Local

Will a harassment complaint against a sheriff change how California treats its dead?

Bennet Omalu talks about forensic science and problems with the sheriff-coroner system

Bennet Omalu, a pathologist and former chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, speaks about the problems surrounding Sheriff Steve Moore, who doubles as coroner.
Up Next
Bennet Omalu, a pathologist and former chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, speaks about the problems surrounding Sheriff Steve Moore, who doubles as coroner.

Shortly after forensic pathologist Susan Parson filed a gender harassment complaint last summer against the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office in San Joaquin County, the sheriff called her in for a meeting.

She knew it would not be pleasant.

She didn’t know it could end up changing the way California treats its dead, turning a private and painful period of her life into a public call for ending the combined roles of sheriff and coroner, a system currently used widely only in this state, Nevada and Montana.

Or that it would expose what some critics describe as a decade of incompetence, indifference or worse by San Joaquin’s Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore as he runs for a fourth term and prepares to take over leadership of the California State Sheriffs’ Association in April.

She just expected another bad day in a string of many.

Known for bow ties and an authoritarian style, Moore had been problematic for Parson since she started in 2016, she said. Her job was to conduct independent autopsies, but she’d had constant discord with Moore and his deputies, she said, speaking publicly for the first time with The Bee since resigning in December.

One man in particular, Mike Reynolds, who oversaw the coroner’s office, treated her so poorly it became hard to ignore, she said, adding that he was consistently “condescending or curt.”

“There was daily frustration and stress and anxiety when it came to what should have been simple matters at work,” Parson said.

Moore and Reynolds deny her account and her description of how she was treated.

Parson, low-key and reserved to the point of formality (she declined to be photographed for this story), was contractually supposed to report to three people: Moore; Bennet Omalu, the chief medical examiner; and the head of surgery at the county’s San Joaquin General Hospital. But she said Moore treated her as if she answered exclusively to him, and he didn’t do it tactfully. She said she noticed that Omalu and other men in the office didn’t weather the same kind of derision.

At first, she said, she “overlooked” it, and Omalu tried to run interference.

The situation escalated when Moore wanted her and Omalu to participate in daily briefings with his detectives. The doctors resisted because they believed being on the law enforcement side of death investigations could bias their opinions and influence their findings. They were expected to testify impartially in court cases. They especially worried in instances of officer-involved deaths, where Omalu said he had previously faced pressure from Moore to change his reports to favor police.

“I can tell you from being in that office for 10 years, he lies,” Omalu said of Moore.

San Joaquin was Parson’s first job as a full-fledged pathologist, a medical specialty that turns out low numbers of graduates because of its difficulty and its dead patients. She had done her medical residency at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in L.A. and completed a fellowship at the Maryland State Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She came to rural San Joaquin because she wanted to work with Omalu, renowned for his discoveries on football-related concussions and the potential for resulting brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Omalu’s fight to force the NFL to acknowledge the disease was portrayed in the 2015 movie “Concussion.”

But Moore was unwavering in his demands, Parson said, and she began to worry about protecting her professionalism.

“I really don’t feel like our concerns were well received by the sheriff,” Parson said. “He didn’t seem to want to discuss them. He seemed to rather just want to tell us what to do.”

She had watched Omalu have run-ins with Moore on this issue and others, with Omalu always pushing for incremental improvements. Omalu counseled to give it time. But in July, when Omalu was gone on vacation, Reynolds called her into his office. Parson said Reynolds tried to bully her into attending the briefings. His manner, she said, was “agitated” and “sarcastic.”

She held her ground and refused. Reynolds, she said, told her “I’d lit a fire and there are politics at play and ... I was going to be hearing from the sheriff.”

She responded by filing her complaint.

Moore asked her and Omalu to meet in August. She sat across a table from Moore, Reynolds and the command staff of the department, with only Omalu on her side of the table.

The “sheriff seemed upset and he said that there were problems in the office and looked at me and said my name,” Parson said.

‘Is this legal?’

In his hand, Moore had a hard copy of her complaint – which she believed was a confidential report to the county’s human resources department, and which had not yet been investigated, she said. She was shocked Moore had it.

Omalu said he wondered, “Is this legal?”

Moore shoved the papers across the table at her, she said. Then he berated her. When Omalu tried to intervene, she said, Moore told him Parson was a “big girl” and could speak for herself.

“I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t expect this at all. I was completely blindsided by it,” she said. “Everyone could see the paper. … It was humiliating and embarrassing.”

Parson said Moore threatened to put Reynolds in charge of the doctors’ work schedules.

“So now the aggressor of my harassment complaint, now I am supposed to answer to him,” said Parson. “It was really demoralizing. I left out of there in complete disbelief. All of this in what felt like an attempt to intimidate us into falling in line with what he wanted us to do.”

