CANTON — Dr. Renée Robinson, the county's only full-time forensic pathologist since 2015, was Stark County's highest-paid employee, earning $180,066 a year.
In February, she gave three weeks' notice and then left on Feb. 28 without providing a reason, her former boss, Stark County Coroner Anthony Bertin said.
Her departure put the Stark County Coroner's Office in a serious bind and significantly affected operations.
With a limited number of forensic pathologists on the job market, Bertin was forced to ask the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office to do most of Stark County's autopsies. In addition, his office has stopped doing autopsies for several nearby counties that can't afford to do their own.
Dr. Frank Miller, the Lorain County chief deputy coroner and former Cuyahoga County coroner, came to Stark County to do autopsies every other weekend. Bertin, elected coroner, is a urologist, not a pathologist qualified to perform autopsies.
Bertin said he spoke with anatomical pathologists at Aultman Hospital and Mercy Medical Center who can perform autopsies. They had not done a fellowship in forensics and attained the credentials prosecutors want in expert witnesses. He said none were interested in doing autopsies on a temporary basis for Stark County.
"They don't want to do the forensic stuff," Bertin said.
Out of county
Bertin said the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office in Cleveland has performed eight of Stark County's autopsies since March 1 for $1,600 to $1,800 each, many of them suspected drug overdoses. Miller did the remaining four or five. That doesn't include the cost to transport the bodies to and from Cleveland, a few hundred dollars per body.
One of the cases that went to Cleveland was that of an 18-year-old Marlboro Township man who disappeared March 31 and whose body was found in a pond two days later. Preliminary results from the autopsy came back quickly enough so police were able to say on April 4 that the results indicated the teen had drowned.
Miller performed the autopsy in Stark County of a 14-year-old girl shot to death in Canton in late March, Bertin said.
Bertin said so far, the cases have been spread out enough that his office has not faced delays in getting crucial forensic information to investigators or delayed any findings of cause and manner of death that would go on a death certificate. But that could change if the county is overwhelmed by a large number of deaths.
So far, the county is saving money paying Cuyahoga County to do the autopsies because the cost in the short term is less than paying Robinson's salary, Bertin said.
Bertin said he had only one applicant respond to his job listing on a coroners' website. The Stark coroner has extended an offer to a forensic pathologist, Daniel Brown, a former Akron police officer who works for the Philadelphia medical examiner and wants to return to Ohio. They're negotiating a salary, which Bertin says would likely be around $180,000. Brown is contracted to work in Philadelphia until August, the coroner said.
"It's a huge shortage," said Bertin, adding he's seen some large communities offer $400,000 a year. "The last time I looked, there were 60 places looking for a forensic pathologist."
Bertin said medical schools have a limited number of training programs for forensic pathologists. It requires candidates to be certified by two different boards, and they could probably earn much more in private practice or working in a hospital.
The Stark coroner added Miller plans to quit if he runs for Lorain County coroner next year.
Bertin said he and the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office have discussed jointly hiring a forensic pathologist. They would share and split the cost of salary and benefits.
David Corey, executive director of the Ohio State Coroners Association, said Ohio has only a few counties that perform all of their autopsies: Cuyahoga, Summit, Lucas, Franklin, Montgomery, Licking, Hamilton and Lorain.
Corey said the association hopes to launch a program by next year to recruit Ohio medical school students to become forensic pathologists.