The Great Kern County Coroner's Race : In an Unusually Lively Election, the Big Issues Are Misplaced Bodies and the Need for a 'Woman's Touch'

John McKinney writes often for this magazine. He lives in Santa Barbara

Helen Frankel, California's first female coroner, remembers the first time the "good ol' boys," as she calls them, put her to the test. She had been in office only a few months. Sheriff's deputies called her at home, just as she was leaving for a weekend outing. A search-and-rescue team had just pulled a body from the Kern River, and it was resting at the bottom of a steep gorge. The deputies were most insistent that neither a coroner investigator nor the assistant coroner would do; only the coroner herself could inspect the body and give permission for its removal. "They said all they wanted was authority to move the body, but really they wanted to see if I could hike down into that gorge and out again." A little game, a proof of macho, she guesses. "Well, I took that hike and took care of that body, and they haven't called me again since," she says with a triumphant twinkle in her eye.

When Frankel, a soft-spoken former nurse, ran for Kern County coroner in 1982, she had never before held elective office. She campaigned on a reform platform, pointing to grand jury reports and county audits that criticized the incumbent coroner's handling of the office, including a huge backlog of uncompleted autopsy reports. She promised improved service to remote areas, grief counseling for the bereaved, and better pathology service.

Now, four years later, she is running for reelection. But the problems with her so-called old-boy network--certain police and sheriff's officials, mortuary owners and even some members of her staff--have hardly diminished. Four candidates are challenging her on the ballot Tuesday for the $62,728-a-year post. Her opponents say that she is not qualified for the job and that her misguided policies have alienated law enforcement agencies and funeral home employees--two groups she must deal with frequently. Frankel, on the other hand, says such complaints are simply the male-dominated old guard resisting changes in the status quo. And, she says, she has brought a more sympathetic "woman's touch" to the duties of the coroner.

As a rule, elections for county coroner are unremarkable affairs, but Kern County's is turning out to be an exception. For example, among the campaign charges against Frankel is that her office has lost or misidentified bodies. And one candidate has taken to dressing as a 19th-Century undertaker--complete with top hat and long black coat--and driving a horse and buggy in local parades.

Despite such oddities, the race has much of the homespun atmosphere of any small-town election. Yard signs predominate over TV ads. Candidates in shirt sleeves and cowboy boots walk precincts. The electioneering is small scale, but the amount of ground covered is not. Kern, California's third-largest county, ranges 8,000 square-miles, roughly the same size as Massachusetts. Covering the territory, much less the issues, is not an easy task for candidates on a tight budget.

Few Californians will be casting ballots for a coroner this month. Thirty-four of the state's counties have a sheriff-coroner (the sheriff part of the job is usually the only part voters consider), 4 have medical examiners and 16 have lay coroners, who are generally appointed rather than elected. The job traditionally involves establishing the correct cause of death and providing information that may help the medical profession, relatives or the criminal-justice system. In Kern County the office is called coroner-public administrator. The coroner oversees a staff of 38 and, as public administrator, settles estates in the absence of a will and manages the affairs of the mentally ill and those physically unable to take care of themselves.

Although the coroner's duties might be well suited to someone with a medical or perhaps a criminal-investigation background, no minimum job requirements exist for the office. According to the Kern County Clerk's Office, any citizen 18 years or older and registered to vote may be coroner.

Running for coroner is difficult; running on the issues even more so. At candidate forums, citizens' eyes glaze over when the coroner and would-be coroners discourse upon such topics as pathology contracts, autopsy ratios and body-transfer services.

Frankel, however, is running for reelection on her record. As she walks through the morgue one day, she indicates some of the more visible changes that have been made in her office. She points out the new computerized accounting system. Kern County's coroner is responsible for living people too, she says, and the computer helps keep track of the financial affairs of several hundred mentally ill and disabled people placed under the care of the coroner. In her next term, Frankel hopes to computerize the disposition of the dead. But until a computer program is written, her office keeps track of bodies with the help of a large wall chart.

As an example of what she calls the "woman's touch" she has brought to the job, she mentions a particularly tough decision she made that morning. Her staff of coroner investigators concluded that a young man in east Kern County had died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound in the head. Photographs, an autopsy and all available evidence indicated suicide. The man had suffered intractable pain from a back injury and had been on a variety of tranquilizers and painkillers for a long time. Still, the family of the young man wanted to believe that the death was an accident.

"It's the kind of heavy decision you have to make sometimes: Was it an accident or was it self-inflicted?" Frankel says.

Frankel reviewed all the photographs, reports and evidence and agreed with her staff. "But I wasn't satisfied with one aspect of the investigation. And that was because nobody had talked to the widow. I sent that investigator back out to talk to the widow."

When she first ran for office, Frankel recalls, widows who had been involved with the coroner's office expressed their anger at not being allowed to visit the scene of the trauma, and about how male investigators had talked to all other relatives but them. "I know men think they're shielding women from trauma, but a woman needs to know. And I'm trying to convince my folks it's a disservice, because if you don't deal with death it's going to gnaw at you for a long time."

