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Coroner Criticized For Words And Deeds Investigators Question Amend’s Competence; Victims’ Families Cite Insensitivity

Spokane County Coroner Dexter Amend roared into Steven and Anne-Marie Fuhrmeister’s home one April morning.

He shoved his business cards in their faces, tripped over their son’s lifeless body and rambled on about all the ways 3-year-old Benjamin’s organs could be used.

That’s how the Fuhrmeisters remember the first - and they hope the last - time they met Amend.

“He went on ad infinitum about how they could use his organs, with specifics about how you could clean out the heart valves and they could be used,” says Steven Fuhrmeister.

During his eight months in office, Amend has left a lot of people questioning his behavior, interviews with a half-dozen law enforcement officers and many relatives of the deceased show.

They say he has refused to do autopsies despite the pleading of police and relatives who weren’t so sure deaths were accidental or natural. They say he has made callous, disrespectful comments to people reeling in grief. They say he authorized retrieval of organs from a dead man’s body before investigators had finished gathering evidence.

They say he even guessed how people had died without enough evidence.

Amend’s “decisions affect a family forever, and he makes these off-the-cuff decisions without any facts,” says a Spokane police detective who asked that his name not be printed because he regularly works with the coroner.

George Lindholm, the forensic pathologist who performs most of Amend’s autopsies, agrees.

“I have strong reason to believe there are problems with the death certificates. In my opinion, they’re not just judgment calls,” he says. “They’re misrepresentation.”

Amend refused repeated requests to talk with The Spokesman-Review.

In campaigning for the coroner’s job last fall, the retired urologist emphasized his medical background and experience as county coroner from 1983 to 1986.

In previous interviews, Amend has defended his decision to limit the number of autopsies as a way to save taxpayers’ money.

Even before he took office, Amend created controversy by telling a longtime coroner’s office secretary he planned to fire her. She now is suing over her dismissal.

He’s warring with hospital officials over whether he can have a key to the county morgue, located in Holy Family Hospital.

Two weeks ago, Amend came under attack when he linked a young girl’s murder to homosexuality because she had been sodomized in the past. He then condemned homosexuality. While supporters rallied around him, critics asked for him to resign or be recalled.

For the Fuhrmeister family, Amend’s behavior made a traumatic experience even worse.

On the morning of April 17, Steven Fuhrmeister, a bathroom contractor, went into Benjamin’s room and found the boy wasn’t breathing. The family learned the boy had burped, sucked liquid back into his lungs and choked.

The boy, who was born with cerebral palsy, was just shy of his fourth birthday.

Paramedics, police and funeral personnel filled their home.

“Everyone was fabulous, very respectful; then Dex wiled his way in,” says Anne-Marie Fuhrmeister. “He was kind of a shock.”

Amend had been in office only a week when a 50-year old child care worker died in her bed one Saturday. Judy Armstrong hadn’t been sick and wasn’t seeing a doctor, says her husband, Chuck Armstrong, a night janitor at the Shadle Park McDonald’s.

Shaken, Armstrong hoped an autopsy could help explain his wife’s mysterious death. Wait until after the weekend, the coroner’s office told him.

By Monday, Armstrong says, his wife’s body already had been taken to a funeral home.

“I thought it was too late,” says Armstrong. “If Amend had been a professional, he would’ve told me he could still do the autopsy.”

Even more shocking, Armstrong says, Amend blamed her death on overusing an asthma inhalant.

“She never used them,” says Armstrong, whose wife was given inhalers when diagnosed with a slight case of asthma about a year earlier.

Armstrong is haunted by questions about how his wife died. “We’ll never know for exact,” he says. “All we can do is guess.”

Says Armstrong’s attorney, Cheryl Mitchell: “If the coroner wasn’t going to do an autopsy, he should have told them so they could have arranged for one privately.”

A 56-year-old Spokane Valley man’s death will remain a mystery to his sister, Carol Johnson.

Allen Johnson’s girlfriend reported him dead early May 10. Carol Johnson requested an autopsy on behalf of her mother, who wondered why her son had died so young.

“The coroner’s office said it’d cost $1,500 and we’d have to pay for it,” says Johnson, who lives in Bremerton. “My mother wanted one anyway.”

A coroner’s office employee - Johnson doesn’t remember the name - assured her that heart problems had caused the death and convinced Johnson an autopsy wasn’t needed.

The family became increasingly suspicious, however, and decided to pay for an autopsy anyway. “It was too late,” she says. “The body had just been cremated.”

