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Arkansas coroner says personal pickup occasionally used to transport bodies

by Bill Bowden | October 13, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated October 15, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

An effort is underway to get the Newton County coroner a work vehicle.

Coroner Cody Middleton said he occasionally has to use his personal pickup to transport bodies to the Boone County morgue in Harrison.

They're put in blue body bags, then carefully placed in the bed of his gray 2011 Chevy Silverado.

But it just doesn't look right, Middleton said.

"It is very disrespectful," he said.

Middleton said his pickup doesn't have a camper shell. He said he's had to transport bodies in his truck "a handful" of times since becoming coroner in 2012.

"I only transport somebody in my vehicle if it's an absolute have-to case," Middleton said.

"That is definitely not a preferred method or mode of transportation," said Kevin Cleghorn, the Saline County coroner and president of the Arkansas Coroners' Association.

Cleghorn said he's heard of coroners using their own vehicles to transport bodies, but he didn't know any of them were transporting bodies in open pickup beds.

Years ago, a coroner was transporting a deceased person in a body bag in the bed of his pickup when an Arkansas state trooper stopped him for speeding, Cleghorn said. The coroner had a hard time explaining why he had a body in his personal vehicle.

"Truthfully, that could be construed as abuse of a corpse," Cleghorn said. "That's borderline ethical abuse. That's not right. What if it was raining, inclement weather or something like that? If it's a homicide case, that body is evidence. You sure don't want evidence traveling in the bed of an open pickup. What happens if he has an accident?"

If the death is suspicious, Middleton said he makes sure a sheriff's deputy follows his pickup to the morgue in Harrison.

Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said he was sad to hear about the situation in Newton County.

"I know our coroners are reverent and try to do everything they can to respect the folks they are responsible for, but I guess in this case you have to make do with what you have and this is all you have," he said.

Apparently, it's been happening for a while in Newton County.

Sheriff Keith Slape said he has twice seen Newton County coroners transport bodies in open pickup beds, but that was before Middleton became coroner.

"It's just embarrassing to the loved ones," Slape said.

Clinton Daniels, a former Newton County justice of the peace, witnessed one of those transports recently.

"They handled him in a professional way, but it didn't suit me," Daniels said. "I just think it would be better if it was a vehicle that was enclosed. If it was pouring down rain, it would even look worse."

Daniels went to the Newton County Quorum Court meeting Oct. 1 and requested a work vehicle for the coroner's office. He described Middleton's pickup as a "farm truck," according to the Newton County Times.

Quorum Court members suggested buying a surplus sport utility vehicle from the state, according to the article.

Middleton said he spoke with Warren Campbell, county judge of Newton County, on Wednesday.

"He said he was working on it," Middleton said. "I'll take that with a grain of salt."

Middleton said he requested a vehicle a couple of years ago but nothing happened. He said he didn't know Daniels was going to go before the Quorum Court on his behalf.

The Newton County coroner's office is budgeted $7,500 a year, said Middleton, and $4,600 of that is his salary. Newton County, population 8,330, has four deputy coroners. They get paid $50 per death they work, plus mileage.

Middleton said the coroner's office has an old Chevrolet Suburban, but the transmission is going out and the vehicle hasn't been driven in five years.

Ninety percent of the time, the funeral home transports the body, Middleton said. But sometimes the family hasn't decided on a funeral home or family members are hard to find.

Middleton said Coffman Funeral Home will transport and hold bodies for him, even when a family has yet to declare the funeral home they plan to use.

"It's a hit-and-miss on every case," Middleton said. "If Coffman is tied up and they can't come, it's hit and miss."

Al Tilley, the owner of Coffman Funeral Home, said it is based in Harrison and is the only funeral home with a physical presence in Newton County.

"We do the majority of the business there so we help Cody out when we can," Tilley said.

He said Coffman Funeral Home has a "cooling facility" for storage in Harrison.

Middleton said the Boone County coroner's office occasionally transports bodies for him, but sometimes they're not available. The Newton County coroner's office doesn't have a morgue, so those who die in Newton County are sometimes taken to the morgue in Harrison, 19 miles north of Jasper, which is the Newton County seat.

If the state Crime Laboratory is going to investigate a suspicious death, the body is usually kept at the Boone County morgue until a vehicle arrives from Little Rock, Middleton said.

Kermit Channell, executive director of the Crime Lab, said bodies shouldn't be transported in open-bed pickups.

"No. 1, you have to consider the respect of the deceased," he said. "If I had seen that and I was a family member, I would be outraged."

Then there is the preservation of forensic evidence.

"There's a potential for losing evidence," Channell said. "These are cases we want to make sure are handled properly."

Danny Smith, who was Newton County coroner for four years in the mid-2000s, said he had to use his personal 2003 GMC pickup to transport bodies two or three times when he was coroner, but he had a camper shell on the back of his truck.

"I wouldn't want my family member to be hauled in the back of a truck that's open," he said.

Smith said the coroner's office needs a pickup with a camper shell on the back. That way, there is separation between the driver's compartment and the cargo.

The vehicle needs to be four-wheel drive so it can travel the rugged backroads to remote locations, Smith said. Some coroners have used their own four-wheel-drive vehicles to transport bodies because that was the only way to get to them, he said.

"A station wagon or just a two-wheel-drive Suburban ain't going to cut it," Smith said. "Some of these places are so far back the hoot owls are winking at the chickens."

Middleton agreed that a four-wheel-drive pickup with a camper shell would be the best option. Recovering the bodies of people who died while hiking or rock climbing in mountainous Newton County can be arduous.

"We have a lot of climbers in Newton County," Middleton said. "Sometimes you can't even get a truck there. Sometimes you can't even get an ATV there."

In Searcy County, just east of Newton County, Coroner Doug Morrison said his office doesn't have a vehicle, but he hasn't had to transport a body in his personal vehicle in the two years he has been coroner.

"So far, we haven't gotten into that situation," he said. "So far, the funeral home has done all the pick-ups."

Metro on 10/13/2018

Print Headline: Arkansas coroner says personal pickup occasionally used to transport bodies


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