Keys LEO refuses to support medical examiner’s bid for second term
The Medical Examiners Commission, a panel of nine professionals, voted Wednesday not to recommend Dr. Thomas Beaver to the governor of Florida to have his contract renewed in Monroe County.
The move came after the commission reviewed surveys expressing unanimous disapproval of the medical examiner’s job performance, and after the county’s top police officer and prosecutor both questioned if the relationship with the medical examiner was beyond repair.
“I got to tell you that these are the worst surveys we have seen,” said Stephen Nelson, M.D., chairman of the board. The surveys were sent out to the medical examiner’s partners, including Monroe County, the sheriff’s office, local police chiefs, the state attorney and local funeral homes. Of the 15 surveyed, 10 cast an “unfavorable” vote while five did not respond. “Not a single favorable survey was issued. … It’s disheartening to me to have you address this board and not once say anything that’s kind of contrite. That ‘I would like to make this work.’ What I have heard is ‘They are all liars, all making this stuff up’ and that troubles me.”
Dr. Nelson made the remarks on Wednesday after assertions by Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, Monroe County Assistant Attorney Cynthia Hall, Monroe County Social Services’ Sheryl Graham, and State Attorney Dennis Ward. They ranged from transporting a body to the morgue in the back of an uncovered pickup truck and taking it through a fast food drive-through to “butchering” bodies during autopsy, specifically those of the homeless.
In addition, the commission read other excerpts from the surveys, including Dr. Beaver’s rebuttals, comments from the Allen Beyer Funeral Home and a memo signed by Monroe County sheriff’s deputies. Those charges ranged from a medical examiner employee claiming to be a deputy medical examiner on a witness statement to accusations that Dr. Beaver verbally abused funeral home employees with foul language.
Ramsay characterized the medical examiner’s relationship with law enforcement as “unrepairable.” Ward said, “I don’t know how we can fix this thing. I just think this may be beyond repair.”
Dr. Beaver repeatedly told the board that the negative reviews were an attack “orchestrated with a purpose.”
“What you have heard is a distortion,” Dr. Beaver said. “(These complaints) were never brought up to me over the last few years. They have saved up for this day. … I hope that you would see a small community, a closed community, and this is not the whole story.”
Ramsay’s testimony revealed that he and the medical examiner only met three times face-to-face since Dr. Beaver was hired in 2014, but had numerous “yelling and screaming” telephone conversations. The last time, during an incident of three sewer workers who died after trying to clear a Key Largo sewer pipe of poisonous gas in January 2016, Ramsay said he worried he would have to arrest the medical examiner.
“He called me on the telephone and told me what I will or won’t do. He said no one is going down the hole unless he cleared it. We took his input into consideration, but he was extremely angry, yelling and screaming,” Ramsay said Wednesday. Ramsay said law enforcement is in command in a crime situation, fire and rescue in a hazmat situation, and the medical examiner only when there is a body to be retrieved. “I called my staff attorney and asked him about my interpretation of the law. He concurred with my analysis about who was in charge. I was worried that if (Dr. Beaver arrived), I would have to put him under arrest. That is so drastic. Holy smokes. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
As a rebuttal, Dr. Beaver provided the testimony of two employee witnesses saying that was not the case, and that he was completely calm on the conversation broadcast on the car’s hands-free system that both the witnesses could hear. However, the chairman of the Medical Examiner Commission, Dr. Nelson, questioned one of the witness signatures.
“He signed it as deputy medical examiner,” Dr. Nelson said.
Dr. Beaver replied that he did not read the scene investigators’ witness statements.
Dr. Nelson said, “Does he not know his job description? Is he a physician?”
Dr. Beaver said, “I will straighten him out.”
