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Dealing With The Dead: A Look Inside Garfield County’s Coroner’s Office

Jan 13, 2019


The Garfield County Coroner, Rob Glassmire, keeps bodies in a walk-in refrigerator his office bought used from a restaurant several years ago.


Inside, four long, metal trays are stacked like bunk beds along one of the walls. The temperature stays at a cool 38 degrees. The most bodies the coroner has housed at one time was seven.

“And that was getting close to our capacity,” Glassmire said.

Voters in all but one of Colorado’s counties elect a coroner to deal with the dead. Glassmire has served as Garfield County’s coroner since 2015 and was re-elected this past fall for another four-year term.

Each year, roughly 350 people die in Garfield County, many in hospitals or in hospice care from common causes like cancer and heart failure.  

Glassmire and his investigators don’t typically look into these cases, but instead ones involving a little more mystery: The body in the river. The fallen hiker. The motorcycle, totaled, along I-70.

When he and his team are called to a scene, they talk to witnesses and take photos.

If it looks like a possible suicide, homicide, or just an accident, there needs to be an autopsy. The decision isn’t hard to make.  

“It’s usually pretty easy to determine if we’re going to do an autopsy or not,” Glassmire said.

He sends bodies to Dr. Dean Havlik, a forensic pathologist in Grand Junction. According to Havlik, first and foremost, the autopsy needs to address the question of murder.

“The main reason we do the autopsy, the number one reason, is trying to rule in or rule out a homicide,” he said.

The scene description Glassmire and his investigators provide can contain essential clues. Take, for example, a case from 2017: A 24-year-old man was found dead in his mother’s house. Neither Havlik’s autopsy, nor the toxicology report found anything. The man had no injuries and there were no drugs in his bloodstream.

One of Glassmire’s investigators did, however, note a can of compressed air near the man’s body. Havlik conducted an extra test for the substances in the can, which came back positive: The young man died inhaling the chemicals.

Glassmire was an investigator for the Sheriff’s office before becoming coroner in 2015.

Helping figure out how someone died is just a part of the job; He has to figure out who they were and needs to tell their families they’ve died. The later, he says, can be one of the hardest parts of the job.

“Notifying a mother of their daughter or son’s death...I think that’s probably one of the toughest notifications you can make,” he said.

He's learned it's best to be calm and clear. “I never ask the people, ‘Do you want to sit down? This is really tough news.’ I just tell them,” he said.

It’s also his responsibility, he says, to protect the dead.

“The decedent is a helpless person, if you will. They can’t move, they can’t make decisions for themselves,” he said.

This could mean caring for a home, securing a car, or storing jewelry or cash at the coroner’s office.

Glassmire might also hold onto actual body parts. In the attic of the coroner’s office, there’s a fridge that he and one other employee can access.

Inside, there is a bag of fingers, found at the scene of a fire in 1995. Glassmire’s office will hold onto them until an investigator can find the family.

 

After all, those fingers belonged to someone.