Approaching Death At The County Morgue

For three years as Harris County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter has been haunted by controversy. Can she survive?

"I hope this will be cleared up," says Carter. "It's very unfortunate, and I had no idea I was putting him in such a terrible position. I thought it was my right as chief to delegate that responsibility."

But she has put not only Van Dusen in a terrible position, but herself as well. Late last month, the grand jury investigating the matter declined to issue any indictments against Van Dusen, who still does not have his Texas license, or anyone else connected to the investigation. However, a few days later, the state Board of Medical Examiners filed a formal complaint against Carter, charging that she was aware that Van Dusen did not have a Texas medical license but allowed him to perform autopsies anyway. The board staff issued a recommendation for Carter to be formally reprimanded and fined up to $50,000. However, as the law is written, she could also face the revocation of her own license, although it's unlikely. A hearing is set for November 15. Murr's civil suit against Carter is scheduled to begin on November 22.

With two court proceedings within the next few months on her plate, it's not like Carter doesn't already have enough to worry about. And even though she would never admit that it is getting to her, in addition to her legal battles, the chief medical examiner must also deal with a mutinous section of her staff — both current and former. And while the number of those taking part in the rebellion is debatable, over the past year or so they have often succeeded in making their presence and displeasure felt.

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Dr. Carter has been fascinated by pathology since her teens.
Phillippe Diederich
Dr. Carter has been fascinated by pathology since her teens.

During that time, rarely has a month passed without reporters and politicians receiving a fax or letter — sometimes anonymous, sometimes not — citing what the mutineers claim to be the latest crime against nature committed by Carter. The communiqués have ranged from complaints about clogged drains to gruesome photographs of body-stacking to the disappearance of a painting of Dr. Jachimczyk to a body that had yet to be examined being sent to a funeral home where it was cremated.

As for the painting of Dr. Joe, which used to be on display in the morgue's lobby, Carter says someone attempted to vandalize the portrait and it is now located in the more secure environs of the facility's conference room. (Portraits of the five members of commissioners court now grace the morgue's lobby.) The drains at the M.E.'s office, admits Carter, do sometimes become clogged. When that happens, she says, the building's maintenance crew repairs them and it is not a problem. She says she has no excuse for the body that was mistakenly cremated, except for the fact that close to 5,000 bodies move through the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office each year.

"Yes, we had that one body that was unfortunately released and was cremated," says Carter. "We can't go back and undo that. But I think for the volume we handle, we do pretty well."

As for the allegations of body-stacking at the morgue, Carter flat-out denies that it happens. She maintains, instead, that the photos were staged — something that attorney Dick DeGuerin, as well as several morgue employees, emphatically says is not true.

In June, KHOU-TV (Channel 11) broadcast a report on the medical examiner's office stating that an investigation by the Harris County Sheriff's Office into the body-stacking charges was dropped when it was learned that the photos of bodies were actually "taken almost 20 years ago, in 1980." Earlier this month, DeGuerin fired off a letter to the station demanding that the report be corrected.

"That statement [about the pictures being 20 years old] is false," wrote DeGuerin, who has represented several disgruntled members of the morgue staff. "Whoever supplied your news organization with that statement was not telling the truth. In fact, the photographs were taken by Alex Escobar, a current employee of the Medical Examiner's Office, August 3, 1998."

DeGuerin added that the investigation was actually dropped after he and Escobar, a pathology assistant whom he represents, met with Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

(According to DeGuerin, Channel 11 officials acknowledged their mistake but said they have no plans to run a correction because too much time has passed since the original broadcast. Mike Devlin, the station's news director, declined to comment other than to say that DeGuerin "can say whatever he wants." "I'm just not going to get into this," he added.)

Carter continues to dismiss the underground attempts to undermine her authority as the work of a few disgruntled employees. While preparing this story, the Press spoke with several unhappy morgue workers, who asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation, who insist that there are more than a mere handful of malcontents. And, they say, they are actually sad that the situation has deteriorated because many of them saw Carter as the person who would turn the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office around after years of decline because of a lack of oversight.

"But it has gotten worse," says one assistant pathologist. "We are going backward."

Of particular concern to some of the assistant medical examiners is their perception that their salaries have been cut since Carter became chief. And, in fact, they have. But the largest loss of income for the pathologists, who already make between $70,000 and $120,000 in wages from the county, was going to happen regardless of who became the new chief medical examiner. In the past, assistant pathologists were allowed to pocket $400 of the $900 the county used to charge to perform autopsies for other neighboring counties. However, a Peat Marwick audit of that practice revealed that those autopsy reports were being given priority over those needed by Harris County prosecutors. County commissioners decided to end the policy of allowing assistant pathologists to double-dip long before Carter's arrival, although it fell to her to implement the reform. Since Carter's arrival, the doctors at the morgue have also had their county cars taken away from them. Some of the doctors say they are now confronted with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

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