Working with death
Two hikers walking through a park in Richland County notice a foot sticking out from behind some bushes. As they move closer, they see the foot belongs to a body. They see clothes and then a face that is unrecognizable. They call 911, and the dispatcher calls the Richland County Coroner’s office because that office is responsible for investigating all suspicious, violent, sudden, and unexpected deaths in Richland County. Certain natural deaths must be investigated as well.
When Coroner Gary Watts and his deputies arrive on the scene, they are joined by two Richland County Sheriff’s deputies or the Columbia Police Department or other agencies that might be called. Because the body is unrecognizable, Dr. William D. Stevens, anthropologist for the Coroner’s Office, is called in.
The remains are taken to the coroner’s office and placed on a table. Stevens will use scientific techniques and his knowledge of the human skeletal system to identify the sex, age, ancestry or race, height and body size of the individual. He will first compare this to known missing persons. Sometimes the unique characteristics of bones and teeth can be used for a positive identification. Also, DNA testing is used.
He can also assess the skeletal trauma whether it occurred around the time of death or in a fresh body. He may call in a forensic entomologist (one who studies insects) or a forensic botanist (one who studies plants) for further investigation.
If the body is identified, the family is called in and provided grief counseling and steps to follow for burial. Also, beside the counseling room is a play room for children with a one way glass where they can be watched by their families. These families are not forgotten by the R.C. Coroner’s Office.
To help families who have lost loved ones, Watts started C.A.R.E. (Community Awareness Response Education). This organization is comprised of trained volunteers who offer support and emotional first aid to the survivors.
Dr. Delores Gulledge, thanatologist (one who studies the science of death), is the deputy coordinator of the C.A.R.E. team.
If the body is not identified, it is kept in the freezer. If it is never identified, the remains are cremated and buried in the Richland County Cemetery. Also, if a family cannot afford a burial, the family members can sign over the remains to the Coroner’s Office, and the same process will take place.
Every effort is used to determine unclaimed remains of veterans. The office is working with several veterans’ groups and the staff at Fort Jackson National Cemetery to determine eligibility for burial in the National Cemetery.
A Child’s Death
Any child’s death under the age of 18 has to be reported to the R. C. Coroner’s Office. Most deaths the R. C. Coroner’s Office sees, according to Deputy Coroner Jane W. Powell, are caused by unsafe sleep. Powell’s team is on call in shifts 24 hours a day.
In a case when a child stops breathing and the parents call 911, an ambulance rushes the child to the hospital. One of Powell’s team will meet the ambulance along with a person from Columbia Police Department or Richland County Sheriffs Department. That team member begins investigating by interviewing the family, checking pediatric records, the mother’s pregnancy, the family OB/GYN, Department of Social Services. An autoposy is done and the team visits the home.
Usually, infant deaths are due to wrong bedding or what the deputies call unsafe sleep. The deputies teach that a baby should always sleep alone and always in a crib; babies should lie on their backs and sleep in clear cribs; with no blankets, toys, or other object.
Unsafe conditions can occur when people take the wrong medication or when they are drunk; the baby is in the bed and that person rolls over and suffocates the child. The R.C. Coroner’s office will put in approximately 300 hours investigating each case of unsafe sleep.
Deputy Powell, not only works with the Unsafe Sleep Team; she is also on the Richland County Sheriff ’s Department’s Dive Team that dives for evidence and bodies.
Another program is Crossroads where Deputy Coroner Ann Neeley works with at risk children who are assigned to the program by their parent/ guardian through the Richland County Sheriff’s Department headquarters. She works with five or six children and their parents. When these children come to her program, it may be their last chance before they become incarcerated.
Neeley gives the children in the program a paper plate and a tube of toothpaste and asks them to squeeze as much of the toothpaste as they wish on the plate. Then she asks them to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Her point is once you make choices, you cannot take them back.
The children visit holding cells, the freezer where unclaimed bodies are kept, and the morgue. Neeley also shows them photographs of people living only with tubes keeping them alive. She asks them who is going to care for them if this happens to them. The point is if they continue on the same path, their lives are going to be ruined. They have the choice to change.
Another program of The Richland County Coroner’s Office is its foundation formed in 2011 by Watts to raise funds for a number of projects to help the R.C. Coroner’s Office do a better job. The main fundraiser is an oyster roast which takes place in January. Deputy Coroner Robert Dean heads the foundation. It is a nonprofit run by a board and volunteers who serve a two-year term.
Money raised from the oyster roast helps the Coroner’s Office to perform community and safety projects the regular budget does not include. It provides programs for families who have lost loved ones; provides safety programs for schools, neighborhood associations, and civic groups; and provides training that goes beyond the 16 hours required for continuing education each year. Evidence
The Coroner’s Office building at 6300 Shakespeare Road is almost a year old and is state of the art. Each deputy coroner, most of whom are women, has her own office. According to Watts, women are more detailed oriented and more nurturing for the families.
The converted warehouse’s evidence room has thick walls and no windows. People who enter are met by a deputy where they must sign in. DNA samples are locked in a different place and confiscated drugs, both prescription and illegal, are boxed and soon burned. It is important the trail of evidence is secure. The room is such that the evidence cannot be tampered with.
Dealing with death
When Watts was asked how he deals with so much death and sadness, he said he has a strong faith, and his church members pray for him every Sunday. He says he has dedicated staff members who deeply care about their job and the people they serve who have lost a loved one.
Coroner Gary Watts Richland County
Gary Watts, the Richland County Coroner, is no stranger to public service. Prior to being elected coroner in 2001, he served as deputy coroner in Richland County for more than 15 years. Since his career with the Coroner’s Office began in 1980, Watts has been involved in over 32,000 death investigations. His professional experience also includes having served as a police officer, an emergency medical technician, and an investigator with the Richland County Public Defender’s Office.
He is a graduate of the Institute of Police Technology and Management, University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. He also attended the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and St. Louis School of Medicine where he received his certification as a Nationally Board Certified Death Investigator, D-ABMDI.
In addition, Watts belongs to several professional organizations and has received numerous awards.
Contact information for the Richland County Coroner’s Office
To help the Richland County Coroner’s Office
Foundation, send tax-deductible contributions to:
Richland County Coroner’s Office Foundation: P.O.
Box 192, Columbia, SC 29202.
Questions regarding unclaimed remains of military veterans should be directed to (803) 576-1799.
24 hour answering service: 803-576-1799
FAX number 803-576-1798
Office hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.
Two investigators and a supervisor are on call 24
hours a day, seven days a week.