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Coroner sees death investigations rise significantly

GUS PEARCY

THE LEBANON REPORTER

Justin Sparks deals in data.

“The data doesn’t lie,” he says. “I collect as much data as I can so I can be responsible and prudent in making decisions for the office. I want to back up everything I say with data and science.”

The Boone County Coroner has many spreadsheets detailing non-natural deaths his office investigates.

“So in 2020, we did a total of 131 cases,” he said. “As of last night, I did 133.”

That’s compared to 97 cases in 2017.

The load has increased to the point that Sparks has contracted another pathologist. These are traveling doctors who specialize in forensics. Sparks said he has a duty to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

“It takes time to get (a pathologist) to us,” he said. “With our run load being up … it’s taking longer.”

Part of his problem is that the county morgue, housed at Witham Hospital, can only hold two bodies at a time. The 25% increase in population over the last 10 years has made the capacity limit difficult.

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Justin Sparks

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“Earlier this year, we exceeded the capacity of our morgue, which happens at least once a month,” he said. “At the end of November, I had a case where I had four people in my custody at one time.”

Waiting for an autopsy for up to three days usually means the morgue is in use. Any bodies after two must be stored in trailers outside. In the summer, Sparks employs a refrigerated trailer from the Indiana Department of Health.

The state also had a mass casualty trailer here at the highway department that Sparks has had to use often.

For instance, with the Lebanon triple murders in September, Sparks not only had to house the bodies, he had to protect the bodies as evidence. He had to prove the chain of custody and that no one but his office had access to the bodies.

“It’s critically important when we talk about a criminal prosecution, that we are evidentially and scientifically flawless,” Sparks said. “I have the responsibility to present forensically sound evidence to the prosecutor in cases with criminal ramifications.”

In the hospital, Sparks and the maintenance staff have keys to the morgue. In order to safeguard the bodies as evidence, Sparks transferred all three to the trailer so he could padlock it and prove he was the only person with access to the bodies because he had the only key.

“I had to adapt to meet the need of those investigations,” he added.

The proposed justice center complex, which would be built on the grounds of the Boone County Jail, includes a morgue that would hold up to 10 bodies.

It would hold the bodies essentially in bunk beds in a cooler.

“The design we put in for that would allow us to hold 10 decedents in our care and custody,” Sparks said. “Additionally it’s going to have an area where family members can view their loved ones, which is not something I have the ability to do right now.”

Sparks said some people have said it makes sense to keep the morgue at the hospital since that is where people die, but that isn’t necessarily true. Sparks said in the cases he sees, most do not die at the hospital. Earlier this year when he tallied up, out of 118 cases, 91 of them did not die at a hospital.

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