Editor’s note: This article contains graphic details that may be disturbing to sensitive readers.
Coroners deal with death, in various forms, as part of their everyday work.
In Kansas, each judicial district has its own coroner. For Harvey and McPherson counties — District Nine — that coroner is Ron Morford.
“I ended up here because I started doing the emergency room physician work at the Newton Medical Center back in 1990,” Morford said.
His decades of experience in emergency rooms both in Newton and in Wichita gave him the skills necessary to be a coroner, a job he has performed for nearly 27 years.
“Thirty-five years in the emergency room, non-stop, I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Morford said.
Morford was able to come to terms with seeing injuries and death early on in his medical career.
“I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I had no fear of what was going to come next,” Morford said. “And some crazy stuff came though the door, no question about it.”
As a coroner, he certifies all deaths for anyone under the age of 18, unattended deaths and suicides.
“The coroner determines and certifies the cause of death for a whole variety of kinds of deaths that occur,” Morford said.
Deaths that may be the result of an injury — whether it occurs on the job, at home, in a vehicle or as the result of an attack — must be certified by the coroner, as well as any death that happens while an individual is in the custody of law enforcement.
When a family member requests that law enforcement investigate a person’s death, the coroner is called to assist.
“Almost never do those turn out to be anything, but you have to take them seriously,” Morford said.
He is assisted by a team of death investigators, who take care of cases where deaths are not unusual or suspicious.
“A lot of the deaths are primarily documented and taken care of by a group of death investigators,” Morford said. “They are the ones who are called first.”
Calls about a death can come in to his phone at any time.
“One hundred percent of the time, they call me. That’s my rule. They have to call me about every death,” Morford said. “Day or night, I want to be called.”
When called, Morford goes to where the body is — either where death occurred or, often, the emergency room.
“The body is our jurisdiction, the scene is law enforcement’s jurisdiction,” Morford noted.
If an autopsy is required, a transport vehicle comes to pick up the body to take it to the Regional Forensic Science Center in Wichita.
“The coroner does not do the autopsy unless he is a pathologist,” Morford explained. “In Kansas, by law, only a certified pathologist is allowed to do autopsies. At the forensic center, they’re all certified forensic pathologists and they do all our autopsies.”
A funeral home takes charge of a body after death, originating the death certificate which Morford certifies.
He also reviews each request for cremation, ensuring the cause of death is legitimate before the body is converted to ashes.
“No matter who signs the death certificate, every cremation must be authorized by the coroner,” Morford said.
That policy is intended to prevent evidence of wrongdoing from being destroyed, as the state now allows only the coroner from jurisdiction where the person died to sign off on a cremation request.
Morford carefully reviews each case and, in some instances, has asked law enforcement to check on deaths that seem suspicious.
Since he is not a pathologist and does not perform autopsies, he is rarely asked to testify in court. One notable exception was in the case of the murder of Thomas Zook, who was killed when his son, Christopher Zook, shot him in the back of the head in a grocery store in Newton.
“The pictures were so gross that the judge ruled that they would taint the jury,” Morford said. “So they had me come testify.”
Morford said he does not watch much TV, but did admit to being a fan of the character of “Ducky” on NCIS.
“Other than that, I don’t watch any medical shows,” Morford said. “There’s more drama on TV than there is in real life.”
Unlike fictional accounts, the time of a person’s death is not easy to determine, Morford said, though he does use some of the same procedures shown on TV shows.
If an autopsy is required, he generally will not stick a thermometer into a person’s liver, as it creates a puncture the forensic pathologists have to work around.
In one case, Morford did use a rectal thermometer to take the core temperature of a person who had died and seemed warmer than usual. It turned out he had died of an illness that caused a high fever and his body temperature was 105 degrees, even after his death.
The coroner also works with entomologists to determine time of death by looking for the presence of flies, eggs or maggots on bodies.
This past year has kept him busier than usual, with 11 homicides occurring between February 2016 and February 2017 in Harvey County, Morford noted.
“People aren’t going to stop dying until the end comes. There’s no question about job security,” Morford said.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.