Thursday, February 01, 2001

Coroner: Security lapse hurts image

A 'wake-up call,' Parrott says

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Coroner Carl Parrott walks to the big steel door that stands between the Hamilton County morgue and the outside world.

        A black and white sign at the entrance warns “non-employees are prohibited.” A security camera zooms in as the coroner approaches.

        Dr. Parrott punches a secret code into an electronic lock and pulls the door open.

        “This,” he says, “is supposed to be the only way in.”

[photo] Coroner Carl Parrott explains security measures at the county morgue.
(Enquirer photo)
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        But as the coroner learned three weeks ago, cameras and key pads are not enough to keep his office secure.

        In an interview Wednesday with the Enquirer, Dr. Parrott spoke for the first time about the security breach that allowed a Cincinnati man to photograph bodies in the morgue without permission.

        The coroner said the incident is a “wake-up call,” not only for his office but for coroners and medical examiners around the country.

        He said security at his office meets national standards and is as good or better than security in other morgues. If it can happen in Cincinnati, Dr. Parrott said, it can happen anywhere.

        “There might have to be a rethinking of those national standards,” Dr. Parrott said. “You prefer to go to school on other people's problems, but sometimes we have to learn from our own.”

        He said a complete review of office security is under way, but he conceded it may take more than that to restore public confidence.

        A coroner, he said, is entrusted with more than just paperwork and test results. Families need to know the bodies of their loved ones are secure and treated with respect.

        “We have an obligation to these people,” Dr. Parrott said. “We have an obligation to preserve their privacy and their dignity.”

        He said that privacy was violated last year when a Cincinnati photographer, Thomas Condon, got access to the morgue and took 50 to 60 photos of bodies in various stages of autopsy.

        The photos showed 12 bodies posed with such props as sea shells, a key and sheet music.

        Dr. Parrott said he was stunned when police showed him the photos. “Shock. Dismay. Revulsion. That's what I felt,” he said. “Not only is it probably illegal, it's immoral. I don't know what this guy's purpose was.”

        Mr. Condon's lawyer, H. Louis Sirkin, has said the purpose was to create a work of art. Prosecutors disagree, and say criminal charges are possible.

        While prosecutors do their work, Dr. Parrott is trying to figure out what went wrong and how he can fix it.

        He would not discuss the criminal investigation, but the recent suspension of a morgue pathologist suggests an insider may have helped Mr. Condon get past security.

        “If I want to get in here for some nefarious purpose, I've got to have a key code (to unlock the doors),” Dr. Parrott said. “It either has to be my own code, or somebody has to let me in.”

        He said any employee who would allow such a security breach would either be “a complicitor or a dupe.”

        Prosecutors believe Mr. Condon got access to the morgue sometime after he approached Dr. Parrott about photographing an autopsy procedure. Dr. Parrott rejected the request, but Mr. Condon got in anyway.

        The only entry to the morgue from the outside is through a heavy steel door protected by a security camera and an electronic lock. To get in, employees must enter their secret code.

        The morgue can be accessed from inside the building, but anyone entering must pass through a front door that is watched 24 hours a day and locked at night. Visitor must then take an elevator down one floor to the morgue, where they again must enter a code to get past two locked doors.

        “There's only two legitimate reasons to be here,” Dr. Parrott said. “You're either a body or you're attending an autopsy.”

        Once inside, everyone is required to sign a form stating they were present.

        All the while, Dr. Parrott said, security is a priority.

        But those whose loved ones were photographed have expressed doubts about the morgue's security, and one family already has filed a lawsuit.

        “They said they didn't know he photographed people, but isn't it their job to know he's in there?” Carol Willenbrink said last week. Her nephew was among those photographed at the morgue.

        Such stinging criticism is a serious blow to an office that has gained in national stature in Dr. Parrott's six years on the job. He launched a new DNA lab, hired more investigators and secured national accreditation for the office.

        The Republican coroner, paid $55,706 annually, made professionalism a cornerstone of his successful re-election campaign last fall. He also touted the many changes he had made in the office, including the addition of security cameras and key pads.

        “The Cincinnati office has a good reputation,” said Garry Peterson, a Minneapolis medical examiner who chairs one of the accreditation boards. “It's always been considered as having very solid and outstanding death investigations.

        “I'm heartsick at what you're telling me.”

        Dr. Parrott said he knows no one is more heartsick than the families. He said calling them last week to apologize was “the hardest thing I've ever done.”

        As a coroner, he's used to other doctors delivering bad news to families. “It's not something a pathologist usually has to do,” Dr. Parrott said.

        He said his goal now is to make sure he never has to make those calls again.

        He spent several hours Wednesday meeting with security experts from the sheriff's office. Dr. Parrott said he expects the new security system to include installation of more cameras and sensors that track movement throughout the building.

        “We have an obligation,” he said, “to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

       Enquirer reporter Kristina Goetz contributed to this report



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