Even the morgue, a somewhat forbidding room with its stainless steel gurneys, floor drains, fluorescent lighting and the faint smell of disinfectant and formaldehyde, has received Frankel's touch. Fresh white paint covers the walls. Not exactly cheerful, but an improvement over the previous beige.

Frankel gestures to a neat row of specimen jars that store heart, liver and kidney tissue samples collected during autopsies. "When I got here, specimen jars were stacked up all over the place. I had 50 unfinished coroner's cases to clean up when I first took office."

Frankel has also attempted to upgrade the morgue's security. Too many unauthorized people, such as highly entrepreneurial local morticians, were removing bodies, she says. Stepping into the 35-degree "freezer," she strides past a single gurney, its occupant covered by a white sheet, and stands before a locked, heavy wire screen partition that separates the homicides from the "naturals." She had the homicides isolated in this way, she says, to protect the chain of evidence that's so crucial in a murder investigation.

Another locked door that Frankel had installed, a heavy steel one, secures the morgue from the outside world. On Frankel's first day in office, she brought in a locksmith to change all the locks in the coroner's building, improving security but also physically and symbolically locking out a number of people who had previously enjoyed almost unrestricted access to the morgue.

Bakersfield mortician Jerry Stafford, one of the candidates opposing Frankel, campaigns part time from a small office at Greenlawn Memorial Park. The room is more commonly used for advising the bereaved on the kinds and costs of burials available at Greenlawn. Sample headstones cover the walls. The Oklahoma-born Stafford describes himself as "a boots-and-blue-jeans kind of guy"--quite a contrast with the somber clothes he wears while carrying out his mortician duties.

Stafford charges that the coroner made a bad decision when she contracted with an out-of-county pathology service, because the hired pathologists do not conduct autopsies on weekends. By not autopsying on weekends, the coroner's office sometimes delays the release of bodies, thus inconveniencing mortuaries and hence the public. "If you have a death at 4 or 5 on a Friday (afternoon) and no autopsy until Monday, it delays everything. And if there were a couple of weekend homicides--homicides always get autopsying precedence over naturals--it could be Tuesday before the body is released. This delay inconveniences the family of the deceased. A lot of people want to come in and see the person that passed away."

Stafford has received the endorsement of the Kern County Funeral Directors Assn. He and his fellow undertakers believe that Frankel's policies require far too much transporting of bodies. The county is charged every time it uses its body-removal service, he explains. Often bodies are sent to the county morgue, he says, even though circumstances clearly indicate that no autopsy will be necessary and that those bodies could just as well be released directly to the mortuaries. "If a body goes straight to the mortuary, there's no cost to the taxpayer, and that adds up to a considerable savings over a year."

Frankel says the reason funeral directors want a body released quickly is because their business is so competitive; whoever gets the body first gets the business. "The coroner is made the fall guy--fall gal--by the mortuary eager to obtain the body to prepare it for a funeral, by saying we're delaying the process. They sometimes set a funeral date before checking with us to see if the body has been released."

Even if a body was autopsied on a Saturday night, Frankel argues, the morticians probably wouldn't pick it up until Monday morning, because they use the same pickup service as the county and wouldn't want to pay weekend overtime rates.

Frankel says the morticians are upset because she put the "indigent contract" out to bid. Before she took office, funeral homes rotated taking care of those people unable to pay for their own burial. Frankel says she broke up what she calls the "Mortuary of the Month Club," whose members charged $400 for a pauper's cremation. By putting the contract out to bid and awarding it to a single mortuary, she reduced the cost to the county to $160.

Another coroner candidate is Donald Wigginton, a pleasant, florid fellow who sports a "Wigginton for Coroner" campaign button. Now a coroner investigator under Frankel, he wants his boss's job. He talks with great feeling about coming up through the ranks, of paying his dues, of the long years spent as a cop with police departments in Delano, Calif., and Anchorage, and of his 17 years with the Kern County coroner's office, including eight years as assistant coroner.

"It should not be an elected office," Wigginton says. "It should be an appointed office for someone with the right training.

"And you shouldn't go in there as a trainee," he says. "It's a $62,000-a-year job. I don't know of any private business that would hire someone with no knowledge, training, background or experience and put him in the top slot."

During the 1982 election, Wigginton actively campaigned for the re-election of incumbent Coroner Richard Gervais. Wigginton even debated Gervais' challengers, including Frankel, during candidates' forums. In the four years since Frankel defeated Gervais, relations between the coroner and Wigginton have been strained, to say the least. Wigginton accuses Frankel of keeping a dossier on him and of engaging in Machiavellian schemes to get rid of him. "I won't be run out," Wigginton vows.

Frankel demoted Wigginton from assistant coroner (the No. 2 post in the office) to coroner investigator, charging him with incompetence, insubordination and discourteous treatment of the public. Wigginton appealed his demotion to the county Civil Service Commission but lost.

On the campaign trail, Wigginton (along with Jerry Stafford, who is a captain in the Kern County Sheriff's Reserve) hammers away at Frankel's lack of law enforcement experience and accuses the coroner of having a poor working relationship with police. "She's not popular with them," he says. "She doesn't fit in, isn't able to talk to them. Ever been around police officers? They have their own world."

