Stiff Competition

Bob and Meredith Norton opened Parker Funeral Home three years ago, hoping to capitalize on one inevitable aspect of Douglas County's rapid population growth. But they've found that their business is deader than they think it should be, and they're crying foul.

Bob Norton claims there's no mystery. He points out the close connection between the Douglas County coroner's office and his chief rival, Robert Gibson, of Andrews Caldwell Gibson Funeral Home in Castle Rock--for decades the only funeral home in the county.

Gibson, it seems, has been serving without pay as a deputy for the coroner, who is responsible for determining causes of death, conducting autopsies and releasing bodies to next of kin. And the county morgue is housed at Gibson's funeral home, which collects $200 a month in rent from the county. In turn, the funeral home gets free use of the county's refrigeration unit.

"People die in Parker, they're buried in Parker, but they go seventeen miles away for the service," Norton says. "There has to be a reason."

Douglas is the only county in the metro area whose coroner's office still shares facilities with a funeral home, but Gibson and coroner Mark Stover insist the coroner's office has never pointed business Gibson's way. "People don't know they were dealing with Andrews Funeral Home," Stover says. "We cannot even give them a list [of funeral homes]. We say, 'We cannot recommend any.'"

Gibson's funeral home does account for the largest share of business in the county, about 33 percent, according to county death certificates from January 1995 through July 1996. Norton's Parker Funeral Home handled less than 6 percent of county deaths during the same time period; the rest went to funeral homes in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas.

"Douglas County coroners have never steered anybody anywhere," says Gibson. "I can assure you that no ethical person in that situation would do that, and I have never done that."

Records from the coroner's office indicate that a majority of the death certificates signed by Gibson list his funeral home as the handler of the bodies, but Gibson chalks that up to chance.

From January 1995 to July 1996, Stover signed off on 124 certificates, about 60 percent of the county's total. Only 25 percent of the certificates he signed listed Gibson's funeral home. Gibson, in the same time period, signed off on 49 certificates, about 24 percent of the total. But 57 percent of the certificates he signed listed his own funeral home.

Gibson says all he does is "help with the facilitation of paperwork." He says that the "death-certificate process begins to happen after a funeral home is selected," meaning that the family has already selected a funeral home by the time he signs the certificate.

"I stand behind my long term of service as a deputy coroner for this county," he says. "It's all a non-issue."

Stover says Norton is just bitter. "The biggest problem is, he doesn't have the business he thought he'd have," Stover says, "and he blames that on me."

Gibson may be feeling some of the heat himself. He has decided to step down as deputy coroner at the end of this year; the only reason he gives is that he is "tired of helping."

Deputy coroner Wes Riber says he thinks Gibson is going as a result of the fuss. "Part of it is because of all this misunderstanding," says Riber. "Part of it is [it's] an inconvenience for him to volunteer all this time."

Norton says enough damage has already been done. "Every time we have a funeral, a death in Parker, they send for Bob Gibson," he says. "He doesn't get paid, but he works for the other funeral home. Guess who gets the business? I'm aware that it looks like I'm complaining. But in my experience, it's pretty hard to fool me."

Some funeral directors outside the squabble say they're sympathetic to Norton's concerns. "There are some who may contend that's a prima facie conflict of interest--just the very nature of it," says John Horan, owner of Horan & McConaty Funeral Home in Denver. "There's that side of it, and I understand." On the other hand, Horan adds, "I have no reason to build [Gibson] up, but for fifteen years I've known him to be a kind, gentle, honest person."

Littleton funeral home owner Bob Drinkwine says he didn't complete plans to expand into Douglas County until he was satisfied that Gibson's operation wasn't doing anything improper. (Drinkwine's funeral home, which he expects to open soon, will be the third in the county.) "There was only one mortuary there at the time, rightfully so," says Drinkwine. "The coroner's office worked out of [it], and it was a small town. Douglas County is not a small town anymore. The coroner is very upfront, and the commissioners have been very forward."

But the Nortons aren't too happy with the Douglas County Commission. After they complained last November that they hadn't received information about a bid to house the county's autopsy facility--a bid ultimately awarded to Gibson's funeral home--the commissioners agreed to issue a new request for proposals. The Nortons put together a proposal, but the bid was again awarded to Gibson's. In a letter to the Nortons, county accounting manager Ann Waterman wrote that "the amount bid for these facilities by Parker Funeral Home was slightly lower" but noted that "the county is not bound to award to the low bidder."

"I don't think we would have gotten that, no matter what," says Meredith Norton. "I thought the purpose was to pick the low bid."

This doesn't mean that the coroner's office is always in synch with the county commission. In the summer of 1995, Stover's office went over budget for the first time in eleven years, by $7,000, because of Stover's hiring of extra help to handle an increased workload. The commissioners responded by cutting off extra funding for the rest of the year, forcing Stover to finish the year on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no help.

And as an elected official, Stover, of course, has his critics. Anthony Makowski, a Littleton physician who ran for coroner in 1994 against Stover, says Stover's arrangement with Gibson "smacks of impropriety."

Funeral director Jim Stork agrees, though he stops short of criticizing Gibson. "In the metro area, all these coroner's offices have moved out of mortuaries; it's a conflict of interest," says Stork, owner of A Choice Cremation & Funeral Services, which has several branches in and around Denver. "It's too easy for someone to be paid to say 'Call these people.' It's not fair to the other mortuaries."

He's quick to add, though, that he's not necessarily referring to Gibson's funeral home.

The odds are that Dougas County eventually will join the other metro counties in severing any official ties with private mortuaries. When Dr. Wilbur Richie came to Jefferson County as its coroner fourteen years ago, he says, one of the deputies owned a funeral home. But no more. "Since I've come here, we've made changes away from that," Richie says. "We'd lean away from rather than toward it. Now we don't recommend any funeral home. We've made it a point to give families four or five names in the Denver area--the closest ones."

In Arapahoe County, coroner's office personnel are also not allowed to recommend a particular funeral home to next of kin. Denver takes much of the politics out of the situation by not even having an elected coroner but rather a chief medical examiner hired under Career Service Authority rules.

Meanwhile, Bob Norton is thinking of trying to determine whether families have been steered to Gibson's funeral home. He says he's reluctant to contact grieving families personally to ask them about any improprieties, because he considers it rude. Nevertheless, Norton insists, "It's not a fair playing field.

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T.R. Witcher