On a clear May afternoon, Jim McCormick was enjoying some down time working on his cabin in Steamboat Springs when he got the news.
“It was a surreal moment,” McCormick recalled.
Earlier that day in Granby, a 2002 Ford F-250 eastbound on US Highway 40 rear-ended the vehicle in front of it. That collision pushed the truck into the westbound lane where it crashed head-on with a sedan.
The driver and the passenger of the sedan were the 24th and 25th deaths in the county this year. But to Grand County Coroner Brenda Bock and Chief Deputy Coroner Tawnya Bailey, they were Raymond Allen and Betty Jean Shelton and there was a family to tell.
McCormick answered the call around 3:30 p.m. May 15. The voice on the other end of the phone was Bock’s, and her first question after delivering the devastating news was: “What do you need?”
He asked her to keep the office open late so he could identify his parents-in-law before heading home to his family in Lakewood.
“They really knew the last thing we wanted to do was drive back to Kremmling for anything,” McCormick said. “(Brenda) could have easily said, ‘This is the process we have to do and you have to fall in line with the process,’ but she built the process in line with my needs. When you get that, you’ve got someone who’s gone way above what they’re supposed to be doing.”
McCormick wanted to be the one to identify his parents-in-law for his family’s sake, but he wasn’t sure what to expect once he made it to the Coroner’s Office in Kremmling that evening.
He found Bock and Bailey had already thought about how hard it could be for McCormick, and they had prepared the bodies accordingly and rearranged their own schedules to be there for him that evening. If he had needed it, McCormick could have grabbed one of the dozens of teddy bears placed throughout the office for comfort.
For McCormick, that level of care made one of his worst days about as good as it could have been.
“There was just a real sensitivity to us as a family that we really needed at the time,” he said. “I felt like I could have asked for anything and if they could have done it, they would have.”
THE HARDEST CALLS
At the coroner’s office, that kind of response is standard. According to Bock and Bailey, working with the deceased’s family is often the most difficult — and most rewarding — part of their job.
“We know that when you get that phone call from us or we come knocking on your door, we have changed your life completely,” Bock said. “They are not just a number, they are someone’s loved one and we have to treat them that way.”
Last year, Bock and Bailey had to inform the families or next of kin of 66 people who died in Grand County.
Sometimes, they were strangers, but often the deceased were neighbors, friends, relatives, members of the church or local figures. Other times, they were suspects in a crime, addicts or behaved recklessly.
“Whether they did right or wrong, or why we’re investigating their death, they are still somebody’s loved one,” Bailey said.
When it comes to informing the next of kin, coroners never know what to expect. They have to be prepared for tears, anger, denial, indifference and sometimes happiness.
The call gets exponentially harder when the manner of death is suicide or undetermined. In 2018, six people died by suicide and two deaths were undetermined, according to the 2018 Coroner’s Report.
These scenarios in particular highlight another most important aspect of the job, which Bock described as “writing the last chapter” of someone’s life.
“We are giving answers to the family about what happened to their loved one,” she said. “We are very protective of the decedent because we are writing that last chapter for them and we want to make sure it’s right.”
Coroners are called to a variety of scenes and investigate sudden and unexpected deaths. Using medical records, evidence at the scene, any personal information that can be gathered and anything else that might help, they try to determine the manner and cause of death.
“We are kind of the last responder,” Bailey said.
The cause of death describes the medical condition that caused the death, such as heart failure or blunt force trauma, while the manner of death is the coroner’s best judgement on whether the death was an accident, natural, a suicide, homicide or undetermined.
Determining the manner of death is especially difficult because it’s hard to prove intention after the fact, Bock noted. It’s also getting more expensive because of the rising costs of toxicology and pathology tests.
Despite having 19 fewer deaths in 2018 than the year before, the cost for the Coroner’s Office to investigate each death skyrocketed from $2,192 to $3,479.
Man hours also make up a good portion of the cost. Like first responders, coroners must be ready for any situation when it comes to removing the body to take it back to the office.
According to the report, almost half of the deaths last year occurred outside a residence or medical facility.
Grand County’s terrain and weather often make their job unpredictable, Bailey explained, as she rattled off a few examples, like the times they’ve had to snowshoe, ride horses, raft down a down river or hike peaks to get to a scene.
In fact, the only thing Bailey can predict is the unpredictability of her job. No two days or weeks or years ever look the same.
“Death has no timeline,” she said. “And death is not usually convenient.”