Community Spotlight: Kitsap coroner dead serious about occupation

Greg Sandstrom - Photo by Paul Balcerak
Greg Sandstrom
— image credit: Photo by Paul Balcerak


Staff writer

Greg Sandstrom’s a nice guy, but he may not be someone you want to meet. After all, if you do meet him, odds are someone’s dead.

Sandstrom has been serving as the Kitsap County coroner for nearly a decade and though his job sometimes exposes him to the worst this world has to offer, he wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

“Being a coroner is different everyday,” Sandstrom said in a recent interview. “You have an opportunity to help families understand why loved ones died and in the cases where there’s a perpetrator, see justice done.”

The born-and-raised Kitsap County resident has dedicated his life to law and order, as a matter of fact, having served as a deputy coroner and Washington State patrolman since the mid-70s.

He’s also the president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and sits on the Forensic Investigation Council, which runs the state crime lab.

We sat down with Sandstrom recently to talk about everything from the morbid subject matter of his job to — on a lighter note — his No. 1 team, the Seattle Seahawks.

Question: How does one get into your line of work?

Answer: This is mainly made up from (people with) past experience with the coroner’s office, law enforcement, sometimes fireman and medical people, somebody who’s had an investigation background. The things I look for in a deputy coroner — this might help explain it — one is they have to have a curious mind and be a good investigator. Next thing is they have to be totally honest because we deal with thousands of dollars in jewelry and medications, so we have to account for every penny and every pill. The third thing I look for is somebody who is not bothered by death. The fourth thing is they have to be compassionate because we deal with families all the time. The fifth thing they need is a sense of humor. That’s how we debrief each other, literally, is through humor. It’s really a good thing to have in our job.

Q: Is having a sense of humor part of the process of detaching oneself from death?

A: It is. It is a way of dealing with it. We debrief each other and it might not be humor at first ... and we just kind of talk it over with each other and next thing you know we’re laughing about some case we had. It’s not at the family’s expense, but it’s at least humor that we can understand and kind of gives some brevity from the intenseness from the job.

Q: Do you get a lot of odd questions about your job?

A: Mainly what I get are people that watch CSI and want to come in and talk to me and say, “What do I do to get into this kind of job?” Thinking of CSI, I’ve got to sit them down and say, “What kind of job are you looking for?” and if they say, “I want to do the investigation, I want to do the autopsy, I want to do the lab work,” I say, “Wait, wait, wait — slow down.” You can do one of those jobs well, but you can’t do all three. You have to understand where you want to go. It’s a team effort. We do the body; that’s what we’re responsible for.

Q: What’s the first thing you do in the case of a mysterious death?

A: The first thing we do is assume it’s a homicide till proven otherwise. More times than not, fortunately, it’s turns out to not be a homicide. But there’s many times when we go to a suicide where it could be a suicide, or an accident, or a homicide. We have to prove exactly what it is and there’s a process we go through to do that.

Q: What is that process?

A: Let’s just take a typical gunshot: somebody’s sitting in a house, in a chair and has just shot themselves — let’s say it’s a male — shot themselves in the head, which is a typical suicide. What we have to do is find out, “Were the doors locked? Were the windows shut? Was there any access to the house by anyone else? When was the last time anyone heard from them? What did they hear? Did he give any last requests or last statements? Did he just lose his job? Was he on antidepressants?” There’s just a whole list of things.

Q: How urgent is it to prove cause of death in terms of a timeframe?

A: Really we’re not in too big a hurry because once you’re dead, all the process stops in your body. In other words, you’re not going to lose your blood/alcohol, any drugs in your system are gonna remain in your system. The only thing you look for is the warmth of the body, the lividity, the rigormortis. Those are the things you want to find out for the time of death.

Q: If foul play is determined in a death, what’s the coroner’s job in terms of handling the body at the scene of the crime?

A: We’ll do a thorough search to find next of kin. It’s sometimes a difficult task if people are estranged, removed from their family. You’d be surprised how often it happens. Once we get the body back to the morgue, we’ll do another body exam just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. We’ll have the pathologist come in the next day to do a thorough body exam and of course a full, forensic autopsy. And of course we try to get the funeral home, by the next day, for the family so we can have them on their way.

Q: Under what circumstances are autopsies done?

A: Any kind of trauma. If you fall and hit your head, it’s trauma; gunshot wounds, traffic accidents — it doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s any kind of trauma it’s an automatic autopsy because you want to make sure it’s what the person died from. Did they have a heart attack first and then fall and hit their head? Those kind of things. The other ones we autopsy are ones that are (young) and shouldn’t have any health problems.

