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Monday, February 2, 2009

Goleta Grapevine Visits the Coroner

Sheriff's Busiest Division Labors with Respect, Pride

By Silvia Uribe

Professionals deal with the effects of crime in people's lives on a daily basis. They are aware of the anguish and desolation people feel when a loved one is lost to a crime that makes no sense to them. Irresponsibility or ill intentions can put an end to a human life in a matter of seconds.

There is a group of professionals whose job is to tell us the story of how and why a person dies. Police and Sheriff's Department major crime detectives are in charge of discovering the circumstances in which a crime occurred and the details of what led to it, but it is the Coroner's Bureau that is in charge of finding out and informing us about the technical details.

I met with Sgt. Gregg H. Weitzman, head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Coroner's Bureau, located in Goleta. The criminal investigations office is smaller than you might think. It includes a reception area, a private office, and a very cozy room for the family members who on occasion go there. To the right of that, on the other side of a wall, is the space where autopsies take place; it gains privacy by way of a sliding curtain. A door leads from this room into the cooling room, where bodies rest while at the Coroner's. In the back, in a separate building, is the detectives' office.

Weitzman is a very experienced law enforcement officer, who has served our community for 25 years in every capacity from patrol officer to helicoptor pilot to member of SWAT, Dive Team, and Major Crimes unit. He's done it all! Weitzman is passionate about his work and his answers were very direct as to what the Coroner's work entails.

"The Coroner is the busiest division in [the Sheriff's] Department," said Weitzman, without a trace of doubt. Besides himself, the division includes a pathologist, a secretary, and four detectives exclusively dedicated to its functions. "The number of deaths last year was 1,455. You have to understand that, when a medical death certificate is not available, all death cases in our county come to us, regardless of jurisdiction."

When detectives get to a possible crime scene, they collect all available evidence for the investigation that will follow, and then the Coroner is called. By law, no other entity can remove a dead body from the location it was found. The Coroner has quite a bit of authority granted to it by Civil Code 56.10. "For example, and among other things, we don't need a subpoena to obtain medical records," explained Weitzman.

Coroner's workroom.
Coroner's workroom.

The Coroner's staff has to study not only the obvious, but also what the naked eye cannot see. They perform microscopic and toxicology analyses, some of which are done "in house" while some are sent to other labs. DNA tests are done in the L.A area and it can take several months before the results are sent back to the forensic lab.

The average autopsy takes around three hours to perform, during which time the doctor is dictating his findings. When they are done studying the body, the Coroner's office gets in touch with the mortuary, which will take the deceased back for the funeral. Using the transcript of the previously dictated material, the Coroner's secretary then writes a report, which is reviewed by Sgt. Weitzman.

"We see here the worst of the worst cases, and the saddest. We deal with tragedies every day," said Sgt. Weitzman in a somber, respectful way. In his comments, he also showed pride in knowing that their work is crucial in making justice happen.

When asked about their interaction with families, he said, "We don't get to see many families here, mainly because we have the policy of not allowing viewings. Every now and then, however, a relative may come asking for a report from several years back, or to pick up some valuable property, which we usually return directly to the family."

When a person dies due to a crime and there is no family to be found, it becomes a "public administration" case. The Santa Barbara County administrative offices make every possible effort to find the next of kin, which may take up to a few months. During this time, the Coroner will keep the body sealed, in the cooling room, until the family-or the county, if family cannot be found-is ready for the burial.

I asked Sgt. Weitzman about the main thing that he has learned working in the Coroner's Division. He responded, "I've learned that life is fragile - our bodies are not invincible. With some slight excess of force, drugs, speed, or even an excess of trust, life can be over. We take living for granted, and life can be taken away rather quickly."

That's something to keep in mind.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.

Cross-posted at the

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