Warning: Some images and language in this article may be graphic.
JOHNSON COUNTY — It seems simple, right? A person dies, law enforcement arrives, and the coroner is called to collect the body, case closed. Wrong. Deputy Chief coroners of Johnson County Mike Pruitt and Derek Wilson recall their jobs to be quite different and immensely more demanding.
For the Johnson County’s Coroners Office, their employees are all part-time. “It’s like we’re working full-time jobs for part-time pay,” said Pruitt.
As of late, Johnson County coroners have been busier than ever. From the Greenwood mall shooting to their most recent juvenile homicide in which a high school sophomore was shot and killed at his own bus stop.
These men and women work day in and day out, on top of their full-time jobs, to serve families of the deceased in their county.
From call to scene to notification
The work process for coroners can be all over the place, some investigations even taking longer than 12 hours. There are a lot of working parts. So let’s break this down in the simplest of terms.
- The on-call coroner receives a call of a body on scene and they are asked to respond.
- Upon arrival, the coroner takes a photo of the body and the identification process begins.
- After the body is identified or during the ID process, the coroner determines whether or not an autopsy will take place.
- Family/next of kin is notified. Typically this is done in-person by Johnson Co. coroners, sometimes accompanied by law enforcement, however, there are times notification via phone is necessary, i.e. the family lives out of state.
- The body is housed in Johnson Co. morgue following autopsy (if conducted) until burial or cremation.
Important note: If a body is not positively identified, meaning that it is unclaimed, the body is cremated and stored in the coroner’s office. Currently, there are two unclaimed remains residing in the office. One of the two was a veteran.
During this process, the coroner(s) will also reach out to family to let them know of the organ donation process and their options. Interestingly enough, even if an adult has that little red heart on their driver’s license indicating they want their organs donated post-mortem, family can still say no.
In the morgue
Johnson Co.’s morgue resides at the Johnson County Hospital. In fact, the hospital’s morgue and the coroner’s morgue are housed right next to each other.
Inside of the morgue, you will find, most obviously, dead bodies contained in body bags. You may also find containers of different parts of bodies, typically skin samples, being preserved usually in formaldehyde or other chemicals.
“Typically we keep these just in case we need to run some sort of DNA test such as a paternity test,” explained Pruitt.
The Johnson County morgue typically can hold up to three bodies, due to the smaller size of the county. Other, larger counties, such as Marion, can hold more. Larger counties means a larger population and therefore more deaths.
Pruitt and Wilson said that a “good day” for them is when they have positive identification meaning they don’t have to go through multiple channels to identify family. Family is either there on scene or easy to contact.
“They want answers,” said Pruitt talking about the victims’ families. “They want closure.”
As a coroner, it is Pruitt and Wilson’s duty to personally deliver devastating news to the deceased’s loved ones. Both Pruitt and Wilson said that after a while, they realized they have put up a wall when it comes to detaching their emotions from each case.
“I’ll go out on a case and leave it where it is,” said Wilson. “You don’t want to start bringing that stuff home.”
Pruitt and Wilson are both strong advocates of stopping crime before it happens. “It’s all about education,” said Wilson.
“We don’t have false alarms,” said Pruitt. Each call they receive means at least one dead body. Both Pruitt and Wilson and the entire Johnson County coroner’s office have begun to team up with local advocacy groups to stop crime at its source.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a large spike in juvenile deaths, specifically suicides,” said Pruitt. “So, we began to team up with ATLAS, a local not-for-profit, to help families dealing with a death by suicide.”
ATLAS is a volunteer-led group that includes individuals who have also dealt with suicide in their families. This way, the families the volunteers are talking to are given comfort knowing that they are not alone.
Both Pruitt and Wilson have recently begun looking inward and reflecting on their emotions at the end of each day. They both realize that people in law enforcement need to be taken care of too.
“Often coroners are called the ‘last responders’ because we deal with the back-end of things,” explained Pruitt. Meaning coroners have to deliver the hard news, most of the time, the hardest news people ever receive in their lifetime.
“You never know what the situation will be like,” said Wilson. “Each one is different and you can’t predict it.”