Pathologists Say San Joaquin Sheriff's Meddling Could Have Compromised Murder Cases
San Joaquin County Sheriff-Coroner's Office (Julie Small/KQED)
Two forensic pathologists who have accused the San Joaquin County sheriff of interfering with death investigations to protect law enforcement officers are also alleging Sheriff Steve Moore meddled with their work on high-profile homicides and suspicious deaths, potentially compromising murder cases.
The county’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, announced his resignation Dec. 5, a little over a week after his colleague Dr. Susan Parson gave similar notice. Both doctors accused the sheriff of trying to influence their investigations and their findings.
In over 100 pages of memos, email and letters obtained by KQED, the doctors detailed dozens of incidents they say support those claims.
Earlier this month, KQED reported the allegations that the sheriff “routinely” interfered in investigations of people who died at the hands of officers.
In memos attached to an Oct. 1 letter to the medical director of San Joaquin General Hospital, the doctors wrote that Moore also prevented them from visiting crime scenes, failed to notify them of other cases they were legally obligated to investigate and canceled forensic tests without their knowledge or consent.
“A person who does not have a license to practice medicine in the State of California should not be involved in the medical evaluation of a case and provision of a medical opinion,” Parson and Omalu wrote.
Sheriff Moore denied the allegations in a written statement on Dec. 5.
“There have been questions recently about whether I have interfered with forensic investigations. That has never happened,” Moore wrote. “I would never try to influence or change the opinions of Dr Omalu or any pathologist working on a case.”
Omalu -- whose discovery of a deadly brain disease in professional football players was depicted in the 2015 movie “Concussion” -- said he accepted a job with San Joaquin County a decade ago to raise the standards of death investigations in a medically underserved community. But in his resignation letter, Omalu wrote that he was met with resistance from the start.
“I first experienced this with Sheriff Steve Moore when he prevented me from attending crime scenes which detectives from police departments of other cities may have wanted me to attend, or scenes I wanted to attend, especially on complicated and/or unusual cases,” Omalu wrote. “I believed this interference would stop the longer I stayed in the office and exhibited the highest and exemplary standards of practice. Unfortunately, it did not stop.”
Preventing Forensic Pathologists From Examining Crime Scenes
Concerns over the lack of participation of a forensic pathologist prompted a San Joaquin County prosecutor to write a letter to the sheriff in 2013.
“I hope that in writing this letter it brings to your attention how the failure to have the Forensic Pathologist come to the scene can have an affect (sic) on the prosecution of some cases,” Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams wrote, referencing the Oct. 30, 2011, murder of Kathleen McGehee.
McGehee was discovered stabbed to death in her Manteca home on Oct. 31 of that year, a day when both her son Dawson McGehee and a daughter were in and out of the house.
The lead investigator asked for Omalu to examine the body at the house. The sheriff’s office refused to send Omalu, and never told him about the request, according to Adams’ letter.
A day later, Omalu performed an autopsy on McGehee in the morgue, but because of the delay and the refrigeration of the body, “Dr. Omalu’s ability to perform forensic pathological analysis to ascertain the time of death was significantly impaired,” Adams wrote.
The district attorney charged Dawson McGehee with murder. During the trial, Adams wrote, the defense argued that the victim was alive on Oct. 31 and that someone other than her son could have killed her.
“There were members of the jury that entertained this theory as a reasonable possibility based on the evidence,” Adams wrote to Moore. “Thankfully the jury in this case was able to render a verdict of guilt; however, the date and time of death was a real source of debate during the five days of jury deliberations.”
Adams said she never received a response to her letter and doesn’t know why the sheriff denied the request for Omalu to visit the crime scene. But, she said, she believes changes were made after that. In 2013, Adams prosecuted another homicide — and in that case, Omalu went to the crime scene, she said.
Moore said in a written statement Thursday that his office is "in the process of reviewing" Adams' 2013 letter, and that the general practice is to send pathologists to crime scenes once they've been requested by the investigating agency.
"This case is more than six years old," Moore wrote, "and staff assigned to the Coroner's Office at that time have either retired, rotated out, or are no longer working at the Sheriff's Office."
Canceling Doctors’ Orders for Tests
Forensic pathologists Omalu and Parson also documented a number of times when they say the sheriff overrode their requests for additional tests.
Omalu cited a case where the decomposed remains of Lisa Ann Valdez, who had been missing for months, were found on June 8, 2016, also in Manteca.
Valdez’s body showed evidence of toxic levels of amphetamine, but Omalu could not rule out other causes because the head and neck of her body were missing.
“I had to determine if she had been killed by someone or if she died as a result of some type of accident,” Omalu wrote in a memo sent to the county medical director on Oct. 1.
