SEATTLE - The Medical Examiner’s Office processes crime scenes and investigates unexplained deaths in King County. But it’s what was going on inside the office that prompted an investigation after a whistleblower stepped forward in 2007.
Robinette Struckel worked as a forensic autopsy technician at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office (KCMEO) between 2001 and 2007. She says during that time she witnessed lax procedures, unprofessional conduct and improper handling of skeletal remains, tissue samples and hazardous waste.
"It was difficult to come forward and I came forward to address the insufficient oversight at the Medical Examiner’s Office, to protect public health safety and the environment, and to hopefully facilitate change at the Medical Examiner’s Office,” Struckel said.
One of the practices that concerned Struckel involved her boss, Chief Medical Examiner, Richard Harruff.
Harruff was personally paying employees to donate semen for use in the lab. Harruff would leave a $20 bill in a box labeled "My Anonymous Specimen" inside the morgue cooler for anyone who wanted to leave a semen sample. The samples were used as controls in lab analysis.
"It, again, is not proper science," Struckel said. "I felt that his authority was abused; he was abusing his authority."
The King County Ombudsman’s Office investigated the practice and determined that it was voluntary, that no employees were pressured to donate semen. But the Ombudsman’s report said the practice "appeared to be inappropriate and could have been misinterpreted." The Chief Medical Examiner stopped paying employees for semen samples after the KING 5 Investigators reported it was happening in 2007 and asked if it was appropriate.
Altogether, the King County Ombudsman’s Office investigated seven allegations of wrongdoing. It found only one rose to the level of “improper governmental action,” and that was the dumping of formalin, which contains formaldehyde, down the drain in the autopsy suite. The KCMEO uses formalin to preserve human body tissue for autopsy. Because it contains formaldehyde, formalin, is classified as dangerous waste and is regulated by the King County Code, state law and federal law.
"The formalin should have been poured into a fifty-five gallon drum and that drum would have been picked up by Clean Harbors and it would have been disposed of legally," said Struckel.
Dr. Harruff wouldn’t talk to us about the report. But the Manager of Prevention for the Seattle King County Health Department, which oversees the Medical Examiner’s Office, did answer our questions.
Gareth Johnson said he is disappointed with the Ombudsman’s report and disagrees with its findings.
"That (dumping formalin) was never an approved method of disposing of formalin in the MEO (Medical Examiner’s Office) and it was a method that employees were never instructed to use. And in fact we made costly provisions for that formalin to be disposed of properly," Johnson said.
Johnson says the Health Department’s internal review found that the only person improperly dumping formaldehyde was Struckel, the whistleblower. But the Ombudsman's report concludes two staff members did it between 2001 and 2007.
And a former Medical Investigator told the Ombudsman’s Office that when he worked in the autopsy suite, he and others exclusively dumped brain formalin down the drain between 1999 and 2003.
The Ombudsman’s report says that the KCMEO has made significant changes since 2007, including developing a written procedure, conducting staff training and introducing the use of a formaldehyde neutralizing agent that makes formaldehyde safe for direct disposal to the sewer system.
As for the semen samples, Dr. Harruff now buys them from a medical supply company.