County careers with cadavers

DKS Editors

Coroner rules on cause, mode and manner of death

Most people get squeamish dissecting a frog in their high school biology class, let alone dealing with a human corpse. But to Portage County Coroner Roger Marcial and Gary Guenther, investigator for the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office, the dead are part of everyday life.

After growing up and going to school in the Philippines, Marcial came to America. He’s been here for 53 years.

Marcial worked for 42 years as a family practice physician. But after watching his malpractice insurance premium rise steeply from $3,000 to $13,000, he decided to take a different route and ran for county coroner.

Marcial, 84, said his job isn’t always easy, but he’s glad to do it.

“The coroner’s job is sad,” he said, “but I’m happy I can console the family with the cause of death and explain what happened.”

The county coroner is an elected position with a four-year term. In Ohio, he or she must be a licensed physician, having practiced for at least two years. The coroner’s job is to rule on any suspicious or violent death. The coroner determines the cause, mode and manner of death. Marcial said this could be anything from a traffic accident to suicide to a death medically related to murder. The coroner must rule out any chance of crime involved with the death.

If an autopsy is needed, the body is sent to the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office, because Portage does not have the facilities to do one. Law enforcement officials are usually the first ones on the scene. Then investigators like Guenther will get a call if the coroner has ruled any unnatural death. After he arrives, he does a scene investigation and interviews witnesses. He’s also the one to notify next of kin.

Another part of the coroner’s job is to appear in court. Marcial said one of the more dramatic cases he’s had was Theresa Andrews’ in 2000. Andrews’ neighbor, Michelle Bica performed a caesarian section on pregnant Andrews, then took the baby and buried the mother in the garage. He calls the case “uncanny” because Bica befriended her neighbor in the supermarket and pretended to be pregnant herself.

Guenther has also worked on some memorable cases, such as the Jeffrey Dahmer case when he assisted in looking at victims’ bones.

“It was a long week,” he said.

Guenther said he likes his job because you never know what you’ll find. He said he once found $140,000 in cash in a house where a man was found dead.

Marcial has been county coroner for 16 years, working toward 20 after his recent re-election. The county coroner is not a full-time position because the Portage County population is fewer than 175,000. So Marcial said he practices acupuncture on the side to “challenge my mind,” as well as serving as medical director of Ravenna Health Department since 1995.

He said consoling the families involved is the reason he sticks with it.

“A mother may come to me and never ask about the autopsy report, but just talk about how good (her) daughter was,” he said. “I’m glad I can be there for her to release her feelings and feel better after that.”

It’s only in these cases that Marcial gets to put together the body and the spirit the person had in life.

“Death never resembles how the person was before,” he concluded.

Contact public affairs reporter Kathie Zipp at [email protected].