Last Responders: Sedgwick County’s forensic team

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Almost every story about death and destruction mentions first responders racing to save victims. But when it is too late to save the victims, another group arrives — the last responders.

The six medical investigators with the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center are examples of last responders. The team recently took on additional duties.

Forensic medical investigators

“They’re the last responders to hundreds of death scenes every year,” Shelly Steadman, the center’s director, told the Sedgwick County Commission on Wednesday. “They’re the last responder that a family member speaks to before their loved one is transported to the Forensic Science Center for their last medical examination.”

The work is challenging. Deaths happen at all hours of the day and in extreme conditions, such as 110-degree heat or freezing temperatures.

Steadman said the six medical investigators respond and listen to 4,000 death reports a year. Based on state law and statute, they determine which deaths fall under the coroner’s jurisdiction. Steadman says that is usually around 1,200 deaths.

“It’s emotionally draining work because every family member that they meet and follow-up phone call they get is with someone who’s having the worst day of their life because they lost someone they love,” Steadman said.

The six investigators, all women, are Chief Medical Investigator Shari Beck and medical investigators Linda Sifford, Shaunna Cardinell, Morgan Snead, Rachel Hall, Cami Bates, and Tori Golden.

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CDC grant regarding drugs in Sedgwick County

Recently, the medical investigators began doing even more thanks to a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC wants information on drugs unrelated to criminal investigations.

“Our proposal, what the CDC was looking for, was to collect drug and drug paraphernalia from overdose death scenes and to see what type of drugs were being used in our community,” Steadman said.

The six investigators have gone through training to understand what drugs, pills, and powders the CDC wants collected and tested.

“They’ve cross-trained with our drug identification specialists to know how to properly collect them, to safely collect them, to transport them back to our facility with integrity and under proper chain of custody so that they can be tested safely and in a way that if they should be needed in the court of law, it’s going to stand up in court,” Steadman said.

The medical investigators have collected samples from 17 overdose death scenes so far. Steadman said the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center would test the samples and share the findings locally and with the CDC.

“We’re not just the county morgue. Our mission does involve a lot of public health initiatives,” she said. “Understanding how and why people die is very important in helping to determine how we can help people to live longer.”

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The Regional Forensic Science Center

“In Sedgwick County … we worry a lot about whether or not a death is investigated in accordance with national standards,” Steadman said. “Sadly, in the United States, a lot of times, they’re not. And quite frankly, in the state of Kansas, there’s a lot of jurisdictions where they’re not.”

She said Sedgwick County’s medical investigators deliver credible, comprehensive and compassionate responses to people.

“I know that every one of you commissioners have spent a lot of time and a lot of energy thinking about whether or not Sedgwick County is a good place to live, but I wonder how many of you have ever thought about whether or not it’s a good place to die,” she said. “I want you to know that those six employees have made a career out of just that.”

The Regional Forensic Science Center has 43 employees.

“Once the body gets to our facility, we have a team of three physicians, three pathologists, who conduct that final medical examination, and they work with four very skilled autopsy technicians,” Steadman said.

Specimens and evidence are collected for testing, such as toxicology, DNA, and ballistics. Notes go to transcriptionists who help write the reports. If it is needed for a trial, the center compiles the record and sends it to a law firm.

Steadman credited everyone in the center for their work, but she said the medical investigators are the front line.

“They’re the ones who take the initial call. They make sure we have coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re the ones who directly deliver the answers, the peace, and the justice,” Steadman said.

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Paying tribute

“The real reason I asked to have the microphone today is to honor these six individuals and to take a moment to bring to your attention that this week is National Medicolegal Death Investigation Professionals Week,” Steadman told the commissioners.

She said she was speaking in honor of all the employees at the Regional Forensic Science Center and all the others who ensure that suspicious, violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths are investigated properly.

County Commission Chair Ryan Baty said the workers are greatly appreciated.

“We give a lot of attention to first responders naturally, and that’s very important, but the last responders, those that do this work, this incredibly difficult work, it’s important that we pause and give them the honor and the credit that they’re due,” he said. “What they do is not just important for investigative work. It’s important for dignity and honor.”

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