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Long overdue facility for La Plata County coroner fills all the boxes

Office relied on a patchwork of resources for decades to carry out basic functions
La Plata County Coroner Jan Smith inspects the new examination table in the morgue. The coroner’s remodeled office and all-in-one facility is located in Bodo Park adjacent to the La Plata County Jail. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

It has been a long time coming but the La Plata County coroner finally has a facility with all the amenities necessary to house the deceased, perform autopsies and host families who have lost loved ones.

“We are able to have our individuals in our hotel, our cooler – we call it our hotel,” said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith. “Not only are they right here next to the autopsy room so we don’t have to get them from the cooler we had behind the jail and then take them wherever we were going, but everything is right here in one building, which is very nice for a change.”

Family members can sit in a room (other side of the window) while viewing their loved ones at the La Plata County morgue inside the new coroner’s office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

There is also a large viewing room for families, which the coroner’s office has never had before, Smith said. The coroner had been relying on a patchwork of locations to perform procedures and provide amenities for families.

The county partnered with Hood Mortuary in Durango for decades. The coroner used Hood’s facilities for autopsies and storage. But with business increasing for both operations it became untenable and the coroner’s office moved its operations to Cortez.

“We used theirs for over a year, going over two or three times a week,” Smith said.

Construction for the new facility, which is in an outbuilding adjacent to the La Plata County Jail, was delayed because of the pandemic and related supply chain issues. But with the final addition of a necessary ramp, the all-in-one facility was ready for gurneys that roll Jan. 1.

La Plata County commissioners toured the new facility as part of their annual jail tour Jan. 31.

A new ramp was the final touch needed for the La Plata County coroner office to begin operating at full capacity. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“I was pleased to see the Coroner’s Office functioning,” La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “The new facility gives the proper dignity and professionalism, from a facility standpoint, that the deceased persons deserve but also their grieving families need. I am glad for the Coroner and her staff to have this facility opened. I was struck by the compassion of the viewing room.”

Commissioner Matt Salka said it has been a long time coming and called it a great addition, which includes having adequate cold storage.

“When family and loved ones have to go to the coroner’s office, this is the worst time of their lives,” Salka wrote in an email to the Herald. “With a new viewing room families can have a private moment at the worst point of their lives.”

The coroner’s office performed six autopsies at the new facility in January. It has had three so far in February. It performed a total of 94 in Cortez in 2022.

The coroner is called when there is an abandoned body or it is unknown why someone has died. Smith works in coordination with law enforcement to ascertain the cause of death. That often means an autopsy, which is performed by a medical examiner contracted by the county.

“I take care of the scene and decide whether to autopsy or not,” Smith said. “I bring them back here (to the coroner’s office). I watch during the autopsy and then I work with the pathologist and law enforcement. I’m the middle man. I work with them as to the cause of death.”

People who have been in the hospital longer than 24 hours or who have passed away from natural causes are not handled by the coroner’s office. Neither are people who have been in hospice at Mercy Hospital or in home hospice care. Unless the person is in home hospice care on the Southern Ute Reservation, in which case Smith, who is also the tribal coroner, is called.

Smith got her start as a coroner when she was working for the Southern Ute Police Department many years ago, she said. She was working as an EMT at the same time and got a call from the coroner asking if she could fill in while he and his staff left town to attend a weeklong training.

The refrigerated cooler, dubbed the “hotel” by coroner’s office staff, in the La Plata County coroner’s morgue. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“I said sure, how hard can it be?” Smith said and laughed. “Like the majority of people, I thought the coroner just went to the scene and took the body and that’s it. And then I got a call and had no clue what to do.”

Smith called the coroner for instructions. He walked her through it and after that she helped out more until one day the coroner asked her to come on board full time. Smith was recently elected for her third four-year term as coroner. But she worked two additional years before that after taking over for the coroner. She had been working as the deputy coroner. All told, Smith has been the coroner for 10 years, but with time working as a deputy coroner she figures she’s been doing it about 25 years.

“I like it,” Smith said. “I really like the job. I like helping families in a time of need when you know, they don’t know what to do, or what to do next. And things can get complicated sometimes. But I just really enjoy my job.”


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