Frankel counters that a county coroner doesn't need to come from a criminal-investigation background. "I'm not Quincy; I'm Quincy's boss."

Too many people think the coroner's office is merely an arm of the Sheriff's Department, Frankel says. Soon after taking office she learned that several men had been issued badges during the previous administration that identified them as "special investigators" for the coroner's office. "We couldn't even find a complete list of everybody that had been deputized," she says. She recalled all the badges.

Misplaced bodies, which Frankel's opponents allude to with professional delicacy as "administrative irregularities" and "misidentifications," is another campaign issue. In the early months of Frankel's term, a stillborn baby was taken to the county morgue and lost. The parents of the infant, whose remains were discovered to have been inadvertently cremated at Kern Medical Center, filed a $2.2-million lawsuit against the medical center and the coroner's office. The baby had been picked up by a hospital employee with the remains of another baby stored in the coroner's facility. A district attorney's study later concluded that the child had been cremated by a hospital employee and that Kern Medical Center, which shares the morgue with the coroner, was at fault. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount. Although all parties agreed that the coroner's office was not to blame, Frankel nevertheless took some political heat over the episode.

Another misplaced body case is causing the coroner some concern. At the center of the story are Joe Smith McAfee and Tony Otis Prather, two men known to Bakersfield police because of the men's many arrests for public drunkenness. McAfee and Prather were acquainted and bore more than a passing resemblance to each other. A body was found under a bench in a Bakersfield park, and police officers told the coroner investigator who arrived on the scene that it resembled McAfee. The investigator took the policemen's word on the ID, and the coroner's office notified the McAfee family of Joe's death. The McAfees held a funeral service and buried the body. The problem was that McAfee was still very much alive. The day after the funeral, he read his own obituary in a jail cell, where he was serving 30 days for public drunkenness.

After McAfee notified authorities of the mistake, the body buried in his grave was exhumed. It was found to be Tony Otis Prather, who had been misidentified even though Prather had his initials and Social Security number tattooed on his arm. The Prather and McAfee families have filed claims against the coroner's office and Kern County.

Frankel has so far refused to comment on the case except to say that "the coroner investigator was absolutely devastated by the error, heartbroken. I said, 'Everyone makes mistakes.' And our staff learned a valuable lesson: Never take anyone's word on an ID, even a police officer's, without corroborating evidence and fingerprints."

With issues difficult to raise, some coroner candidates are trying for visibility. But it's hard to be visible in a county as huge as Kern. Census data affirms Bakersfield's position as the exact population center of California, but outside of the city limits one feels in the middle of nowhere. Weedpatch and Pumpkin Center, Tehachapi and Taft, McKittrick, Mojave and McFarland. A long, long campaign trail. And when it's not hot as blazes, the infamous tule fog squats over the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, slowing cars and campaigns to a snail's pace.

Some people say the term "Bakersfield metropolitan area" is a contradiction. Though Kern is often labeled one of California's "cow counties" or "ag counties," resident boosters prefer to describe their environs as "California's Golden Empire," "Futureland U.S.A." and "the nation's foremost county in the production of fuel, food and fiber." By whatever name, Kern County's geography places some unique demands on candidates for public office.

Asked about his campaign plans, Donald Wigginton points to his Rotary Club tie tack and fishes a Rotary Club directory from his coat pocket. "I'm a Rotarian, and I'll visit all the Rotary Clubs in the county," he declares. The Arvin Exchange Club and the Shriners Barbecue are also on his schedule.

Jerry Stafford says that he's having a lot of fun with the campaign. In his 19th-Century undertaker's costume and 1890 funeral coach, pulled by two black horses topped with black plumes, he has attracted plenty of attention at county parades. He isn't certain exactly how many votes he has won by these appearances, but his entry has won first place in a few parades.

Bob Johnson, campaign manager for Helen Frankel, has placed the incumbent on a grueling schedule: Pioneer Days, Desert Tortoise Days, the Arvin Wildflower Festival, the Business and Professional Women's Club of Lake Isabella, the Potato and Cotton Festival in Shafter. Frankel has spoken to senior citizens in Frazier Park and has judged young lovelies at the Miss California City beauty pageant.

Johnson says putting his candidate in a parade requires some deft political strategy. "I can't put Mrs. Frankel on a horse, because traditionally in Kern County parades only the candidates for sheriff ride horses. And about all the other candidates ride in cars. So I figured, why not have her walk?"

And so in parades Helen Frankel walks, trailed by a car decorated with flowers and her campaign banners. Pamphleteers precede her, working the crowd with the coroner's campaign literature.

Frankel seems to enjoy the hoopla. If her recent election as secretary-treasurer of the California State Coroners Assn. doesn't convince the good ol' boys that she can do a man's job, well then, she'll just have to put on her red cowboy hat, blue denim skirt and cowboy boots, and mix and mingle with the folks.

"I think I'm a role model for women," she says. "Now, I'm not saying it's every little girl's dream to grow up to be coroner, but I think I've broken new ground."

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