, whom Richardson defeated. She insists she's "worked on" hundreds of cases, even if that only meant filling in some of the paperwork. "I had my hands on cases prior to my getting there, getting those files organized," she says.

Park County's current coroner, Sharon Morris, is retiring after eighteen years and has endorsed Kintz, who says he has "assisted" Morris in numerous cases. Joslin has endorsed Davis, and she claims on her website that she's received recommendations from "many former and current coroners with whom I have worked."

But Davis declined to provide any other names of coroners endorsing her. "They're not public," she says. "Are they endorsing me? Yeah. Are they current coroners? Yeah. Am I going to drop names? No."

Another section of the Tammy Davis for Coroner site declares her Tea Party-ish stance on various issues ("I'm against the health care bill... I stand for capitalism... I'm against illegal immigration"). Davis says she put her "grassroots politics" on the site because she's a relative unknown but wasn't suggesting a platform for the coroner's office.

Kintz says politics "should take a back seat" in the race. "I am a very right-wing conservative," he says, "but that doesn't affect my view on any case I investigate. It needs to be an independent position, where you can work well with anybody."

Davis suggests that the campaign is turning ugly early, with plenty of unfounded rumors flying around. "It's becoming a dirty race," she says. "It's typical small-town politics."

Some of the rumors have to do with why Davis didn't pass Richardson's review back in 2003. Court records show that she was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in an Eagle County domestic violence case in 1997. She entered into a deferred judgment agreement in the case, which was dismissed two years later. Asked about the incident, she responds, "I don't think it has any relevance to me running for coroner."

Kintz disagrees. "The coroner has to have the utmost respect and integrity," he says. "If someone has a track record of not being upfront and clear on the facts, that bothers me. A domestic violence arrest bothers me. If you can't function well with your family or friends, how are you going to handle a tense situation as a coroner?"

Yet Kintz hasn't brought up the thirteen-year-old case in local debates. "I've known about the charge, but I haven't talked about it," he says. "It's not my goal to bring her down personally."

In terms of policy, the candidates have few differences. Davis would like to find ways to save money by training staff to perform more forensic procedures, such as blood draws and fingerprints, in the field rather than paying to outsource them. She estimates the office could save up to $15,000 a year doing such routine tests.

Kintz calls the proposal a terrible idea. "I want to push for more training, too," he says, "but there are sterility and chain of custody issues to doing all these procedures in the field. It opens you up to lawsuits."

Davis says she has the professional background to make such changes work, though. "My opponent has never been the primary respondent on a scene," she says. "He's never had any experience as a deputy coroner."

Kintz insists he's worked with the current coroner on many deaths, going back to when he was a newbie EMT seven years ago and had to stick around in fatality cases to coordinate body removal. "I have hundreds of scenes here in Park County," he says. "She has very few -- 26 scenes a decade ago. I believe my background for this position is much stronger."

For more on the highly diverse group of coroner candidates running in various races this year -- and it's a bumper crop of unusual Quincy wannabes, to be sure -- stay tuned.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast