Former Douglas County coroner relocates, again

photo by: Journal-World file photo

In this Journal-World file photo from Sept. 3, 2015, then-Douglas County Coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell testifies in the probable cause hearing for a Lawrence man charged with first-degree murder.

Douglas County’s former coroner is still being flown in from out of state to testify in death-related court cases here, but he’s now coming from a different state.

After more than 20 years as Douglas County coroner, Erik Mitchell left Kansas last summer and began a job as chief medical examiner for Fond du Lac County in Wisconsin.

Mitchell secured his license in that state and began performing autopsies in September; however, he left the job in October because of county budget problems, Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel said.

Mitchell has moved back to upstate New York, where he’s originally from, and is currently searching for a new job, he told a reporter during a brief exchange Friday in Lawrence, where Mitchell had been called to the courthouse for a hearing in a murder case.

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Buechel said Fond du Lac County previously earned significant revenue performing autopsies for more than a dozen other counties. However, when the county’s former medical examiner left at the beginning of this year, the office shut down for nearly eight months and clients turned elsewhere.

When Buechel hired Mitchell and a younger pathologist last summer, he’d hoped to recoup the out-of-county business but was unable to. He said the former medical examiner had “a following” and that many counties continued sending bodies to him in his new position in Milwaukee.

Buechel said his office was down to only about two autopsies a week.

“One of the doctors had to go for financial reasons,” he said. “(Mitchell) chose to leave. He said all he’s doing is using up salary from the county, and he’s not really doing much of anything.”

Mitchell’s salary was $240,000, and the county paid him through the end of November, Buechel said. Buechel said he had no performance or credibility problems.

Buechel previously told the Journal-World that when hiring Mitchell he was aware of an early 1990s investigation into misconduct at Mitchell’s office in Onondaga County, N.Y., where he was chief medical examiner before moving to Kansas.

In 1993, an investigation by the district attorney’s office there concluded Mitchell had overstepped his authority and mismanaged his office, including harvesting organs without family permission and improperly storing body parts in his office, according to an Associated Press story published by The New York Times at that time. The prosecutor never filed criminal charges and agreed to drop his investigation when Mitchell, then 42, resigned. 

Buechel said he personally spoke with the New York prosecutor who did the investigation in the 1990s and had his staff contact numerous references from Kansas, and he was ultimately confident in hiring Mitchell.

Buechel said Mitchell had told him he hoped to work another 10 years, though he’s now in his 60s. Mitchell has performed more than 12,000 autopsies in his career, according to past court testimony.

He was Douglas County’s official coroner for more than two decades, from 1996 until this year.

Douglas County still contracts its autopsy needs to the private company that Mitchell helped start, Frontier Forensics Midwest, in Kansas City, Kan. Mitchell left Frontier Forensics in the wake of a takeover by an out-of-state company.

The business was sold in mid-2017 to Nashville, Tenn.-based Forensic Medical Management Services.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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