Freeland doctor enlivens Island County coroner’s race

The race for Island County coroner is alive and kicking.

A retired doctor from Freeland announced this week that he will run against the county’s long-time coroner, Robert Bishop, in the election this fall. It will be the first time in 16 years that someone has challenged Bishop’s authority over dead bodies.

It’s likely to be a contest about experience and education. In his newly launched campaign, Dr. Paul Thompson is touting his medical degree, his background as a doctor and his experience with major catastrophes.

“I was a clinical practitioner for 30 years,” he said. “I figured my medical background should be a significant advantage for a coroner.”

Bishop, on the other hand, points to his experience in four terms as the coroner, all the training he’s completed over the years and his certification as a “medicolegal death investigator.”

“Death investigation is so specific. There’s not a lot of people who know how to do it,” Bishop said. “I wouldn’t want this office to have to start over.”

Thompson said he’s not running because of any perceived problems with Bishop; he said that everyone agrees that the coroner is “a nice guy.” Thompson wants to serve and he feels it’s healthy for government institutions when entrenched elected officials are challenged.

“Often times it takes a fresh incumbent to find ways to do things better, smarter or more efficiently,” Thompson said.

Yet Bishop takes the challenge personally and worries that the community doesn’t realize all he’s done to bring professional death investigations to the county.

“The thing is, I’m sad that someone out there thinks I’m doing such a bad job they want to replace me,” he said. “I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make it right.”

Thompson claimed it’s hard to know how well the coroner is doing since much of what he does is secretive under federal medical privacy laws. But Bishop said the assertion is “absolutely absurd” and an example of how people don’t understand his office.

“HIPPA laws don’t apply to dead people,” he said, referring to the federal privacy law.

Thompson said he does understand that the job of a coroner is “at the crossroads of medicine, law enforcement and the law itself.” To get up to speed on the law enforcement aspects, he is going to the St. Louis University this spring to take a death investigator course.

Bishop has already taken a series of five “advanced death investigation” classes from the same university. In fact, his resume includes a lengthy list of training courses he’s completed over the years with state and federal agencies. The courses cover such topics as “blood stain pattern investigation,” “sex related homicide and death investigation” and “water and outdoor deaths.”

“Training a new coroner is going to be time consuming and it’s going to be a huge expense to the office,” he warned.

Bishop is a Republican. Thompson said he is a life-long Democrat who is running as an Independent. Both men agree that politics has no place in the office. In fact, Bishop admits he’s gotten some flak over the years because he doesn’t usually participate in meetings with county commissioners and other elected officials. He said his job doesn’t fit into a normal schedule; his office only has two people and they respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I try to stay under the radar as much as I can,” he said.

While Bishop is part of a well-known Central Whidbey family, Thompson is a relative newcomer to the island. He moved to South Whidbey with his wife nine years ago after a medical career overseas.

Thompson graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1973. He went into private practice as an ophthalmologist for a short time before taking a job in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Aramco Medical Services Organization, which provides medical services to employees of the world’s largest oil company. He worked in the surgery department from 1978 to 2002.

Thompson triaged American troops injured in the Khobar Towers terrorist bombing. He learned to cope when dealing with tragedies, including a fire in a tent that killed or injured 200 women.

“I can’t say you ever get used to tragedy,” he said. “You learn coping techniques.”

After retiring to Whidbey, Thompson organized residents of his Useless Bay neighborhood after a couple of people were hit by birdshot during hunting season. He spearheaded the six-year-long effort that finally persuaded the county commissioners to ban gunfire on Deer Lagoon. It was this experience that spurred his interest in public service.

In contrast, Bishop has a long history on Whidbey and the Pacific Northwest. He was born at Polly Harpole’s Maternity Home in Coupeville, which is next to the building in which he works today. His father, who died when he was 3, was the only doctor in Coupeville for years and pushed for the development of the hospital.

“I’ve signed death certificates on people he signed birth certificates on,” Bishop said.

Bishop graduated from the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1986 and started a vet practice in Oak Harbor. In 1994, the former county coroner decided not to run; Bishop was among the six candidates in the race, though only four actually filed. Bishop said he campaigned on his credentials as a business person and a fiscal conservative.

Bishop said he worked hard to create a professional office that’s respected across the state and has a strong working relationship with law enforcement, medical personnel and funeral directors.

“When I took over it was very dysfunctional,” he said. “There were constant turf wars with law enforcement.”

Bishop said he also has experience with large-scale tragedies. He spent three weeks as a volunteer recovering bodies in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He was part of a mass disaster response team that was stationed at the infamous convention center. It was horrific at times, he admits. In one day he picked up 65 bodies.

“It was a life changing experience,” he said.

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