Death doesn’t look like it does on TV and it certainly smells worse in person. La Plata County coroner Jann Smith has seen it all. She’s been in the biz for about 30 years, and, in that time, has graduated from law enforcement academy, worked with the Southern Ute Police Department as a (nationally certified) death investigator, was an EMT, did medical and fire rescue with the Los Piños Fire Protection District, served as Durango’s deputy coroner, and is now the coroner herself.
What the heck does a coroner do? They certify that a person is dead, how they died, and, sometimes, who they are.
Though DGO had visions of body drawers and medical instruments, the Durango coroner’s office isn’t located in a morgue. In fact, Durango doesn’t even have a morgue; it uses Hood Mortuary’s facilities. Smith’s office is located in a quiet, brick building near Tech Center Drive. DGO cornered the coroner (and her deputy coroner, Cathy Seibel) and chatted them up about maggots, teratomas, and how you damn well shouldn’t be calling her to ask about a murder you read about in the paper.
What does your day look like? My average day, it’s hard to say. I come into the office and I’m usually here at 9 o’clock. I meet with investigators, the mortuary, other various people, give autopsy reports, talk at the schools. I’m not (in the office) a lot. I’m back and forth.
Cathy is my deputy. It’s mainly the two of us. I take the day shifts and do a lot of the office work and she does the night shifts and death certificates and reports.
How many autopsies are you a part of in a year? Our contract with Hood Mortuary is for 60. We’re at about 66 or 67 this year. That’s just autopsies; we get other calls, too. We’re at 150 calls.
What other calls?If somebody’s at the hospital less than 24 hours, we’ll get that call. It may be a natural (death), like an elderly person who goes in because they’re having chest pains and they go in and don’t make it. Those we don’t autopsy. Those are about the only ones we don’t. There are 14 topics we have to autopsy for. I teach classes at the schools and I hand out a list of the things we have to autopsy. Suicides, car crashes, work environment accidents, criminal violence – all those things and a few more, we have to autopsy.
Do you do the actual autopsies? I don’t do the autopsies. I am present. I hire a forensic pathologist from Denver. He comes down. We also have the services of a forensic pathologist in Montrose, which I use on occasion. Like one time we had nine autopsies to do. That takes a good two days. I sent a couple to Montrose.
What does TV get wrong about your job? All of it. (Laughs) First of all, you don’t solve the case in an hour. Secondly, I have to laugh because they go to (death) scenes with their white pants and white jackets or suits and I’m going, “Mmmhmm, you bet, sure.”
What do you actually wear?[Motions to current outfit of jeans and black coroner polo.]
How come?A lot of times you don’t know what you have. A call comes in that a person has passed away and you get there and they’ve been deceased for a week and the maggots are crawling all over and the fluids are running everywhere. You need jeans and boots, not white pants.
How often are there autopsies?We save everybody for once a week, usually on Wednesdays. Wednesdays can be busy. There’s not very many weeks that go by that we don’t do autopsies. We do two or three, on average, a week because we cover Archuleta, Montezuma, San Juan, and Dolores counties, on top of our own.
Is there anything that makes you squeamish?No, (Laughs) and I hate to say so.
I think the only thing that really bothers me is the young kids and suicides. I feel bad that they are in such a situation that they feel that death is the only way out. They have their whole lives ahead of them.
Have you ever found anything unusual inside a body? Oh, all the time. We did a gentleman who happened to be from Montezuma County. There was a teratoma. Hey Cathy [walks from conference table to coroner’s office door], come tell her about your teratoma. [Walks back to conference table]
Seibel: It was an encasing, almost like a uterus.
Smith: It wasn’t very big.
Siebel: It was about yea big [makes a softball size with her hands]. It was up behind the sternum, behind the organs. I looked at that and was like, “What in the world is that?” And (the forensic pathologist) said, “We got ourselves a teratoma.” I said, “A tera-what?” He explained that you usually see them on the tail-end of a person. They are a hard shell and can have an underdeveloped fetus in them sometimes, or bone, hair, eyes, teeth. This one was just the encasing. If it had been down lower we would have probably seen some bone or hair inside it, according to what I researched. I got really curious and did a whole paper on them. Children are born with them and sometimes you don’t know it for years, but sometimes it is on the outside and can be removed through surgery. It was pretty interesting.
