CASPER, Wyo — “We’ve got a lot questions for the coroners here,” said Joe McGinley, chair of the Natrona County Republican Party at a Washington Park political forum Monday, July 27. There are two candidates in the race for Natrona County Coroner to be decided in the primary election August 18.
“People don’t realize just how complicated.the coroner’s office is,” said James Whipps, the current Natrona County coroner. “Nobody talks about it or wants to know about it usually until an election.”
Whipps is the current coroner, appointed after Connie Jacobs retired last August. Whipps said he had learned a lot about the office from Jacobs the last three years, but that his time on the job had been the best teacher.
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Whipps is being challenged by Don Halberg, who had worked in the Natrona County Coroner’s Office since 2015 and has worked death scene investigations as a law enforcement officer and a death scene investigator
The coroner’s three primarily responsibilities, by statutory mandate, are to identify the deceased, notify next of kin, and determine the cause and manner of death. In Wyoming, a medical degree is not required for to become coroner, but must consult with someone who does. The Natrona County Coroner’s office consults with forensic pathologists either from Wyoming or in Loveland, Colorado.
Whipps said ideally notification is done in person by the coroner’s office or a law enforcement agency. “When we do that, we need to keep in mind that this might be the most tragic day of their lives.”
Whipps described his office as the “biggest, busiest and best” in the state, and one of only 26 in the nations with an accreditation from the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. But he said he’s still refining the process. “I dismantle processes and put them back together better and more efficiently than before.”
Halberg said he’d look at the coroner’s budget to see if there was waste to be cut. He told Oil City News he was concerned about a nearly $50,000 increase in the office’s budget from the last fiscal year.
Whipps told Oil City that county commissioners had approved his budget increase because autopsies had gone over budget the year before, and money had to be reallocated from elsewhere to cover the statutorily-dictated autopsies.
“There’s no fluff,” he said. “We’ve increased our budget this year because autopsies for a long time have been out of whack, so I leveled that out so it’s transparent and an actual budget. For years, that line item has run over, and you end up trying to make up for it in other areas that you shouldn’t.”
The line item for autopsies and consulting for the budget increased from $97,000 in 2019 to $142,000. Salaries did not increase.
Whipps said he only does autopsies on cases that dictate them by statutory mandate and cases where “I’m just not going to get an answer without it.”
He does an autopsy on about 35% of the cases he sees, and said the national average is 60-80%.
Whipps is a Natrona County native and Second Iraq War veteran. He said he had 31 years of experience in death scene investigations and holds advanced certifications in sudden unexplained infant death, mass casualty management, and has the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigations license.
“I have also stepped out and taken on other missions to reduce preventable death,” Whipps said, including being on the Central Wyoming Health Coalition, Natrona County Suicide Prevention task force, and an appointment to Governor Gordon’s Council on Impaired Driving.
Halberg worked for the Albuquerque Police Department investigating fatal accident investigator and investigator of homicides and other fatal cases. When he returned to Casper he worked for the Casper Police Department for about 6 years. During that time he worked with then-Natrona County Coroner Jim Thorpe, and in addition to his mentorship took classes in medical terminology, anatomy, biology, and microbiology.
Halberg joined the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team and worked at morgue facilities attending to both the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He also worked as death invesigator for King County in Seattle, Washington. He obtained a bachelor’s degree human resource management and personnel pychology from Washington State University. In 2015 he returned to Natrona County and worked as an investigator for the Coroner’s Office.
“Every problem that’s come up, I’ve been able to find a solution,” he said at the forum.
Whipps said that the majority of deaths in Natrona County are cardiac-related, reflecting a national trend, and that pulmonary issues are second.