The beleaguered Spokane County coroner is under fire again, this time from doctors who blocked his plans for an autopsy on an AIDS patient.
Forensic pathologist George Lindholm refused Coroner Dexter Amend’s request for an autopsy, calling it an unnecessary invasion of privacy and a “public witch hunt.”
The dead man’s relatives say Amend compounded their grief by delaying Curtis Babcock’s cremation and trying to use an autopsy to prove homosexuality led to his death.
“It was a nightmare,” said his mother, Camilla Babcock. “I couldn’t believe anybody would do that. We thought it should be over.”
Curtis Babcock, a gay man who fought AIDS for several years, died Nov. 8 after tumors on his brain left him partly paralyzed.
The Spokane cosmetologist, 39, learned he was HIV-positive 14 years ago and assumed he contracted the virus through sex. He was under a doctor’s care for years.
Family friend Richard Kates said Amend put Babcock’s family through hell. “He’s got a focus on sodomy,” said Kates, a Spokane perinatologist. “I find it a form of harassment.”
Babcock’s doctor, Daniel Coulston, submitted a complaint on the case to the Spokane County Medical Society. The office forwarded it to a state agency already investigating Amend at Gov. Mike Lowry’s request.
The autopsy battle began when Georgia Salcido, Babcock’s younger sister, tried to pick up his ashes at Hazen & Jaeger Funeral Home two days after he died.
Babcock planned his own cremation down to his outfit: black slacks, a tie-dyed shirt. Salcido agreed to take his ashes to Butte, Mont., where they grew up, for a memorial service.
An embalmer, however, told Salcido the cremation was delayed because Amend wanted an autopsy.
“I was furious,” said Salcido, tears seeping from her eyes. “That was against everything my brother wanted. He’s already been through 14 years of hell because of this disease.”
Efforts to reach Amend this week for comment were unsuccessful.
Babcock’s body was moved to the morgue, along with Amend’s autopsy authorization. A handwritten note requested “cogent comments on condition of ano-rectal region.”
Lindholm fired back a letter refusing to have anything to do with such an autopsy.
He couldn’t determine if sodomy caused Babcock’s AIDS and thus his death, Lindholm said. He called it an unnecessary invasion of privacy and a waste of $1,000 in taxpayer money - the average cost of an autopsy.
“This was a well-diagnosed case. It was not sudden and unexpected,” said Lindholm.
“I’ll be doggoned if I’m going to be involved in somebody’s public witch hunt to pry into the lifestyles of individuals under the guise of some sort of quasi-scientific endeavor.”
The coroner left a message on Lindholm’s answering machine saying it’s irresponsible to disregard the cause of death.
Amend also infuriated Coulston.
“His first question was whether Curtis was a practicing sodomist,” said Coulston, a critical care specialist. “I said that’s irrelevant.”
Coulston already reported Babcock’s method of contracting AIDS to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for statistical purposes.
“I hung up on him,” Coulston said.
Salcido, meanwhile, called the coroner, who agreed to drop his autopsy request.
Eventually, Babcock’s body was returned to the funeral home. Six days after her brother died, Salcido got his ashes.
The state investigation requested by the governor began after Amend suggested there was a link between homosexuality and the murder of a Spokane girl, saying she’d been sodomized in the past.
Social service agencies both in Washington and California had extensive files about the young girl’s abuse. The child’s father served time for abusing her.
Jason Wickenhagen, Rachel Carver’s uncle, pleaded guilty to her murder Tuesday. The child lived with Wickenhagen and his wife in north Spokane.
Amend’s comments about Carver’s death also sparked a recall effort among angry citizens. A judge ruled a recall vote could go on the ballot if Amend critics collect enough signatures.
The coroner appealed that decision to the Washington Supreme Court, putting the signature-gathering on hold. A hearing is expected early next year.
Coulston, who treats many AIDS patients, said he doubts public health concerns piqued Amend’s interest in the deaths of Carver and Babcock. “I think he’s got his own personal agenda - his campaign against homosexuality.”
On Thanksgiving, Babcock’s relatives packed his belongings and emptied his apartment near Deaconess Medical Center.
Babcock’s partner, Kenneth Montgomery, who also is HIV-positive, said he doesn’t trust Amend.
“I’m personally going to go out of the county to die if he’s still there.”
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