Robert Bishop spent long hours earlier this month in a remote stretch of woods on Camano Island where a young woman’s body was dumped.
Bishop has been Island County’s coroner for 24 years, has handled an estimated 7,000 cases and is known for his compassion and composure. But this, he said, was among the most difficult of cases. He said it brought him to tears and made him angry.
The body of the woman, later identified as 26-year-old Katherine Cunningham, was decapitated and left near a bunker dug into a hillside.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done was talking to the family in that case,” he said, explaining that he spent three to four hours with them after the autopsy.
Most people don’t have contact with a coroner until tragedy strikes, so they may not understand what the job entails. A coroner determines how, when, where and why someone died, but doing so can be complex and challenging. The vital work has helped many grieving families find closure and may someday be key in bringing Cunningham’s murderer to justice.
It’s a very unique vocation. Done right, a coroner borrows specific skills from several different professions, including police detective, forensic pathologist, crime scene investigator and therapist.
Adding to its unusual nature is the fact that it’s an elected, partisan position with no prerequisites beyond getting the most votes. Someone who didn’t graduate from high school, for example, could be signing death certificates and making decisions about whether autopsies should be performed.
Because of this, some experts in death investigations call for a change nationwide from the coroner system to a medical examiner system; about 48 percent of the population nationwide is served by a coroner, according to former medical examiner Jan Garavaglia. With a medical examiner system, a hired medical professional fulfills the statutory role of the coroner, which in Washington state includes identifying a body and determining the cause and manner of death.
“The coroner system is somewhat outdated and should be replaced,” said Garavaglia, who’s known nationally as an accomplished medical examiner and even had a hit TV show called “Dr. G.” She moved to Skagit County and now works for Bishop as his forensic pathologist.
Bishop said he agrees the coroner system isn’t perfect, but he argues it’s the less expensive option and could be improved by setting minimum qualifications for the position. The advantage of the system, he said, is that the coroner doesn’t have to worry about getting fired and so can’t be influenced by someone above him or her.
But as long as Island County continues with a coroner, Garavaglia said, residents are lucky to have Bishop.
“By far, he’s head and shoulders above every other coroner I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
“Island County is lucky to have him” is a refrain repeated by many people who work with Bishop or are aware of his reputation beyond the county, though they say the county’s smallest department may be a mystery to many residents.
The coroner’s office consists of Bishop and a deputy coroner. He contracts with a forensic pathologist to perform autopsies and with an autopsy technician.
Being a coroner in Island County is a busy and unpredictable job.
A call might come at any time, including on weekends and holidays. So far this year, Bishop only took two nights off from calls when he was attending the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ annual meeting in February. Since he lives on Whidbey, cases on Camano Island can make for long days or nights.
In 1995, he had 224 cases that resulted in 46 autopsies. Last year, there were 401 cases and 53 autopsies.
Bishop is a veterinarian and continues to practice one day a week as “therapy,” he said. Garavaglia said the profession gives him valuable medical knowledge for working with people.
Bishop’s resume has become extensive over the years. He’s a board certified medicolegal death investigator. He was part of body recovery operations after Hurricane Katrina. He completed a series of advanced death investigation classes from Saint Louis School of Medicine. He’s had training in a wide variety of death investigation subject matter, from suspicious burns to blood stain pattern analysis to identification of human remains. He’s also an instructor.
“It’s science and a bit of art too,” he said, describing the coroner’s work. “Experience and training are probably the most important things.”
Bishop’s work can be invaluable to the prosecutor in the case of a homicide, but he’s completely independent of law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office. His agenda, he said, is different from the police. It isn’t about catching bad guys, he said; his responsibility lies with the person who died.
“Local law enforcement pretty much stays out of Robert’s way until he’s done handling the scene,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said, adding that he also tries to give Bishop his space.
The coroner determines the cause of death, which is “the initial pathological insult that resulted in death,” Bishop said. That could be blunt force trauma to the head, for example. There are five options for manner of death: homicide, natural, accidental, suicide or undetermined.
He also determines where and when a death occurred.
He doesn’t respond to all deaths, just those that aren’t natural or those with a decedent below a certain age. He decides when an autopsy is warranted. He said he set up guidelines when he came into office in 1995 to make sure everyone is treated the same and to control costs.
While a body conveys a lot of information, Bishop gathers clues to a death in a variety of methods. He approaches a scene in much the same way a crime scene investigator would. He documents extensively, both in writing, photography and video.
He also talks to a lot of people. Family, friends, neighbors and the people at the scene can help him understand how a person lived and how he or she may have died. Such information as whether the person had a drug addiction or was despondent can obviously be valuable clues to a death. He also talks to medical providers and obtains records from them.
“I feel like I know them after the investigation is over,” he said.
The end result of his work are reports. These documents, he emphasizes, are very important. He wants a family member or a detective 20 years from now to be able to read the reports and know all the details of the death, down to the weather at the time.
The most sensitive part of his job is notifying families that loved ones have died. He always prefers that people are notified in person but that’s not always possible in the age of social media. He will sometimes call people since he doesn’t want a family to hear the news elsewhere.
“If you have a loved one die your life is out of control,” he said. “You have no control. I try to give them some amount of control.”