Q: What’s the strangest call you’ve ever been out on?

A: We’ve had quite a few. One that hits my mind right now is one guy we had who was completely wrapped in saran wrap. On purpose. It was self-induced. The saran wrap was probably a half-inch thick.

Q: Why did the guy ... ?

A: You don’t want to know.

Q: OK. What’s an average day like for you?

A: We have about 1,900 deaths (in Kitsap County) a year, so that amounts to several a day. Recently we’ve been having up to 14 a day. Not all of those are call-outs. We get a call on every death that happens in Kitsap County. Most of those are nursing homes, hospitals. Out of those 1,900 deaths, we investigate about 325, last year (for example). Out of those 325, we autopsy about 160.

Q: What do you do during those “call-outs”?

A: I do a lot of administrative things, whereas my deputies actually go out on the scene.

Q: Are the deputies regular police officers, or are they specialized?

A: They’re coroner deputies. They’re all deputized by me, they’re all in my office. We hire our own.

Q: How often are you, personally, on crime scenes?

A: Either myself or my chief deputy go to all homicides. We want to make sure everything’s done right, plus when the press call, we want to know what to give (them). Then, when my deputies are busy or out on a call, I’ll go out on a call (to cover for them). It just depends.

Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

A: The most difficult part of the job is notifying the next of kin, by far. It’s a horrible thing to go tell somebody that their loved one just passed away, particularly if it’s a young person. It’s totally a shock to people and you get all kinds of reactions and you have to know how to deal with them.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: The best part of my job is probably going and giving talks to the public and trying to prevent premature deaths. It’s rewarding for us because we get to talk to live people, which is always nice, but the other thing is you usually have a very interested audience because they want to know what you do, why you do it, what the different aspects of the job are and what they can do to prevent death, which is very rewarding to us. The other thing is helping families get through (a loved one’s death).

Q: How often does a case go unsolved?

A: Probably a dozen a year.

Q: Switching gears, how many community organizations are you involved with?

A: We’re involved with the heath department, the department of emergency management, I go to Kiwanis clubs and places like that to make talks, we’re real involved with the Navy, sometimes we go to the high schools to do talks and there’s also what’s called a mock crash, which each one of the high schools does, so we’re real involved in that, too.

Q: What’s your favorite part about Silverdale?

A: Shopping, I guess. You can actually find things to shop for. I go to Home Depot. I do a lot of home remodeling.

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your time growing up in the county?

A: Silverdale, by far. I grew up in Manchester — of course, Manchester’s changed a lot, too — but Silverdale; look how it’s changed since Bangor moved in. There wasn’t much out here when I was growing up — at all.

Q: If you could change one thing about the county, what would it be?

A: Change? Hmm. I can’t think of a thing. I like Kitsap County. I grew up here and I like living here.

Q: Is there a local event you like to participate in regularly?

A: I like to go to Whaling Days.

Q: You make your home in Port Orchard, but as the county coroner, do you have any thoughts on Silverdale incorporating?

A: I see this as a thriving metropolis and it’s probably going to incorporate someday because it’s basically it’s own city. Of course, the downside of that for me is in the sales tax that helps support my general fund money. Even though it’d be a municipality, I still cover all the municipalities and the job wouldn’t change for me. It would not diminish my job whatsoever, but it would affect my budget.

Q: What’s your favorite meal?

A: Spaghetti.

Q: What’s your favorite holiday?

A: Probably the Fourth of July.

Q: What’s your favorite hobby?

A: Motorcycle riding. When I was in the state patrol I rode motorcycles for the last five years, so I got a lot of training.

Q: I notice you’re wearing a Seahawks tie; how long have you been following the team for?

A: Since they started. (It was) 1976 and they were blacked out many times, but I used to listen to them on the radio. I never missed a game.

Q: Have the last few years been especially sweet for you, given their years of failure and recent successes?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: What do you think of the offseason so far?

A: I think they’re making some good changes. I think they’re getting some good running backs in the game.

Q: What do you think of the possible departure of former league MVP, running back Shaun Alexander?

A: I’d hate to see him go because he’s been such an asset to the team, but if he’s getting tired and getting to the point where he’s maybe not performing as well as he should, there’s times when you need to move on. Personally, I think that Shaun Alexander’s great, I’d like to meet him sometime, but we have to think about the team.

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