Commissioners reject coroner nominees, candidate says vetting process ‘disgrace’
RIVERTON — After receiving a list of three candidates for the Fremont County Coroner mid-term replacement, the Fremont County Commission chose Tuesday not to select a new coroner from the nominees submitted.
The commissioners advised the county’s Republican Central Committee to try again.
“At this moment I’m prepared to ask the Republican Party to reconsider and provide this board with a list of qualified applicants,” Fremont County Commission vice chairman Larry Allen said after interviewing the three nominees presented Tuesday.
Commission chairman Travis Becker said he would write a letter to the Republican Party asking for a new list of nominees, though he noted that the commission is required to fill the vacancy within five days.
“This is uncharted water,” Becker said. “I’ve never experienced anything of this nature. … We are going to lean on our counsel moving forward.”
If the commission does not select a new coroner, Mark Stratmoen, the former coroner who recently retired, said the Fremont County Sheriff would perform the duties of the coroner until a replacement is sworn in.
On Tuesday, Erin Ivie, the county’s chief deputy coroner, said the vetting process she participated in with the Republican Party on Monday evening was “an utter disgrace to the people of Fremont County,” with hot-button political topics prevailing over more relevant local issues specific to the coroner’s job.
During interviews Monday, candidates were asked about their fiscal and management styles as well as general improvements they would like to see in the coroner’s office.
But they also answered questions about coroner’s inquests, media relations, and a new law defining the murder of a pregnant woman as a double homicide.
When it was her turn to answer questions, Ivie drew her responses directly from statute, which she quoted often from memory and mingled with her own 19 years of experience working for the coroner’s office.
The interview involved a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, however, with several follow-up questions posed to clarify her stance on the new law as well as anti-abortion issues in general.
For example, after Ivie noted that the new law in question applies only to criminal prosecution and said more legislation would be required for a coroner to have investigative jurisdiction over an unborn child, Republican Party official Kelly Rutz asked, “When do you believe life begins?”
“I don’t have a really good answer for that, because all life is precious,” Ivie began, concluding, “My faith says it starts at conception, but I can’t prove it.”
The room erupted with loud murmuring in response to her statement.
Later, Ivie was asked whether she would check to see if a female homicide victim was pregnant at the time of death. Ivie said that procedure would be the responsibility of the forensic pathologist.
The nominees sent to the Fremont County Commission for consideration Tuesday included Larry Degraw, a former law enforcement officer who has served as a coroner’s deputy in Casper and now is a private investigator; Joseph Lucero, a retired U.S. Navy captain and retired medical doctor actively licensed in Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri, and Virginia; and Karl Falken, a chemical engineer with two bachelor’s degrees in science. (Lucero is not the former Fremont County Sheriff of the same name.)
None of them currently is coroner-certified, but each said he would undertake the required 40- hour training.
Lucero also said he would like to be certified as a forensic pathologist at his own expense in order to save the county tens of thousands of dollars per year on autopsy costs.
Two of the men –– Degraw and Lucero –– pronounced open dislike for the news media during their interviews Monday, with Degraw pledging to dispatch written press releases only and Lucero claiming that “the media isn’t my job.
“If they have a question, isn’t there a county attorney or a sheriff they can go to?” he asked.
Falken said public affairs are important to the office, because the coroner is employed by public funds, and Ivie said that, by law, coroners are required to provide docket reports to the press and public at the end of a death investigation.
She characterized her current relationship with the media as “love-hate.”
On Tuesday Ivie said that she would continue to serve Fremont County “with my whole heart” if a new coroner was selected and she remained on staff.