Inside Colorado’s Busiest Coroner’s Office

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — El Paso County’s Coroner’s Office and medical examiner team is the busiest in Colorado, responsible for investigating deaths in the state’s second largest county (El Paso) plus twenty other counties across southern Colorado.

Tuesday, Nov. 9, the coroner and Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Leon Kelly, opened up his facility for media to understand the process of death investigations as his office hits new records for investigations.

Fourteen autopsies were conducted on Monday, Nov. 8, which would have been a record, if not for the 17 conducted the Monday one week prior.

Coroner and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leon Kelly

The people that end up in Dr. Kelly’s office are cases without an obvious sign of death but that are sudden, unexpected and not natural.

“Solve the mystery of trying to figure out why this person was alive, and now they’re dead and whether that’s injury, disease or drugs, through the process, we figure that out,” Kelly said.

For that reason, COVID-19 has impacted his office, but not to a wide extent because in most cases, a person who died from COVID-19 was diagnosed in the hospital and the hospital determined the cause of death.

“The responsibility isn’t to figure out how everyone died, it’s only the people who its critical to figure out how they did because, ultimately, that information may help the rest of us, maybe their family, maybe public health, maybe the criminal justice system,” Kelly said.

Medical tools lay on a table inside the autopsy room

If the case is in El Paso County, the process begins with Kelly or one of his team members visiting the scene of the death. If it’s outside the jurisdiction, the team relies on the death investigation from the law enforcement agency that is coming to them. El Paso County is compensated for the work they do from the counties that seek them out.

If on scene, the Office will determine if further inspection of the remains is necessary to determine the cause of death. In some cases, a cause of death can be quickly determined, in others a full autopsy will be conducted.

Even if evidence is found early on that could be a strong indicator of death, an entire procedure is conducted because Kelly has found every detail matters.

In one homicide case, brussel sprouts in the victims stomach helped crack the case.

“What that allows you to do is narrow down the restaurants he had been at to the very few in downtown Colorado Springs that have brussel sprouts. Once we figured that out, law enforcement was able to find those surveillance cameras and track that individuals path through the city,” Kelly recalled.

Inside the decomp autopsy room

The path the County has been on the past few years has been grim, Kelly laid out in his report detailing deaths his office investigated in 2020.

In presenting that to the El Paso County Commissioners, Kelly highlighted mental health crisis, an opioid epidemic and rampant domestic and intimate partner violence as problems plaguing the community.

Mental Health has been a focus for Kelly, particularly in his own office. When he was elected to the position in 2018, one of the first things he did was bring in mental health support for his team.

“There are no good days here. Every day here is tragedy, upon tragedy, upon tragedy and that takes a toll,” Kelly said. “So, to keep your employees healthy and able to do the job that they need to do, beyond just being the right thing to do, all of my employees have access to mental health and the good news is that this office kind of acted as an example to the rest of the county and the county commissioners and elected officials have moved the entire county in that direction.”

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