One of the biggest points of contention between the sheriff and the medical examiner happened just months after Dr. Beaver took office in 2014 — the case of Noah Cullen. He was reported missing after an afternoon sail. Days later, authorities located his sunken sailboat in about 300 feet of water. Ramsay said Dr. Beaver attempted to instruct his deputies to retrieve the body, a dangerous mission at that depth. Dr. Beaver said he simply asked. Dr. Beaver said he also contacted Dr. Nelson about available resources to conduct a deep-dive and that Dr. Nelson directed him to the Navy personnel in Key West who initially agreed, then declined. The body was eventually identified by a skin sample recovered by a deep-dive team, but Dr. Beaver said he let his questions be “publicly” known after no further attempts were made to retrieve the body. On Wednesday, Dr. Beaver said he couldn’t rule out foul play. Then he said he thought it was suicide, “but the family didn’t want to hear that.”
Ramsay called a meeting of stakeholders affected by the medical examiners about a month ago. Monroe County Assistant Attorney Cynthia Hall said the meeting was properly advertised to comply with Sunshine Law. The result, she said, revealed details of which she was previously unaware.
“I thought that was all behind us,” she said, referring to a 2016 report that questioned Dr. Beaver’s removal of a dead body from a scene in Key Colony Beach in an uncovered pickup truck for transmittal to the morgue. It also questioned commingling of funds from the $686,000 annual medical examiner budget. The medical examiner decides how to spend that amount — to pay his own salary, employee salaries, and operations. The funds come from Monroe County. The audit was triggered by funeral home directors appearing at a Monroe County Board of County Commissioners meeting to complain that bills were not being paid by the medical examiner for transport of bodies. (Dr. Beaver said Wednesday he objected to funeral homes charging twice for transport of two bodies during a single trip and that he now pays them without argument.)
Hall reiterated the pickup truck complaint, and also said county staff were being forbidden access to the medical examiner’s facility, which is a county-owned building. She also said family members of the deceased were no longer allowed inside, a departure from previous medical examiner policy, and that Dr. Beaver would no longer provide photographs of the dead for identification in cases where it’s otherwise impossible to establish identity, such as by documents found on the body. Dr. Beaver said all of that was untrue.
The only person to speak in favor of Dr. Beaver was Linda Kruszka. She identified herself as an “independent consultant investigator” for the medical examiner. She is an accountant in Marathon. She and Dr. Beaver are often seen in one another’s company outside of business hours.
Dr. Beaver had an answer for all the charges, sometimes multiple answers — although he often stumbled through his responses. The Medical Examiners Commission seemed to support limiting access to the bereaved at the morgue.
“This is an industrial morgue. I have no ability to make the body presentable,” Dr. Beaver said, adding he had previously been sued by a woman who claimed to have nightmares after he allowed her to see a deceased loved one. “Do I never let the families come? Sometimes I will. I try to gauge on a case by case basis and choose people who seem fairly stable.”
The Medical Examiners Commission was much less receptive on other points. Dr. Nelson criticized Dr. Beaver’s practice to attend every single death in person saying it was a waste of resources and tied up traffic. Also called into question were Dr. Beaver’s written rebuttals, including a response to the “non-favorable” rating issued on Monroe County letterhead and signed by Monroe County Mayor George Neugent. Dr. Beaver’s response threatened a lawsuit.
“Did you threaten to sue Mr. Neugent for slander? This is the head of the county. Oh my god. How can you repair that?” asked panel member James Purdy.
Dr. Beaver quickly responded, “My attorney wrote that.”
After the panel elected not to put Dr. Beaver’s name forward for consideration by the governor, State Attorney Dennis Ward asked for direction on hiring an interim medical examiner. Dr. Beaver’s commission does not expire until the end of June, but his contract with the county expires at the end of this month. Chairman Dr. Nelson suggested county staff write up a document to extend Dr. Beaver’s contract for one month so he could finish up current cases.
Dr. Beaver mouthed an inaudible response. Dr. Nelson, however, picked up on it.
“What did you say? Did you just say something like ‘Why would I?’ Dr. Nelson asked. Dr. Beaver answered in the affirmative.
“Your comment there … you just blew smoke up our butts saying you wanted to work with the people here to repair your relationship. I am very disappointed in your comment. There was a way for you to fix this and go out with your head held high. But not when you snipe like that.”
On Thursday, Hall said she would contact Dr. Beaver soon to see if he was interested in accepting the month-long extension. If he does, the contract would be ratified by the Board of County Commissioners.