L.A. County coroner's office, struggling with autopsy backlog, gets new chief

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday appointed a new coroner to take the helm of an agency that has been plagued by autopsy and toxicology backlogs, staff turnover and the near loss of its national accreditation.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas, 49, the chief deputy medical examiner in San Diego County, will assume his new position July 10 at a salary of $350,000.

“Given what I do for a living...it’s hard not to pay attention to what’s happening” in Los Angeles, Lucas said in an interview. “The immediate challenges are something that I look forward to facing.”

Lucas, who served in San Diego for more than 15 years, will be the fourth person in 16 months to lead the department.

The county’s last chief, Dr. Mark Fajardo, abruptly resigned in March 2016, citing insufficient funding and resources.

At the time, 180 bodies were stacked in the morgue awaiting autopsies, and toxicology reports were taking longer than six months to be completed.

Fajardo quit after just over two years on the job. Former longtime coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran came out of retirement to take over the post while the county searched for a permanent replacement.

In January of this year, Sathyavagiswaran moved to a consulting position, and Dr. Christopher Rogers, the former deputy medical examiner, assumed the lead interim post.

Ed Winter, assistant chief of operations for the coroner’s office, said the backlogs have improved since 2016, though his office did not provide current figures.

“The focus is really going to have to be on the backlog,” Lucas said. “And tied to that is maintaining accreditation.”

Because of its delays in conducting autopsies and toxicology tests, L.A. County has only a provisional accreditation from the National Assn. of Medical Examiners, said Craig Harvey, former chief of investigations and a current consultant at the department.

Those delays stemmed in part from staffing vacancies and a shortage of budgeted positions, an external analysis found. (Accreditation is not legally required but is considered a useful proxy for quality.)

The county budgeted an additional $4.4 million and 24 new positions for the office in 2016-17, although the 2017-18 budget includes a slight decrease in funding and a net decrease of three positions.

Lucas said not all of the new positions had been filled yet, and finding, hiring and training capable staff members will be a top priority for him.

The coroner’s job is to identify the mode, manner and cause of a person’s death in any unusual circumstances. Lucas said he most enjoys being able to provide answers about why someone died and aggregating data to shed light on regional trends.

Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City, said the job often helps inform where a city or county should funnel additional resources — for example, suicide or disease prevention. Baden noted the job is becoming increasingly complex with the globalization of diseases and the proliferation of illicit drugs.

Lucas also pointed to the size of L.A.’s homeless population as a unique factor.

In addition, the coroner in Los Angeles often has to deal with intense public scrutiny and media attention in celebrity and other high-profile cases.

Lucas has conducted more than 4,500 autopsies, according to the letter from the county’s chief executive office recommending him to the board. In one high-profile case in San Diego, Lucas conducted the autopsies on Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau, who died among mysterious circumstances at the Spreckels mansion in Coronado.

The San Diego medical examiner’s office has 57 employees and an annual budget of $10.2 million. In L.A., Lucas will oversee an office with 248 positions and a budget of $38.1 million.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina


UPDATES:

5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lucas.

This article was originally published at 12:30 p.m.

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