MISSOULA – Montana autopsies will have to be done in other states in the coming weeks because the state’s only two forensic medical examiners qualified to assist county coroners are leaving.
“It will be a minor inconvenience for those involved, but we are trying to make it as seamless and easy as we can,” said Mike Milburn, deputy chief of staff in the Montana Attorney General’s Office.
Dr. Gary Dale, former chief medical examiner for the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, retired in mid-April but stayed on temporarily to assist the acting medical examiner, Dr. Walter Kemp.
Now Kemp has resigned, effective July 1.
As of July 2, there will be no forensic medical examiner in the state qualified to assist coroners with autopsies.
The bodies of those who die under suspicious circumstances in the western part of the state will be driven by a coroner to Seattle. Bodies in the eastern part of the state will be transported to Rapid City, South Dakota, for autopsy.
The state has hired a new medical examiner, who will start in mid-August, and will have a temporary medical examiner assist the lab with some autopsies intermittently, Milburn said.
Milburn said the situation is not unusual because other states routinely send bodies out of state for autopsies.
Transferring bodies to other states won’t delay autopsies, he told the Missoulian.
In total, the State Crime Lab performs autopsies on about 500 individuals each year, Milburn said.
Kemp and Dale declined to comment on their joint departure.
However, in his letter of resignation, Kemp cited serious concerns about his employment at the crime lab.
“Briefly, my reasons for leaving are based upon my professional code of ethics and my concerns regarding non-technical support for the medical examiner’s office,” Kemp wrote.
Kemp and his wife are both from Montana, and he said he had no desire to leave the state, but considered the current working conditions “unworkable.”
Before officials could hire Kemp’s replacement, the state had to raise the pay for the position by $55,000 a year — 40 percent more than the state medical examiner and deputy state medical examiner currently earn.
Milburn said that the state would be adding additional personnel to assist the new chief medical examiner and her deputy.
Officials are also using the transition to appoint a new deputy forensic medical examiner in Billings. Those autopsies were previously contracted out to non-state employees.
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