Smith: That was about a month ago.
Seibel: About a month and a half. I did a whole research paper on that because I had never heard of it and then I was like, “God, do I have something like that in me?” Every time we do an autopsy I am like, “Do I have that in me, too?”
Is there anything else odd you see inside people?
Seibel: I’ve been going to autopsies for a long time, and I’ve never seen cancer like I saw in that one patient. They had cancer from the top of the neck to the bottom of pelvis. It was huge. It was widespread. It was on everything.
What does cancer look like?
Smith: Fat is more yellowish in color and cancer is more white-ish.
What’s another sign of death you see fairly frequently?
Seibel: We see a lot of opioid overdoses. There is yuck in the (person’s) airway. With an overdose, there is this white, frothy stuff. That is a telltale sign that it was an opioid overdose.
What’s a hard part of your job?
Smith: One of the hard things is trying to do right by the family, right by law enforcement. When you put your name on that death certificate you want to make sure that you’re right. That can be hard.
What brings you joy in your job?Working with the families. I think a lot of times they don’t know what happened to their loved ones. Being able to finally tell them, “This is what happened.”
We had a lady that passed away that the husband thought was in pretty decent health. She was in her 60s, but doing good. He found her in the bathroom. He was beside himself because she had been to the doctor within the last week and was doing well. Come to find out, she had had a heart attack. She’d had a previous heart attack that he didn’t know about and we could see that.
How?When the heart is cut open, you can see scarring inside the heart.
Do people look at you like you are some sort of death guru? Maybe. Lots of people know who I am and what I do. They ask questions. They call and ask me, “I hear so and so passed away,” and I say, “Can’t talk about it.” … It’s not necessarily people’s business. Let the family deal with their part first.
Or, they’ll call and ask, “What do you think I should do?” with health concerns. I always tell them to go to the doctor.
How do you view the person/body on the table? The hard thing is the fact that, being a small town, you know a lot of people, but you brush that off and look at it as a body on the table.
Is there an autopsy you couldn’t be present for?Immediate family – kids, in-laws. But I’ve done cousins.
Once a human body is cut open, is there a particular organ you aesthetically appreciate? (Laughs) The majority of lungs are totally shot from smoking or drugs and they’re black. Livers have cirrhosis from drinking or have hepatitis. So, it’s good to see a clean organ … The best thing is finding a nice, clean body.
What happens when a body goes unclaimed? Unclaimed bodies – it’s a pain. We had one last week and we may have one now.
The mortuary will hold them for 30 days then the mortuary will get ahold of human services, and if it is decided there are no assets to bury this individual, then the county comes up with $1,200 to $1,500 for a basic burial … It also costs my office $300 per abandoned body and I have one sitting over there right now.
It holds up Hood’s shelf space. They only have space for a maximum of 10 and really, seven, but they can get 10 in there.
Are unclaimed bodies a common occurrence? We are up to six this year.
Do you have any good memories of people interacting with death instead of avoiding it? One family – mom had cancer, she wasn’t very old, and the family had 10 children. All the way from baby to high school. When I got to the house, the kids were right there with their mom. They asked me if they could keep her and give her a bath and give her clean clothes. I said sure. The body has to be refrigerated in 24 hours though. The next morning, I go back to get her and there’s mom spiffied up on the couch and the kids were sitting around her again and it was sad, but when it came time for the funeral, the family had built a wooden coffin. All of the children had signed the coffin. That was nice.
There’s also a thing called “green burials” now, which is where a family can do more natural burials themselves. I like to help them do that.
What’s the future of the coroner’s office look like in Durango?I think one of my biggest challenges right now is that we use Hood Mortuary’s facilities to hold our bodies and to do autopsies. We are outgrowing them. Their numbers are increasing and our numbers are increasing and so the problem we’re working on is what are we going to do as the county grows?
We are about 25 calls over last year. We’re starting the process of trying to build a morgue, but for me, it won’t come soon enough.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton