Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Former employees of the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office have come forward, telling us it will take a lot more than funding to fix the problems there.
"Enough's enough," says Steve Massey, a former district investigator for the medical examiner's office. "It's time for the agency to come up to standard and do what's needed."
For more than five years, we've reported on the deteriorating state of the agency and constant turmoil thrusting it into the spotlight.
Right now 702 families are waiting for answers in the deaths of their loved ones, down from 1,000 a month ago. Many of them have contacted us looking for help.
"The ME's office, in my opinion, it's a joke," said Joe Turner.
Joe and his wife, Donna Turner, have waited eleven long and painful years for just one thing from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office: a correct death certificate for their daughter, Shanda Turner. The original is riddled with mistakes.
They say her date of birth is wrong. Her date of death is wrong. The date her body was viewed by a medical examiner employee is wrong. It was not signed by a medical examiner. The name of the medical examiner printed on the certificate was that of a man who was no longer with the agency. But, according to the Turners, the biggest mistake was the manner of death entry. Shanda Turner's death was ruled a suicide.
"Shanda did not commit suicide," said Donna Turner. "We have proof."
Shanda was found shot in the chest at a farm house in what her parents say was an obvious and brutal murder, but the ME's office refused to do an autopsy and ruled it a suicide.
"She doesn't deserve what the ME's office has done to her," said Donna Turner.
The Former Chief
Former Chief Medical Examiner Doctor Collie Trant finally did an autopsy on Turner's body after a court order nearly a decade after her death. He ruled it a homicide.
"It was a homicide made to look like a suicide," said Trant.
But before he could sign the paper work in Turner's case, Trant was fired in one of the agency's many controversies.
The current ME staff refuses to change Turner's death certificate. Trant says he can't believe they've denied the Turners that right.
"It's incompetence at its max and it's basically forced malpractice," said Trant, speaking about his former work environment. "It's probably the worst in the nation."
Trant says pathologists at the medical examiner's office do not always receive the documents need to conduct a thorough autopsy, including medical histories and witness statements. He says when they do receive those documents many times they are thrown away because there is no place to store them.
Trant, who has a whistle blower lawsuit pending against the ME's office, continues to say the agency's biggest problem is a lack of funding. But he also says the agency itself is dysfunctional, starting at the very top with the board that oversees it.
"To me the board is a completely useless structure," said Trant.
Trant argues the Board of Medicolegal Investigations doesn't know what it takes to run a medical examiners office and made his job impossible, undercutting his efforts to improve the agency, in part by trying to control who got hired. He says when he tried to stop their meddling, he got fired.
The Former Forensic Investigator
"I want to see the agency fixed," said former forensic investigator HL Christiansen. "I want to see it running at 100 percent."
Christiansen says he left the agency a couple of months ago because the administration continues to make bad decisions, even with all of the media attention.
"I think there are a lot of problems right now," said Christiansen. "However I don't think it's a problem with the people who are going out and working in the trenches so to speak. I think it's a leadership issue."
He says the working environment at the Oklahoma City office is poor and employees don't feel like they have the support of administrators.
"It became very frustrating, the repetitive process of not getting the support from leadership that I knew we needed to do our jobs," said Christiansen.
The Former District Investigator
Former investigator Steve Massey agrees. He says he was fired over the phone a couple of months ago and still hasn't been given a reason for his termination. Massey says he never knew what his job was from day to day with no written policy or procedure in place for investigators to follow. The work environment, he says, was terrible.
"When you're there and working in that environment it's like what's going to happen next? How bad can it get? It can't get any worse. And then something else happens," says Massey.
Both Massey and Christiansen blame administrators for that environment. They say there are people in high-ranking positions who don't have the education or expertise to be making key decisions.
"As long as the current administration and the people in the upper positions are still there, it's never going to get any better," said Massey.
Massey says Cherokee Ballard is a perfect example. Ballard is a former news reporter and anchor who was hired to do media relations and some administrative duties. A year ago, Trant promoted Ballard to take on an additional role, the interim Chief Administrative Officer. That makes Ballard the second highest ranking administrator under the Chief Medical Examiner and the highest ranking administrator in the agency's central office in Oklahoma City. She is in charge hiring, firing and setting some policies and procedures.
Trant says Ballard constantly overstepped her boundaries when he was still at the agency.
"She just chose to be an expert the easy way, by pretending to be one," said Trant.
The Chief Administrative Officer
Ballard says she didn't expect to be the Chief Administrative Officer for this long, but disputes claims she is unqualified.
"I think on the job training. I think years of maybe some common sense," replied Ballard. "I certainly understand if people don't think I'm qualified. But I've been doing the job for a year and I'm trying to do the best I can for this agency."
Ballard says she believes all three former employees who talked to us are disgruntled. But she does admit there are no policies and procedures in place for employees, including investigators. She says that is one of the many things she expects from the new chief medical examiner, who started this week.
"I think that's one of his top ten," said Ballard. "To create an atmosphere where you know what's expected of you and you know what to do."
She says things are getting better at the agency and continues to point to the lack of funding as the most severe problem. She says the backlog could be addressed quickly if the agency could hire two to four more pathologists to do the work. Right now, she says, there just isn't enough time in the day for the current pathologists to get everything done.
"Improving the agency? We are all about it," said Ballard. "That is always on the forefront of our minds and I think that we are moving that direction."
We asked the Governor what she plans to do about the ME's office. She gave us this statement, "Every Oklahoman is affected by the performance of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner because all of us eventually lose loved ones. Unfortunately, the ME's office has been plagued by a number of well-documented problems. It's time to put these problems behind us and move forward."
Fallin's Press Secretary, Alex Weintz, also released this statement, "Governor Fallin is extremely concerned about the past performance of the medical examiner's office and personally visited one of their board meetings earlier this year to urge members to work diligently to restore the agency's lost credibility. She will continue to stay engaged and to hold the agency accountable."
The Turners are no longer waiting for improvements. They've taken their fight to the state capitol. They say changing state law is the only remaining option for their family and for the families of countless others still waiting. Both the House and Senate passed the Chanda Turner Reform Act unanimously at the end of this session.
The new Chief Medical Examiner, Doctor Eric Pfeifer, started Monday. He says he'll give us an interview in a couple of weeks.