An approaching election season may be to blame for a divide in Stevens County government, one that for months has affected the way deaths are investigated.
Since at least May or November of last year – depending on who you ask – the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office and the Stevens County coroner have been deadlocked in a feud, with neither side willing to budge. The fallout has led to spats between elected officials, a disjointed and at times broken system for dealing with deaths within the county, and an increased burden on county taxpayers.
Those in one camp say the sheriff is akin to a tyrant, asserting his power over deputies and the coroner’s office in a bid to ensure he leads county law enforcement for another four years. Those in the other camp believe the coroner is lazy, unreliable and difficult to work with.
The result has been frustration – even among those caught in the middle.
“Even if people don’t like each other personally, we have an obligation to try to do the best we can for the citizens,” said County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen, who’s tried for months to mediate an agreement between the coroner and sheriff. “It seems to me that they ought to be able to work it out in some way. But I don’t have the answer to it.”
The quarrel involves Lorrie Sampson, the coroner of Stevens County of three years, and Kendle Allen, the sheriff of seven years who along with Sampson, is up for re-election in November.
Sampson said things were cordial for the majority of her time as an elected official. But that all changed last year in May.
She was at a restaurant in Colville, celebrating with friends and family, when, she said, the sheriff saw her interacting with Mike Berry, a Stevens County sheriff’s deputy who had recently announced a campaign to run against Allen in this November’s election.
Ever since that day, she said Allen has been vindictive. He’s implemented nonsensical policies, and goes behind her back on death investigations.
A day after she was spotted with Berry, she said Allen barred her from ever entering the sheriff’s office, which is in the same building as her office. In the following months, he’s also directed his deputies not to share reports and information on death investigations, and he’s avoided mediation between Sampson and other county officials.
“All I know is I have a job to do,” she said. “And he’s stepping on my toes. I’ve never seen him. He sits in an office. I’m out in the field with his deputies.”
Allen sees it differently. The problem didn’t start in May, but rather in November, when Sampson sent a four-page memo to Allen, Rasmussen at the prosecutor’s office, and all three county commissioners – Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell.
In it, she accused the sheriff of “interfering in her office” by calling her deputy coroners instead of her, among a litany of other complaints against the office. One of those coroners was Mike George, who is also a sheriff’s deputy.
“I don’t care whether she campaigns for Mike Berry,” he said. “I can tell you a story and make it sound horrible, or I can tell you the truth.”
Allen said the problem is simple: Deputies have trouble getting a hold of Sampson at the coroner’s office when a death occurs, so they choose to call one of the volunteers.
“I can’t have guys sitting out with dead people all night,” he said. “We just can’t do that.”
Allen also had a problem with how and when the coroner would arrive at a scene. The way he sees it, the coroner has an obligation to either arrive in person or send one of her deputies to collect a body, regardless of circumstance.
Sampson disagrees. According to her office’s guidelines, which were borrowed in part from the same set of rules used by the Spokane County medical examiner’s office, where Sampson worked for many years, the coroner will “determine whether the office will or will not assume jurisdiction and responsibility for signing the death certificate.”
Sampson said it’s not possible for her office to send someone out to all deaths in the county, which averages about 400 a year. To compromise, she said deputies should call and speak to the coroner and provide information about the scene.
If it’s natural, no need for the coroner to get involved, she said. Allen doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t want this to fall back on my deputies,” he said. “It’s her job to look at a body and find out whether it needs an autopsy or not.”
John Fudenberg is the coroner of Clark County in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas – a city that in 2017 had its highest murder rate in the country after a gunman killed 59 people in October.
He said it’s common and expected for some county coroners or medical examiners to respond to every death, but that’s only if the budget allows it. In his county, for instance, he said there’s enough money and enough staff to assist law enforcement on almost every call, no matter the nature.
But in rural counties, like Stevens, it’s a different relationship – one where law enforcement will have to do much of the legwork to determine if the coroner is necessary, he said.
