Death does not abide by 9-5 working hours.
San Juan County Prosecutor and Coroner Amy Vira has received calls at all hours. She has served as Deputy Coroner for approximately a decade and stepped up to coroner in January after being elected prosecutor. The word coroner conjures up images of death investigations of the past, but what is a coroner and what do they do?
“The coroner has jurisdiction over when a person dies in Washington state and they are not under the care of a physician. The coroner assumes jurisdiction at the time they die. That jurisdiction extends to the person and their immediate property. So, not their estate but purses, phones and items on them,” Vira explained. “Our job is to ensure that [the deceased] are treated respectfully and that their body is taken care of in an appropriate and lawful manner and next of kin, if any, are notified.”
The coroner determines how they died and fills out a death certificate. There are five causes of death; natural, accident, suicide, homicide and undetermined. Vira has not encountered a case that was undetermined, she said, but they do happen.
“[Undetermined occurs] if you really couldn’t make a determination between an accident or natural cause or accident and a homicide. If you don’t have enough information to call it one way or the other, you would go with undetermined,” said Vira. “The only time I would call it a suicide is if it is clear it is one. Otherwise, it is an accident.”
When asked what surprised her about being a coroner, she responded that nearly all of it has.
“I think all of it surprised me because I didn’t know what to expect to be a coroner, most people don’t,” she said. “When you start to learn about it, it’s very interesting. There is the problem-solving part of it, figuring out who the person was, who their family is and what happened to them.”
What has been truly unexpected for her, however, has been how rewarding it is working with families.
“We do a lot of things in the Prosecutor’s Office, many of them don’t feel good,” Vira said. “While it doesn’t feel good that somebody died, it is a rewarding feeling to be the person whose role it is to help people get through a terrible thing. If we have been able to make an awful thing the least amount of awful then I think we have done our job.”
Should the coroner’s job be done poorly, she continued, that makes what the families are going through worse. Coroner trainings often have discussions regarding the harm that can be done when the job is not done well.
“Those families carry that around,” Vira said.
Talking and spending time with the families is crucial.
“If someone dies in King County, for example, I don’t know how much time you get to go over it and talk about it with authorities and work it through. But here we have that time to give so if someone wants to come here and meet with me several times to just talk about it we can do that,” Vira said. “If they want to call nine months later and say ‘Something is bothering me, about this one thing.’ We can take a look. That is the luxury about living in a small town.”
The high confidentiality of death records means the coroner’s office must handle information with care. Vira and her office are extremely careful about the way they communicate about the cases.
One of the biggest challenges is the county’s geography. Being a region made up of islands means navigating the waters to respond to deaths at all hours, day or night.
“We work closely with the Sheriff’s Office. They are great partners in this and they will transport us to the non-ferry served islands, or even the ferry served for expedience,” Vira said. “It makes sense because law enforcement is typically going there as well. So we work closely with them in that way.”
Coroners typically work with many county, state and federal agencies, including local fire and EMS, other coroners’ offices, law enforcement and the Coast Guard. Previous coroner and prosecutor Randy Gaylord in fact, traveled to Whidbey Island after a plane that had departed from Friday Harbor crashed there in 2022.
“There is no agency that has not been willing to step up and help out. People really put their differences aside when there is a tragedy,” Vira said. “You see a lot of coming together and cooperation … neighbors helping out. Our partnering agencies, EMTs, and fire on all the islands are extremely helpful. Whenever we need assistance or request something they are always happy to provide it. I think that is unique here, and really valuable. We wouldn’t be able to do it if they weren’t all willing to do that. It’s a great benefit to the citizens, but we certainly appreciate it.”
The most challenging situations are those that occur in the dead of night, remote locations, or when someone has died, or been found, in the water. Currents have washed bodies from outside areas, including two from Vancouver over the last few years, making identification tricky. Identifying a visitor to the county can also prove difficult.
There are a few tools in Vira’s pocket, however, to assist. Dental records can help. If the person has any implanted health device that also may provide clues as some devices have serial numbers that can be traced. Fingerprints, DNA samples and searching missing persons databases can also be useful.
According to Vira, if the body is not identified then the county pays for a burial in Anacortes. If the family does turn up, the person may be exhumed and returned to them.
“We try to always think about what our families would feel about [the way things are handled.] Would you want us doing this or that if it was your mom, your child?” Vira explained.”We strive to be extremely respectful and that includes when we are transporting bodies. It’s still a person and we are going to treat them with respect and great care.”