Parson reported the incident to the county human resources department and was told the sheriff was allowed to handle complaints at his department “differently,” she said. A few days later, she emailed Omalu to update him on the county response.

“I'm certain the sheriff's scorn with showing my complaint during that meeting was an attempt to make me reconsider pursuing such a complaint,” Parson wrote in the private message. “And although I will continue to pursue it, when the sheriff is in charge, I have to wonder, what's the point?”

Moore denies the account, and said he doesn’t “recall having the complaint in hand,” and had “no memory” of Omalu and Parson’s description of events.

“I do not recall that happened at all,” Moore said.

What he does remember of the meeting is Parson “kept going on … about having to be involved in a military or law enforcement-type process,” he said in a recent interview with The Bee.

Reynolds said in a statement to The Bee that he “vehemently” denies that he “treated (Parson) differently because she is a female.”

Unlike Omalu, Parson did not want to wait for the sheriff to change. She said the situation deteriorated in the weeks after the meeting. Parson gave Omalu a copy of the book “Feminist Fight Club” about surviving a sexist workplace and told him she was quitting. Omalu said after reading the book and speaking with Parson, he felt he couldn’t let her resign alone.

“Dr. Parson is a very intelligent woman, very smart, very competent, and I saw my mother, my sister, my wife, my daughter, in Dr. Parson,” he said. “That touched my heart. That broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine that in 2017 in America that such an intelligent woman should be treated differently from the way I was treated. I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

They resigned and released more than 100 pages of memos detailing a litany of alleged abuses beyond the harassment: hands cut off corpses for identification purposes without their knowledge; bodies lost and decaying in the morgue; autopsy reports changed from “homicide” to “accident” – at least once in an officer-involved death.

‘A very decent gentleman’

On a recent Wednesday, Moore walked into his second-floor conference room to answer questions, wearing his trademark bow tie and a miniature sheriff’s star lapel pin. He said he did nothing wrong.

“I’ve done everything I can to make this place as clean and as transparent as possible and I will continue to do that. ... We’re doing all the right things for the right reasons,” Moore said. “I’m not really sure what happened with my pathologists, but what I will tell you is from what I read it basically comes down to Dr. Omalu and Dr. Parson have their belief of what their job is and I have what I understand my job is, and my understanding comes from the government code, and the only thing I’ve done is whatever I was empowered to do under the government code.”

As for Parson and Omalu, he questioned their motives for speaking out.

“Dr. Omalu’s got a lot to protect,” said Moore. If “someone is questioning why he did certain things, he may feel that is a threat to his professional standing. ... You have a lot of people that have different personal vendettas or personal issues.”

Omalu disputed he has ulterior motives.

“If this was about my reputation I would have kept quiet and kept my mouth shut. But this is not about my reputation. ... I left the office because I saw what I did not like, what went against every fabric of my faith,” he said. “This is about integrity. This is about public service. ... He’s a police officer, a sworn police officer. Police officers are not allowed to lie.”

Despite the controversy, Moore has plenty of supporters. He has been easily re-elected each of the three times he’s run, and many expect he will win again this fall.

“It’s funny that you find such a dichotomy in the opinions,” said Ken Vogel, a former San Joaquin County Supervisor and current officer in the county Farm Bureau. “In the groups I work in, he’s very popular, the rural communities, the agriculture communities.”

Vogel served for eight years on the county board while Moore was sheriff and said he finds him “competent” and “very personable.” He said he can’t reconcile the differing views of Moore, but believes it may be par for the course for a strong-willed sheriff who by his own admission can sometimes be authoritarian.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness also thinks Moore is a good lawman. He and Moore were first elected to office the same year. “Honestly, I think Steve is a guy who is misunderstood or underestimated at one’s loss or risk,” said McGinness. “He’s a very talented guy, very smart, a very decent gentlemen.”

McGinness said Moore has a different style than his own, and can come across as stiff. “Very candidly, I might be inclined to respond to the challenges differently than he does, but his way seems to work,” said McGinness. “He’s responsive and he cares deeply and passionately about his office and his troops.”

‘He is deceitful’

That’s not the view of State Senator Cathleen Galgiani, who represents San Joaquin County. She has little trouble understanding Parson’s complaint, based on her own experiences with Moore.

“It’s all very complicated, but when you look at it, it’s very clear,” Galgiani said in a recent interview with The Bee. “He is deceitful.”

She recently introduced legislation, Senate Bill 1303, with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, that would strip Moore of his duties as coroner by requiring California counties with populations of more than 500,000 to establish independent medical examiner offices run by doctors. Currently, 41 of the state’s 58 counties use the dual system. Six, including San Joaquin, would be affected if the bill becomes law.

Galgiani argued that the combined system gives too much control to one person. In Moore’s case, she said, that has led to an abuse of power.