“There is no easy answer,” he said. “It really comes down to a matter of managing your resources. That’s the bottom line. In an ideal world, everybody would tell you it would be nice to have somebody who is a trained medicolegal professional who is certified on scene at all times.”
Sampson works in an office by herself. She’s the only full-time employee, and works each year on a budget of $170,000 a year. Of that budget, she said only $5,000 is allocated to pay for deputy coroners.
Each time one of her deputy coroners responds to a scene, she said it costs $200 plus mileage. In a county that’s over 2,000 square miles, she said the cost adds up quick. Last year, she said she was $20,000 over budget, in large part due to paying her deputies.
McCart, who is chair of the county commissioners, said he was skeptical the sheriff’s directive would impact the coroner’s budget. If anything, he said the amount of deaths overall, including those that come from people attempting to cross the border from Canada, have had the biggest impact.
From what he understood of the situation, he agreed that the coroner should make it a priority to respond in person to every call.
“I know that the coroner is not happy with the sheriff, and I know the coroner is supporting a different sheriff’s candidate,” he said. “Part of me wants to say, ‘What part of this is political and what part is an actual problem?’ ”
Sampson also outlined her plan to stop using county dispatch services to respond to calls, because she said the dispatch’s manager was intentionally falsifying information to make it seem like she wasn’t responding. She said the irregularities happened after May but in the three previous years she has served as coroner, there was never an issue.
So instead of relying on the county to keep an accurate report, she implemented an answering service that would log when she got calls from deputies and when she responded. That way, she said, she could independently track her workflow’s accuracy.
In response, Allen sent an email directive to his 26 deputies, telling them to only call dispatch and alert them of a death. Dispatch will then call the coroner once, and will only include the address, name of the deceased if possible, and the phone number and name of the reporting party.
No longer would they provide details of the death, which Sampson said would typically help in their investigation.
“We, dispatch, the deputies and I, have been accused of interfering in the operation of the Coroner’s Office, thus the reason for the above changes,” Allen wrote in the email provided to the Spokesman-Review. “I am concerned that on a future call one of us may be accused of not noticing something at a death scene, not answering a question correctly, or any multitude of other defects that could lead something to think we did not relay information to the Coroner.”
At the bottom of the email, he writes that, “All deputies and dispatchers will pay strict adherence to this directive.”
Above everything else, Sampson said this was the most disruptive to her job.
Patty Markel, a deputy coroner of 15 years, retired from her county job last year but still volunteers at the coroner’s office. She said with the way things used to be, deputies would be on the phone with the coroner’s office, describing the scene and giving their thoughts on what happened. That included location and state of the body.
That doesn’t happen anymore, she said.
“I’ve been told from other sources, pretty much if deputies talk to us they’re going to get fired,” she said. “And it’s crazy. Everything used to work so smoothly. And I don’t know what changed.”
On Jan. 8, Allen sent another email to deputies, saying that he’d heard the coroner’s office was calling the reporting party, and through them, asking to speak to deputies. He directed them to stop, and instead to tell the coroner she needs to respond in person.
Allen said he would not fire deputies if they didn’t adhere to this protocol.
Fudenberg, who’s had years of experience as a coroner, said he’d never heard of a system where law enforcement does not communicate with coroners and vice versa.
“The coroner needs to have all of the information up front in order to respond appropriately,” he said. “When that relationship breaks down, that becomes very problematic and that can spiral downwards.”
Allen and Sampson say they’re willing to compromise, but after months of bickering, neither is especially hopeful.
Sampson, who says she’s voting for Berry in the race for sheriff, doesn’t think Allen will budge so long as she supports his political rival.
“He hunkered down and said things aren’t changing,” she said. “I think he’s taken a very harsh stance.”
Allen, meanwhile, said before someone budges, he needs “assurance that there’s some trust there that’s sorely missing.” Until then, he’s not moving.
“Sometimes you just have to draw a line,” he said. “And I drew it.”
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