Johnson says Amend should have ordered an autopsy in the first place because her brother had died relatively young and wasn’t under a doctor’s care.

“He’s trying to save money, and I guess that makes him look like a big guy,” says Johnson. “But it causes havoc all over.

“Now it’s like I’ll never know for sure what happened.”

Tami Taylor, a 37-year-old single mom, fumes at the mention of Amend’s name.

Taylor’s brother, Tim Frisby, 40, died in June from internal bleeding. Amend pressed Taylor, Frisby’s only surviving relative, to pay for cremation.

She said she couldn’t afford it on her $1,200-a-month salary as a law clerk for the county prosecutor. “He asked me where my old man was,” she recalls. “I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Your husband.”’

Taylor told Amend she wasn’t married. “He told me, ‘You should go to church and find a nice man,”’ she says. “Then he asked me where I lived. I said ‘Clear out in the Valley.’ He said, ‘Well, you should go to Opportunity Presbyterian Church.”’

Amend is an elder in that church.

The coroner also told Taylor her brother had been an alcoholic since he was 14 - information that was false and came off as an indictment of her brother’s life, Taylor says.

When she stopped by Amend’s office to get her brother’s billfold, a secretary asked Taylor why her last name differs from her brother’s. Taylor explained she is divorced.

Amend shouted from his office that Taylor should have kept her maiden name, she says.

“My brother’s the last person in my immediate family to die, and I’ve got all this to deal with,” Taylor says.

An employee of Amend’s during his first stint as coroner in the 1980s recalls a sobbing couple’s visit to the coroner’s office to pick up their dead son’s belongings.

As the grief-stricken family struggled to deal with their son’s drug overdose, the employee remembers Amend saying, “I don’t know what’s bothering you. After all, he lived on the fringe. What did you expect?”

The employee says, “I felt like crawling under the desk. He’s crude. He’s really crude. He has no social skills.”

When a young Vietnamese couple was found shot to death in July, it was obvious to a police homicide investigator the two had been murdered.

The detective says it wasn’t quite so obvious to Amend.

Cords binding the victims prompted Amend to ask whether the deaths were the result of autoeroticism, in which oxygen to the brain is cut to increase sexual pleasure.

Police were stunned at the suggestion. “To get so excited you end up blowing your brains out?” says the detective. “I don’t think so.”

The investigator who tells this story didn’t want his name printed for fear it’d make working with Amend even tougher.

In another recent death, Amend refused to do an autopsy on a man found in his home a day or two after friends said he had hit his head on a sidewalk while drunk, police say.

The friends told investigators they took the man home and put him to bed after he had fallen, but detectives wanted an autopsy to rule out foul play, Spokane police Lt. Jerry Oien said last month.

Other detectives were refused autopsies when they have asked for them, raising “serious, serious questions” about how autopsy cases are chosen, Oien said.

The coroner has final say on whether to do autopsies, even in police cases.

In his first six months in office, Amend asked for 82 autopsies, or 4 percent of the 1,968 deaths. Ten percent is a common rate in metropolitan areas, says Donald Reay, King County’s chief medical examiner.

Another investigator was incensed to learn Amend had authorized organ retrieval on a deceased young man before all evidence had been gathered.

The victim died in a July car crash that killed five Deer Park residents. Washington State Patrol troopers needed more evidence to confirm which victim had been driving and an autopsy was scheduled.

“They did some harvesting without our knowledge, and we potentially lost some evidence off a body,” says WSP Sgt. Jeff Sale. “My detective was livid when he came back in.

“The pathologist had very little to go on to give us a cause of death.”

The coroner assured Sale it wouldn’t happen again.

“He’s got to have good communication and rapport with the Police Department, the sheriff’s office and the pathologist so that we can all work together for a common goal,” a Spokane police detective says of Amend.

“He’s the major stumbling block in that circle.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT DOES A CORONER DO? The county coroner is elected to a four-year term to investigate unexpected deaths and rule on the cause and manner of death. The coroner often works alongside law enforcement investigators and may consult a physician or order an autopsy. The coroner also has the power to call an inquest into the cause of death, and convene a coroner’s jury in cases where a crime is suspected.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT DOES A CORONER DO? The county coroner is elected to a four-year term to investigate unexpected deaths and rule on the cause and manner of death. The coroner often works alongside law enforcement investigators and may consult a physician or order an autopsy. The coroner also has the power to call an inquest into the cause of death, and convene a coroner’s jury in cases where a crime is suspected.

Tags: ethics

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