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Community Spotlight: Kitsap coroner dead serious about occupation
By PAUL BALCERAK
Greg Sandstroms a nice guy, but he may not be someone you want to meet. After all, if you do meet him, odds are someones 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 wouldnt 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 theres 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.
Hes 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 coroners office, law enforcement, sometimes fireman and medical people, somebody whos 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. Thats how we debrief each other, literally, is through humor. Its 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 were laughing about some case we had. Its not at the familys expense, but its 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, Ive 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 cant do all three. You have to understand where you want to go. Its a team effort. We do the body; thats what were responsible for.
Q: Whats the first thing you do in the case of a mysterious death?
A: The first thing we do is assume its a homicide till proven otherwise. More times than not, fortunately, its turns out to not be a homicide. But theres 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 theres a process we go through to do that.
Q: What is that process?
A: Lets just take a typical gunshot: somebodys sitting in a house, in a chair and has just shot themselves lets say its 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? Theres just a whole list of things.
Q: How urgent is it to prove cause of death in terms of a timeframe?
A: Really were not in too big a hurry because once youre dead, all the process stops in your body. In other words, youre 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, whats the coroners job in terms of handling the body at the scene of the crime?
A: Well do a thorough search to find next of kin. Its sometimes a difficult task if people are estranged, removed from their family. Youd be surprised how often it happens. Once we get the body back to the morgue, well do another body exam just to make sure we didnt miss anything. Well 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, its trauma; gunshot wounds, traffic accidents it doesnt matter what it is. If its any kind of trauma its an automatic autopsy because you want to make sure its 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 shouldnt have any health problems.
Q: Whats the strangest call youve ever been out on?
A: Weve 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 dont want to know.
Q: OK. Whats 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 weve 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: Theyre coroner deputies. Theyre all deputized by me, theyre 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 everythings 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, Ill go out on a call (to cover for them). It just depends.
Q: Whats the most difficult part of your job?
A: The most difficult part of the job is notifying the next of kin, by far. Its a horrible thing to go tell somebody that their loved one just passed away, particularly if its a young person. Its totally a shock to people and you get all kinds of reactions and you have to know how to deal with them.
Q: Whats 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. Its 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 ones 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: Were involved with the heath department, the department of emergency management, I go to Kiwanis clubs and places like that to make talks, were real involved with the Navy, sometimes we go to the high schools to do talks and theres also whats called a mock crash, which each one of the high schools does, so were real involved in that, too.
Q: Whats 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: Whats the biggest change youve seen in your time growing up in the county?
A: Silverdale, by far. I grew up in Manchester of course, Manchesters changed a lot, too but Silverdale; look how its changed since Bangor moved in. There wasnt 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 cant 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 its probably going to incorporate someday because its basically its own city. Of course, the downside of that for me is in the sales tax that helps support my general fund money. Even though itd be a municipality, I still cover all the municipalities and the job wouldnt change for me. It would not diminish my job whatsoever, but it would affect my budget.
Q: Whats your favorite meal?
Q: Whats your favorite holiday?
A: Probably the Fourth of July.
Q: Whats 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 youre 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 theyre making some good changes. I think theyre 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: Id hate to see him go because hes been such an asset to the team, but if hes getting tired and getting to the point where hes maybe not performing as well as he should, theres times when you need to move on. Personally, I think that Shaun Alexanders great, Id like to meet him sometime, but we have to think about the team.