Omalu recounted that he ordered an anthropological autopsy that might provide further evidence. But months later, when he asked for that report, a sheriff’s deputy told him that his request for laboratory analysis was “overruled” and “the skeleton was released to the family and cremated,” according to the memo.
“An incomplete autopsy undermines, and does not pass the reasonable degree of medical certainty threshold and standard,” Omalu wrote on his autopsy report. “I cannot provide an opinion in regard to the mechanisms of death and causes of death in this case.”
In his letter to the medical director of San Joaquin General Hospital, Omalu wrote, “A person who does not have a license to practice medicine in the State of California should not be involved in the medical evaluation of a case and provision of a medical opinion.”
Both doctors wrote that the sheriff’s decision to cancel lab work amounted to the illegal practice of medicine.
Calls for Independent Investigation
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said she was aware of the allegations before the doctors resigned and had launched an investigation “several weeks” ago.
A Dec. 12 post on the DA’s Facebook page stated: “San Joaquin County Pathologists Dr. Bennet Omalu and Susan Parson have made our office aware of concerns in the operations of their office, and requested the District Attorney to investigate. The investigation has been initiated and is ongoing. When the investigation is complete, this office will review the facts as presented and make the appropriate decisions at that time.”
Some residents want an independent agency outside the county to investigate the allegations against Moore.
“I don't know how they could possibly investigate the sheriff's office regarding these cases because they're the ones that also handled all of the officer-involved cases” said Barbara Steward, a Stockton resident whose ex-husband, Daniel Humphreys, died in 2008 after being tased 31 times by a California Highway Patrol officer. “I'm not sure how they can be impartial.”
In notes sent to county officials this month, Omalu accused the sheriff of withholding a report generated by the Taser weapon the officer used. When DA Verber Salazar -- then a deputy prosecutor -- shared the Taser report with Omalu two years later, showing Humphreys was shocked for 2½ minutes, Omalu changed his findings in the case from accidental death to a homicide.
Steward, who was married to Humphreys for 13 years and had two daughters with him, was working for the sheriff when he died. She and Humphreys had divorced and she had remarried. Steward retired this year.
She said that after the doctors’ allegations surfaced, she felt free to finally reveal what she knew about the night her ex-husband died.
“He (Moore) was aware of that case very early on when it was unfolding on scene,” Steward said. “As soon as that information (from the Taser) was downloaded -- which is a pretty instant thing -- I'm sure he was made aware of what that was.”
She said an apparent lack of follow-up on that case by the district attorney’s office still bothers her.
Now Steward wants the attorney general of California or some other independent agency to investigate the allegations against Moore.
“I think it needs to be handled by someone higher up,” Steward said.
In a statement this week, a spokesperson for Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote, “To protect its integrity, we can’t comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation.”
Allegations Fuel Calls For Independent Medical Examiner
In response to the allegations against the sheriff, a growing number of physicians -- including the California Medical Association -- have urged the county Board of Supervisors to create a medical examiner’s office run by physicians, who would determine both the cause and manner of suspicious deaths.
San Joaquin County, like the majority of counties in California, established a sheriff-coroner system for investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths, and all deaths involving law enforcement. Typically the coroner, who is also the elected sheriff, hires a forensic pathologist to conduct autopsies and determine the medical causes of death, such as a heart attack or blunt-force trauma. Then the sheriff determines the manner of death: accidental, suicide, homicide, natural or undetermined -- based on the autopsy findings and the investigatory findings of law enforcement.
Critics of the system say having an elected official determine the manner of death presents a conflict of interest, and creates a perception, real or not, that political pressure affected the outcome.
During the public comment period at a Dec. 12 county Board of Supervisors meeting, Dr. Grant Mellor of the San Joaquin County Medical Society urged supervisors to take immediate action to protect the independence of forensic pathologists performing autopsies.
“This is gaining national -- as well as international -- attention,” said Dr. Kwabena Adubofour at the same meeting, referring to reports and editorials in The Washington Post and texts he said he’d received from colleagues in London asking, “What’s going on in San Joaquin County?”
DA Verber Salazar also urged the board to create a separate medical examiner’s office.
Board of Supervisors Chair Chuck Winn said he’s waiting for the county counsel to investigate the allegations and determine if any laws were violated.
Winn said it would be “irresponsible” to make decisions until the board has all the facts gathered.
“Certainly we want to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to provide their input or side as to as to what's occurred and maybe what needs to be done in the future,” he said. “I think it's a little early to make any decisions as to what we're going to do until we have a chance to evaluate what the costs or the consequences the reorganization would entail.”
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, for example, voted last year to restore the independence of medical examiners following allegations that the sheriff had interfered with death investigations by withholding evidence and pressuring forensic pathologists to change their findings. The shift resulted in an annual $800,000 increase to the county budget.
Moore said he “would fully support separation” if the Board of Supervisors and the people of San Joaquin County want it.