Sheriff explains how 'unattended deaths' handled

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Ryan Robison keeps a number of items in his patrol unit to ensure he's ready when responding to all types of calls.

Unattended deaths are common in rural areas, but deputies with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office are equipped to handle them.

An unattended death occurs when a person dies and is not found for days, weeks, or even months.

"If someone dies outside a medical facility or under the supervision of a medical personnel, then we have to investigate," Sheriff Jason Chennault said.

"Ninety-eight percent of our death calls are natural and the others are suicides or homicides."

The investigator on call is contacted by responding deputies, and Chennault will then decide if he is needed on the scene.

"Any homicide when we have the investigator on call gets the first call, and then it's up to him on who he calls to help him," Chennault said. "The way we usually do is, we call everyone, and everyone comes out to help because they will all have some type of responsibility in the investigation."

No matter the circumstances of a death, the Medical Examiner's Office must give the OK for investigators or emergency personnel to remove the body.

"A lot of times, when someone is under the care of a doctor or has a terminal illness, then the medical examiner will waive jurisdiction. If that person's doctor says they know what's going on and this [death] wasn't unexpected, and agrees to sign the death certificate, a funeral home will be contacted to remove the body from a scene," Chennault said.

The Medical Examiner's Office is typically contacted when there are questions about the death, such as whether it was a suicide, homicide, or unexpected. An ME will then perform an autopsy on the body.

"It's not the ME who comes out; it's one of their investigators, because they're not law enforcement and they're death investigators," the sheriff said. "They don't always do an autopsy if they can easily determine what the cause of death was, but in most cases, they do an autopsy."

While law enforcement officials and emergency personnel can perform CPR and render aid, staff with the ME's office are the only ones who can remove the body from a scene.

"We cannot call the time of death; that has to come from medical personnel only," Chennault said.

The entire process - from the initial 911 call, to getting on the scene and gathering evidence, to notifying next of kin - can be tedious and time-consuming.

"In most cases, we're lucky because we have an ME investigator in Adair County, and she's great about coming over to here to help us, and we don't have to wait as long," Chennault said. "There are times when we're out on a scene, we have to wait for them to get done with another scene, and it's usually a crash somewhere."

Deputy Scott Wolff serves as CCSO's chaplain, and he's called when it's time for death notifications.

"We usually wait until we're done with the scene, but it's usually the family who calls when it's a natural death. On a suicide -- I'm trying to think of a time we've had to make a notification, but most of the time, it's the family who finds them," Chennault said.

While it's not as common as it used to be for CCSO, there are some cases wherein Chennault will ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of investigation for additional manpower and assistance.

"We have enough investigators who have enough training that we don't need them as often as we used to," Chennault said.

"But very rarely anymore do we call them for assistance; it's usually just crime scene assistance."

CCSO patrol units are equipped with the necessities to tape off crime scenes, take photos, and a gunshot residue kit.

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