The forensic pathologist who performs autopsies for the Marion County Coroner's office delivered a letter this week to city officials that his firm plans to leave the county on Dec. 19 because the coroner refuses to negotiate a new contract.
The "chain-reaction type process of permanently shutting down" the firm's operations will lead, according to lead doctor Stephen Radentz, to having no one available to perform death investigations and testify at current and future homicide trials.
The coroner, Kenneth Ackles, in June terminated a contract with Radentz' firm, Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana, with an effective date of Dec. 19. Ackles declined to explain the reason for canceling the five-year contract just eight months after signing it, saying he could not discuss negotiations.
Ackles did, however, have this response to Radentz' letter. "We're dealing with a disgruntled employee," Ackles said Thursday. "We're gonna hire other people, and they will all be board-certified forensic pathologists." The Star added, "Ackles declined to say who he will hire or when he will announce the change, but he promised it will save money and provide better service for the citizens of Marion County."
News flash for Ackles: Radentz is not an employee of your office. And that's Ackles' biggest problem with Radentz and his staff. Both under the former contract with IUPUI's medical school and the current contract with Radentz' firm, forensic pathologists performing work for the Marion County Coroner's office do so as independent contractors. These same forensic experts have provided the same services for many surrounding counties in Central Indiana, but not anymore. As a consequence of Ackles' action, Radentz must close his firm and he and his staff are taking jobs out-of-state. Marion County and the surrounding 20 counties dependent on these services will have to look for services elsewhere, perhaps even out-of-state.
The fact that Ackles has yet to hire any replacements for Radentz and his staff is extremely troublesome. As Radentz explains in his letter, forensic pathologists are in short supply, and it often takes months to recruit just one, let alone a staff of three. Assuming he does find someone who is willing to step into the lion's den, the person will likely come from out-of-state and have to wait to become licensed in Indiana before he/she can perform any autopsies for the county.
UPDATE: The Star's Brendan O'Shaughnessy has a more lengthy story in today's paper, which includes a reation from the prosecutor's office, which is obviously one of concern. O'Shaughnessy reports:
Lisa Borges, chief of staff for Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, said she is concerned that the coroner is making the transition now -- in a year with a near-record number of homicides. Borges said she has held several meetings with city officials, urging them to help end the impasse with what she called a highly qualified team of pathologists.
"It's very important that they negotiate to maintain the continuity of the investigations that are currently under way," Borges said . . .
Borges said the situation reminds her of the early 1990s, when then-Coroner Karl Manders canceled a contract with Indiana University pathologists in an attempt to save money. The team Manders hired in 1992 botched several death investigations and suffered from credibility problems, including a drunken-driving arrest.
"They simply were utter failures, so I have great concern now," Borges said.
In 1994, the coroner's office rehired the IU pathologists, who decided not to renew the contract in 2005. Radentz, one of the IU doctors, started his own firm to take over the contract.
O'Shaughnessy says the mayor is reviewing the letter according to a spokesman.