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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Jun. 5, 2018 3 months ago

Volusia County Council hires pathologist who conducted third-party assessment of medical examiner's office as interim director

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Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin will act as Volusia County's interim director for the medical examiner's office starting June 8.
by: Jarleene Almenas News Editor

Following controversy involving medical examiner Sara Zydowicz's resignation after one month on the job due to what she described in a letter to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission on May 10 as "dangerous conditions" at the Volusia County medical examiner's office, the Volusia County Council has found a replacement for the time being: Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin, the medical examiner who recently conducted an evaluation of the facility and concluded the problems are easy fixes. 

The County Council approved a contract for his services with a 6-1 vote. County Councilwoman Heather Post voted against. Thogmartin, the executive director for the District Six medical examiner's office and Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory, will serve as interim director and provide forensic medical examiner services starting June 9, 2018 until Dec. 31, 2018, for no more than $780,000 under county contract. 

The discussion on the state of the medical examiner's office led Post to talk about accountability and previous requests over the years by former medical examiner Dr. Marie Herrmann for more staff. She told Volusia County Manager Jim Dinneen that it was silly to think there haven't been official complaints against the medical examiner's office in many years.

"What's silly is to sit there and to keep repeating that it's poorly run when there's no evidence to support that," Dinneen said.

Post countered that Zydowicz's letter and Thogmartin's assessment were that evidence. She said these were not accusations but questions.

“This is not a head hunt against anybody," Post said. "It’s accountability."

Edgewater resident Tiffany King gave a tearful account of her experience with the medical examiner's office when her friend was mistakenly told a body in the morgue was not her daughter, igniting hope in both families. Days later, King said they were told the body was in fact her friend's daughter.

"In my opinion, an improvement of the internal procedures of the office will quickly resolve any issues of public concern, and the conditions at the office are not critical, dangerous, or harmful. The office has a good reputation both locally and statewide." 

Forensic Pathologist Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin in a letter of evaluation to County Council Manager Jim Dinneen

"This is a big deal," King said. "This is important. This is every parent's worst nightmare."

Volusia County Council Chair Ed Kelley apologized to King, saying no parent should ever go through that. Earlier in the discussion, Kelley said they can't correct the "sins of the past." Instead, the County Council needs to look to the future.

Thogmartin visited and assessed the Volusia County medical examiner's office on May 25, after being recommended by Dr. Stephen Nelson, Florida Medical Examiners Commission chairman. 

"In my opinion, an improvement of the internal procedures of the office will quickly resolve any issues of public concern, and the conditions at the office are not critical, dangerous, or harmful," Thogmartin wrote in his evaluation to Dinneen. "The office has a good reputation both locally and statewide." 

He addressed Zydowicz's concerns in her resignation letter regarding the morgue's cooler being over capacity, backlog of cases, understaffing and the previous medical examiner's unfinished cases and unwillingness to testify in ongoing cases. This is the sixth office Thogmartin has stepped in to look at, and he told the County Council it was better off than the others in the past. 

Thogmartin said that forensic pathologists are a "squirrelly bunch" and that they're always "looking for greener pastures." He said Zydowicz's words of "critical error" and "dangerous office" in her letter did not mean a physical danger to a person but danger to her career. He also mentioned that Zydowicz came from the Orlando office, which he described as the "Taj Mahal building" in regards to staff and facilities.

"When you come here, you're kind of used to a higher standard of funding, staff, and they do things differently," Thogmartin said. "So it's a shock."

In an update to the County Council, dated June 4, Dinneen said Thogmartin performed his evaluation for free "as a professional courtesy to Dr. Nelson and the county." He was asked to consider acting as the county's interim director after he presented his findings.

During his closing remarks, Kelley said the County Council had to take action to put an interim director in place. He said he wasn't sure that they could have searched for a year and found a better person for the job than Thogmartin.

"If anything you did wrong was offer [Zydowicz] the job for one month," Kelley said to Dinneen. "In hindsight."

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