Moore, in his interview with The Bee, said Galgiani has been “fed a lot of stories” and that “a lot of it’s political. ... San Joaquin County’s politics has always been a little different.”

Galgiani said her first conflict with Moore arose in 2010, when she was trying to stop convicted serial killer Loren Herzog from being paroled.

Herzog and his crime partner Wesley Shermantine, known as the Speed Freak Killers for their fondness for methamphetamine, killed at least four victims in rural parts of San Joaquin County in the 1980s and 1990s. Shermantine was sent to death row at San Quentin. Herzog’s murder conviction was overturned when a judge ruled his confession coerced. He pleaded guilty to accessory to murder and manslaughter charges – making him eligible for parole.

Galgiani had a cousin who disappeared in 1981 near Stockton. The Speed Freak case felt personal to her. Authorities believed the men were responsible for many more murders – estimates have ranged from a dozen to more than 70. She had reached out to families with missing relatives as well as the killers’ families.

One of those contacts, Shermantine’s sister, called Galgiani in September 2010, saying that she had received a letter from Shermantine with the location of more bodies.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, if this is true and there is another victim ... that seems like evidence to keep Herzog locked up,’” Galgiani said.

The letter contained information about the remains of JoAnn Hobson, a teenager who had gone missing at age 16 in 1985 but who was not a known victim of Shermatine and Herzog. Galgiani said she gave a copy of the letter to Moore.

“When I came to him with the letter ... he was actually angry and I was afraid to talk to him for a while,” Galgiani said.

Galgiani said she didn’t know why Moore was mad, but said he did only a cursory investigation of the information. She said Moore pushed her to drop the matter, said she was interfering where she shouldn’t and questioned her credibility. She said he never looked for bodies.

Moore “did intimidate me and I think he did try on purpose to intimidate me,” said Galgiani. “He went as far as to have someone at the (state attorney general’s) office call me and tell me to stay out of it and if the family called ever again, just to direct them to the sheriff’s office.”

In a statement, Moore disputed that he failed to follow up on Galgiani’s information about the location of bodies. “During the course of our investigation we did receive multiple leads from then Assembly member Galgiani and others, which were appreciated,” Moore wrote. “All leads were followed up on.”

Herzog was paroled in September of that year. For nearly two years after his release, Galgiani kept after Shermantine for information, with the help of outside investigators. In 2012, Shermantine, who remains on death row, drew maps that led to the recovery of two victims in Calaveras County. National media took notice.

The San Joaquin Sheriff’s Office finally turned its attention to a farm in Linden, a tiny town of less than 2,000 people, where Shermatine claimed Hobson and other women had been dumped down a deep well. It was the site he had named in his 2010 letter. Eventually, more than 1,700 bones and fragments were found there, including Hobson’s remains and those of Kimberly Billy, who went missing in 1984 at age 19, and an unidentified mixed-race teenager and her late-term fetus.

“He was hellbent on having his way,” Galgiani said of Moore. “He made me look like some crazy woman (but) I’ll continue to speak my mind and provide information to anybody who asks.”

A new system?

In coming months, the San Joaquin Board of Supervisors will debate whether to cut Moore’s job into two and separate the sheriff’s office from that of the coroner. The supervisors hired a consultant to advise them on the pros and cons of establishing an independent medical examiner’s office, but the report won’t be ready until April at earliest. Galgiani said she would push forward with her bill in the meantime.

Senator Pan said that while the legislation may have been prompted by events in San Joaquin, he believes it’s an issue that goes beyond Moore.

Pan said the idea of a coroner without medical training is antiquated. It originated about 800 years ago under England’s King Richard the Lion-Hearted – before forensic science existed. Originally, coroners’ main concern was collecting death taxes. Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. have already embraced a system of a medical professional acting as the official death investigator.

Pan said he hopes the bill will help “bring our medical examiner into the modern age” and remove it from the intrinsic taint of being adjoined with law enforcement.

“We need to be sure that we retain and ensure public confidence in our autopsy and therefore our criminal justice system. When you think about some of the recent incidents that have happened the last couple of years with Black Lives Matter and police shootings ... people are counting on the autopsy to accurately reflect the findings of the medical examiner, who is the expert,” Pan said. “ I think the situation itself is one that doesn’t engender trust.”

Parson agreed. This week, she will begin a new job as the assistant medical examiner in Santa Clara County – an independent office. She thinks the problems with Moore have “brought to light some issues that I’m certain are not unique to San Joaquin,” she said.

“This has been an interesting experience if nothing else, and it taught me a lot about the politics in a sheriff-coroner system,” she said. “A new system is absolutely what California should be moving towards, and not just in big counties but every county.”

San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore defends his office against allegations of mismanagement in its coroner's division.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa. The Bee’s Benjy Egel contributed to this report.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments