Dying for the truth

Are recent claims of an inappropriate workplace at the coroner's office politically motivated or are they real?

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

In recent weeks, sources have come forward objecting to the conduct of the forensic pathologist Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall has contracted to conduct many of the county’s autopsies, Dr. Michael Arnall. They have called his behavior unprofessional and claim he bullies and berates the staff of the coroner’s office. They allege that he makes for an uncomfortable and perhaps even hostile working environment for those who attend autopsies, which can include the medicolegal death investigators charged with determining cause of death, staff of the district attorney’s office and law enforcement officers investigating crimes. That behavior culminated, they say, in an incident in which the remains of a child were allegedly mishandled during an autopsy in mid- April. Since about that time, Dr. Arnall’s absence has been noted around the county and some have questioned whether the decision to take time off was entirely his.

Hall maintains that the doctor has had a recent death in the family and is taking some well-deserved time off after regularly putting in seven-day work-weeks in the first years since she took office in January 2011. Asked about whether she had heard complaints from staff, law enforcement or staff of the district attorney’s office, in a May 28 conversation with Boulder Weekly, Hall said, “I haven’t been approached by law enforcement myself, so that’s not something that they’ve come and talked to me about. I have had these discussions, because this isn’t the first time it’s come up and I guess it feels very politically motivated, and so we’ll certainly take a look at this, and anything that is brought up about personnel is something that we take a really strong look at and there’s not really any details I can go into because they are personnel matters, but he has not been suspended. He is still under contract. He is, like I said, taking some time off which he has had planned since the beginning of this year. He has some travels that he’d like to do and he did have a loss in the family, so that is where we stand.”

While he’s been taking some time off in Boulder County, Dr. Arnall has continued to work for the other counties to which his services are contracted, Adams and Broomfield. Multiple calls to Dr. Arnall for comment were not returned.

In Colorado, coroners are elected to office and perform the managerial responsibilities of the office responsible for handling sudden and unexpected deaths. Unless the coroner elected happens to also be a trained forensic pathologist —a board-certified position requiring years of medical school and a specialized residency — the coroner contracts with a forensic pathologist to perform autopsies.

In January 2011, shortly after she was sworn in, Hall approached the Boulder County Commissioners to hire Dr. Arnall — the office signs an annual contract for the services of a forensic pathologist, asking the doctor to be available for autopsies as requested by the county coroner. The previous forensic pathologist had retired at the same time Hall’s predecessor had left office. Hall requested a bid waiver to hire Arnall, who had not been working in Boulder County on an ongoing basis at the time.

“And you’re confident in the particular…” then County Commissioner Ben Pearlman began, trailing off as Hall interjected, “Very.”

In some ways, it was an easy sell. His price was $800 per autopsy, lower by $225 per autopsy compared to the $1,025 the previous clinical pathologists were charging. His price has since increased to $900 per autopsy, compared to $1,000 for a second forensic pathologist who was also contracted, also with a bid waiver, for his services by Boulder County in October 2013.

“Dr. Arnall always likes to underprice himself a little bit because he really enjoys the work and that’s just kind of his strategy,” Hall says.

Coroners have discretion on who they hire to perform autopsies — though in Colorado, the choices are limited to the 14 to 17 board-certified forensic pathologists working in the state to handle autopsies across all 64 counties. Hall says she chose Dr. Arnall because she already had a working relationship with him; the two had previously worked together at the Adams County Coroner’s Office.

“Because of my working relationship with Dr. Arnall and my, I don’t know how to word it, basically, my trust in his experience and his abilities, he was who I wanted to bring in to Boulder County,” Hall says. “So I asked for a waiver so that I didn’t have to put up a bid and have pathologists from different parts of the state or even out of state bid on it and go through a process of hiring someone I don’t know at all.” 

The county doesn’t require hiring the lowest bidder on a contract, but Hall would have had to make a case for why she wanted to select someone with a higher price tag, she says.

She also said she was facing an immediate need for a forensic pathologist and was disinclined to postpone getting someone under contract to wait out a bid process.

Some close to the coroner’s office say they believe that the relationship between Hall and Dr. Arnall has been influenced by a previous lawsuit they were both involved in.

The lawsuit in question involved accusations of sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

In 2009, Dr. Arnall and Hall left the Adams County Coroner’s Office over claims of sexual harassment occurring in that office that Arnall had objected to and Hall had been the target of. Dr. Arnall sued then-Adams County Coroner Jim Hibbard and Adams County, claiming he was fired for objecting to Hibbard’s and his chief deputy coroner’s harassment of staff, including Hall and current Adams and Broomfield County Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan. Hall and Broncucia- Jordan also each filed federal lawsuits against Hibbard, Hall’s claiming she had been sexually harassed while working as an investigator at the Adams County Coroner’s Office, and Broncucia-Jordan’s claiming she was fired for participating in the investigation into claims of sexual harassment.

Current Adams County Chief Deputy Coroner Sherronda Appleberry had also filed a lawsuit over her work in Hibbard’s office.

Adams County paid a total of $1.6 million in settlements to former employees for those allegations of sexual harassment, the Denver Post reported in 2011. Arnall was awarded $650,000, Hall received $350,000 and Broncucia- Jordan and Appleberry each received $275,000.

Boulder County’s Chief Deputy Coroner Dustin Bueno also worked at the Adams County Coroner’s Office at that time and Westword reported in 2009 that he also claimed Hibbard retaliated against him for participating in an investigation of the chief deputy coroner.

When Hibbard left office, Arnall ran for Adams County coroner against Broncucia-Jordan and narrowly lost that election to her in 2010. He’s running again this year as the Republican candidate for Adams and Broomfield County coroner against incumbent Democrat Broncucia-Jordan.

Hall was one of the main recipients of sexual harassment in the office, she says. Dr. Arnall was a witness to her case. She says the experience enhanced their skills documenting evidence and their ability to “have a thick enough skin to get through a difficult situation.”

“For me, I’m the kind of person who, I always want to learn and I guess be my own critic and say ‘What can I do better? How can I learn from this?’ And it’s always, I guess, the next hurdle, always improving. So that’s how Dr. Arnall is and that’s how he kind of conducts himself,” Hall says. “That can be very hard for certain people to take, especially if you don’t have the kind of personality where you’re always challenging yourself and always wanting to grow as well. So I guess we’ve just gone through different situations and different cases and it’s gotten to where we know each other pretty well and I think that enhances our working relationship.”

Not everyone sees it that way. “He has repeatedly treated the staff poorly and when the coroner has been advised of these things, she either says something like, ‘Well you just need a thicker skin,’ or she says nothing at all, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that he can’t get away with with her,” says a source who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns over repercussions of speaking to this issue.

Those who have worked with Dr. Arnall claim that he shows a lack of professionalism in the way he treats the staff, which some have characterized as disrespectful, confrontational or belittling, and the occasions he’s lost his temper and gone so far as to cuss at staff. He answers a question with a question, calling it the “Socratic method” of teaching, but it has had the effect, some say, of making it harder to get the answers they need to get their jobs done.

“I’ve seen him and heard him cuss at his female helpers, where they have asked him specifically ‘Hey Doc, I’m not sure what I’m doing here, can you help me? Can you help me know where to make this cut? Can you help me know how to do trajectory on this body?’ He will look at that person and turn his back, and tell that person to proceed, and when they proceed and they mess it up, he turns around and tells them, ‘You fucked up this case.’ That’s exactly his exact words, ‘You have fucked up this case,’” says a member of a law enforcement office who asked to remain anonymous. “He doesn’t teach, he berates people. He waits ’til you screw something up and then he’ll yell at you for it, even when the person has asked numerous times to please help them.”

Staff has turned over 140 percent since Hall took office — and some say their decision to go is tied to not wanting to work with Arnall anymore. One previous employee said she finally quit her job, although she loved it, because the stress of the working environment made her physically ill.

“They’re so afraid to do the job and get yelled at after if they’ve messed something up, they’re too afraid just to even start the job and complete their jobs wondering if they’re going to get yelled at or wondering if they’re going to get help,” says that law enforcement officer. “Just the stress level alone to me would be tremendous. I wouldn’t work there, I certainly wouldn’t, but as an observer in that area I was very uncomfortable, even witnessing that, I was very uncomfortable.”

Asked if there have been any complaints about Dr. Arnall’s interactions with staff, police or the sheriff ’s departments, Chief Deputy Coroner Dustin Bueno responded, “Nothing recently.”

When asked to clarify that complaints have come to him in the past, Bueno referred all questions to Hall. Additional phone calls to Bueno were not returned.

In a May 28 interview with Boulder Weekly, when asked if Dr. Arnall had been suspended for any reason, Hall responded, “No, he’s still under contract.” And indeed his contract shows that he is to be available for calls from the Boulder County coroner until December 31. She reiterated that Dr. Arnall is still under contract to Boulder County in a June 11 conversation, but is not doing autopsies at this time and has taken “a couple days off ” because of a loss in the family.

Asked to clarify why the nature of that time off would fit with him continuing to work in the Adams and Broomfield County Coroner’s Office, Hall said, “I don’t know what his status is with Adams County, but I know that he was out of town last week. So right now, you’ve called and raised some issues and we’re looking to those issues and there’s not really a lot I can comment when I’m looking into issues that have been brought to my attention.”

As to whether she had received any complaints about Arnall prior to the May 28 conversation with Boulder Weekly, she replied, “Like I said, I can’t really comment on this. I’m looking into this situation right now.”

On whether the specifics of the complaints raised by those who have worked with Dr. Arnall — being cussed at and verbally dressed down — characterized a hostile work environment, she responded, “I think there certainly is, the law describes what a hostile work environment is and I don’t have that to quote, but I guess this is not the same complaints that I heard from you last week, so like I said, right now we’re looking into this situation and there’s not a lot I can comment on.”

And asked whether her chief deputy coroner, Bueno, who sources say they’ve previously gone to with complaints about working with Dr. Arnall, has been passing those complaints on to her, Hall reiterated, “Like I said, this is something that we’re working and looking into, and there’s not a lot I can comment on at this time.”

Despite Hall’s claims to the contrary, a source close to the coroner’s office told BW that Dr. Arnall has been placed on leave out of concerns over his behavior is “understood,” but not spoken directly. That rumor has spread so far as to appear in a letter to the editor in the Daily Camera from a Boulder County resident who has had dealings with the coroner’s office. 

Asked how she heard the forensic pathologist had been put on leave, the author of that letter, Kristi Steele, who lost her son to suicide on April 10 and waited almost a month to get a death certificate confirming that the firearm he was found with was the cause of death, replied, “You would be amazed at how many people seem to have had problems and I have just heard from sources that due to these overwhelming issues that have been going on that he was suspended to try to prevent that information from getting out.” 

District Attorney Stan Garnett says he hasn’t had any complaints about the forensic pathologists Hall contracts with, but he’s found “forensic pathologists tend to be kind of unusual people, and they can be strong personalities, so I haven’t had any complaints about any of the pathologists that she’s used, although I’ve been dealing with pathologists for 32 years and I’ve never met one who wasn’t a fairly intense person so if somebody’s complained about them, it wouldn’t surprise me.” 

There are a few people who seem to just dislike Hall and spread rumors about her, he adds, and “Rumors like that are really unfair to her.”

“There’s always at times difference of opinion as to his thoughts on a case versus someone else’s,” Hall said on May 28 in response to a question asking if anyone had objected to Dr. Arnall’s conduct or raised concerns about his professionalism. “But I guess that’s something that is to be expected with a lot of personalities in different agencies.” 

The incident those close to the office list as a possible reason for Dr. Arnall’s absense had to do with an infant born to a mother who had come from out of town to Boulder seeking a late-term abortion. She’d delivered on the floor of her hotel bathroom in the middle of the night and then went back to bed, leaving the baby there, where her boyfriend found it hours later and called the police.

The question that lay at the crux of the case was whether the infant was stillborn and this was nate accident, or had simply an unfortu- been left to die and criminal charges should be made.

It was, to say the least, a sensitive and difficult case. 

The infant was so small — about the size of a pop can — that a special scale was brought in to weigh its organs in grams instead of pounds. A person who witnessed the autopsy described the doctor removing organs with forceps and then tossing them onto the scale. At one point, he missed, and one of the infant’s organs landed on the floor to be picked up by another of the autopsy attendees. 

Throughout the autopsy, he made comments that were perceived by one onlooker as insensitive and the cause of an increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere in the room. 

“He may be also struggling with the same thing that everybody else is sionalism in that room caused everyone struggling with, but his lack of profes- to be re-traumatized or traumatized for the first time with what they were dealing with,” says a person familiar anonymous. with the case who asked to remain 

Another person with first-hand knowledge of the case added, “If family members were down there and saw that, they’d run him out of town for behaving that way.” 

While it makes sense to ask whether political motivations have compelled sources to provide these details, it’s not clear that any of them stand to benefit from Hall losing her pending campaign for this for re-election. Hall’s opponent, Deron Dempsey, declined to comment for this story. 

What each of the sources Boulder Weekly spoke with was clear on was the concern that coming forward with these complaints would jeopardize a work environment they already find challenging. They were interested to see their frustrations brought to light and resolved so that all concerned parties in this unquestionably difficult and demanding field can feel comfortable proceeding with the work that they do. 

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