TACOMA – The death of a 54-year-old Jewish man on a snowy slope on Mount Rainier set the stage for a Pierce County court fight pitting religious belief against scientific certainty.
Brian Grobois, of New Rochelle, N.Y., died on a solo snowshoe hike, apparently from hypothermia. His body was recovered Dec. 13. Three days later, a judge upheld an appeal barring Pierce County’s medical examiner from conducting an autopsy on Grobois’ body because of religious objections from the family, the News-Tribune reported Sunday.
The case attracted the interest of Gov. Chris Gregoire and Jewish leaders from around the country. Jewish law requires a fast burial and no autopsy, but the Pierce County medical examiner fought for an autopsy because questions remain about the New York man’s death.
“This is not a matter of life and death. This is a matter of death and afterlife,” said Rabbi Zalman Heber, director of Chabad Jewish Center of Pierce County, on Friday.
Looking for answers
But Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark said state law clearly empowers him to investigate unnatural deaths, and an autopsy was needed to answer questions that arose in his mind about how Grobois died.
“Their concerns were very real to them,” Clark said in an interview Friday. “But they’re in conflict with Washington law and our charge to accurately determine deaths, and I can’t make everybody happy.”
State law doesn’t allow families to stop autopsies on religious grounds. Heber said the Jewish community intends to ask state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session to change the law to accommodate such requests. He said 11 states have similar exemptions.
“This case is a classic example of why this is needed so there is no confusion in the future,” Heber said. “The family (members) shouldn’t have had to go through what they went through.”
Clark said such a change would have significant implications for medical examiners around Washington and could jeopardize the integrity of death investigations.
A dream excursion
Grobois realized a dream on Dec. 11 when he arrived at Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park for a snowshoe excursion, but something went amiss.
The family called the park the next morning to report him overdue. A helicopter crew found him later that afternoon lying in the snow at the top of the Stevens Creek drainage at an elevation of about 5,400 feet.
A park spokeswoman said he likely lost this way, became exhausted, sat down and succumbed to the brutal cold; Paradise reached a low of 14 degrees that Sunday night, and Grobois was not equipped to spend the night outdoors.
Grobois was taken by helicopter to Madigan Army Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Attending Madigan doctors wrote on medical records that Grobois died of “hypothermia/cardiac arrest,” according to Clark.
Heber said the doctors told him and Grobois’ wife, daughter and son, who had flown in the morning of Dec. 13, that there was no need for an autopsy; they were confident about the cause of death.
A chief investigator for the National Park Service told Heber he reached the same conclusion independently, Heber said Friday.
“From all angles, there was no need for an autopsy,” Heber said.
But Clark reached a different conclusion.
The circumstances of Grobois’ death and the fact that he was in good health and no one witnessed his death made Clark determine he needed to conduct his own investigation.
“They wrote the only thing they knew, which is the body was cold,” Clark said. “The body can get cold and cause death, or death can happen for some other reason and then the body can get cold, and they don’t have any basis for telling the difference.” He also noted the body was covered in bruises, inconsistent with a finding that he wandered lost, fell asleep and died.
Agony of waiting
Heber said the situation put incredible stress on the Grobois family. Jewish law prevents the family from starting its seven days of mourning until a body is buried.
“It was agony for them,” he said.
After a hearing on Dec. 16, a judge signed an order barring the medical examiner’s office from conducting an autopsy and ordering the body to be released to the family.
Clark, in consultation with the prosecuting attorney’s office, decided against another appeal.
“We were afraid that if we lost the second level of appeal that would set a precedent that would be dangerous not just for us, but for every other medical examiner system in the state,” he said.
He said he wasn’t influenced by calls that the Grobois family and its supporters made to his office and to other officials.
Grobois was buried in Jerusalem last week.
Heber said the family is confident that Grobois died of hypothermia doing what he loved. The case ended with no such certainty for Clark and his office. On Grobois’ death certificate, it listed his cause and manner of death as “undetermined.” Another line gives the reason: “Examination prohibited by court order.”