Video: Body mix-up adds to legal bill at Adams County coroner's office

They don't have James Hibbard to kick around any more, but at least one of the more embarrassing goofs he was known for still seems to be a problem -- if not a tradition -- down at the Adams County coroner's office. Two and a half years after the combative, ever-controversial Hibbard stepped down as coroner, leaving a string of costly lawsuits in his wake, his successor has acknowledged that the office has once again released a body to the wrong mortuary -- leading to an embalming the family didn't want and threats of further legal action.

My 2009 feature "The Body Shop" looked into a number of complaints about the way the coroner's office operated under Hibbard, a former sheriff's deputy who clashed repeatedly with the forensic pathologist who performed autopsies for the county. (Under Colorado law, elected coroners aren't required to have a medical background; Hibbard lacked even a bachelor's degree.) During Hibbard's eight years on the job, the office was known for high staff turnover, allegations of sexual harassment, strained relationships with law enforcement agencies, instances of missing evidence and blunders in death investigations.

Hibbard left office at the end of 2010, but many of the legal actions triggered by his reign weren't dispensed with as easily. In 2011, county officials decided to resolve claims by the pathologist (who'd been fired) and several terminated female employees, shelling out more than $1.6 million in settlements. The county is still in court battling another lawsuit by the widow of a dentist; her attorneys claim Hibbard deliberately destroyed vital evidence, a piece of the man's heart, that was needed in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the hospital that treated him.

But even with Hibbard out of the picture, it hasn't been smooth sailing for new coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan (who also happens to be one of the employees that Hibbard fired and that the county later awarded a six-figure settlement). Yesterday, CBS4's Brian Maass reported that in 2012, Adams County released the body of 36-year-old David Martinez Jr. to a mortuary that was supposed to receive the remains of another male decedent. The body was embalmed, effectively scuttling the family's plans for a viewing of the body in its "natural" state.

Broncucia-Jordan told Maass that an employee didn't follow proper procedure and was fired over the incident. The coroner's office also paid $10,000 to the Martinez family for "mortuary and cremation costs," but the family is also weighing additional legal action.

Shades of 2009. Maass also reported then on two body mix-ups under the Hibbard regime. Here's the latest installment.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "James Hibbard: Did ex-coroner destroy evidence -- a piece of a dead man's aorta?"

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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