HANCOCK COUNTY — The Hancock County Coroner’s Office has been called to 106 death investigations this year.
Coroner Crystel Myers hasn’t been to a single one.
Myers, who took office in 2013, admits she hasn’t investigated a death in more than two years, shuffling that task to three deputy coroners while she handles paperwork from home.
Her management of the office has drawn criticism from the county council, local police and other elected officeholders. In July, the county council reduced Myers’ pay for the second time in as many years, accusing her of not doing her job.
Tension surrounding another elected officeholder’s job performance has unfolded in recent years in Fortville, where Clerk-Treasurer Marcie Stafford has clashed repeatedly with the town council. The council has accused her of sloppy bookkeeping, asked her multiple times to resign and threatened legal action to force her from office.
Stafford has been notably absent from town hall since she lost her bid for re-election in May, noting state law allows her to work from home. Like Myers, she says she still takes on important duties behind the scenes.
Council members say they are at their wits’ end trying to work with officeholders whose refusal to put in regular office hours makes them unavailable to anyone with questions or concerns. But elected officials enjoy special protections. By state law, they aren’t required to be at the office and removing them is difficult. Others in local government have little recourse short of impeachment, a legal process that can be expensive and requires the signature of a judge.
So while Myers and Stafford are largely outcasts among elected officeholders and the subject of criticism by those who set their salaries, it’s usually the voters who decide their fates. In one case, they already have; Stafford was voted out in May and will leave office at year’s end. Myers holds her office through 2016; and despite the controversy surrounding her post, she says she will consider running again.
‘I don’t want to go’
Myers hasn’t been to the scene of a death investigation since 2013, her first year in office. She stopped doing death investigations after being arrested in December that year for shoplifting Christmas presents from a local store. She called on her chief deputy coroner, Rudy Nylund, to manage the rotation of deputies to fill in for her.Meanwhile, Myers maintained her innocence in the criminal case. She was charged with felony theft and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor conversion. Felons cannot hold elected office; by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, she was allowed to keep her job.But Myers never set foot on the scene of another death investigation; she says she has felt unwelcome undertaking those duties since her brush with the law.
Today, she performs administrative tasks — paying autopsy bills and signing off on payroll, for example — while her deputies handle the on-scene detective work.
Indiana law requires the coroner to determine the cause of an unexpected or unattended death. Those tasks may be assigned to deputies at the elected officeholder’s discretion. But Myers’ refusal to take on any death investigations is frustrating, council members say, because they have had to allocate an additional $100 for every case assigned to a deputy.
Myers is paid $7,570 annually. Her deputies receive $100 a case, regardless of the time commitment involved. A natural death might require only a few minutes of a coroner’s time; a homicide, on the other hand, can take hours or even days.
So far this year, the amount the county has spent to pay Myers’ deputies is $10,600, more than the elected officeholder’s salary for the year.
Myers said she is committed to her job and enjoys serving the community. But she said the police officers and others she used to work alongside made it clear she was no longer welcome.
“I have let other people put me down to the point of I don’t want to go,” she said. “That’s the God’s honest truth. I have let people put me down and torment me and belittle me.”
A rocky relationship
The county’s top law enforcement officials — including the sheriff and the chiefs of every police department in the county — say they haven’t worked with Myers in years. At least two police chiefs say they’ve never even met her.Myers said she withdrew from the public eye after she began to sense police didn’t trust her or want her help on scenes requiring a coroner.Some law enforcement officers admit that assessment isn’t entirely untrue.
Detective Capt. Jeff Rasche, head of the sheriff’s department’s investigations division, said he is troubled by Myers’ criminal record, pointing out she pleaded guilty to a crime of dishonesty.
After Myers’ conviction, Greenfield Police Department officials adopted new guidelines to handle the coroner should she arrive to assist on a scene.
Police Chief John Jester said the new guidelines were put in place to reassure officers who no longer trust Myers, who will be escorted to and from the body and never left unattended.
Of course, it’s a moot point, Jester pointed out; Myers has yet to show up.
The same goes for cases in the county, and Rasche said that’s OK by him.
Myers’ presence would not only put law enforcement in a difficult spot; it would compound a distressful situation for the families who have lost a loved one and might wonder if they should trust the lead investigator after she was convicted of a crime, he said.
“I personally don’t want her at my crime scene,” Rasche said.
But it’s unfair for Myers to characterize her absence from death investigations — or the rift between her and law enforcement — as a recent development, Rasche added.
Myers came to the position with no experience in death-scene investigations. While such experience isn’t required by state law, Rasche said, he and others recognized the challenges a newcomer would face, so they held a meet-and-greet for Myers.
Myers seemed receptive to advice, but she was rarely available when a coroner was needed and quickly developed a reputation as an absentee officeholder, Rasche said.
When Myers failed to answer the phone or return calls, law enforcement officers turned to her second-in-command, Chief Deputy Coroner Rudy Nylund, a seasoned investigator, Rasche said.
Today, they bypass Myers altogether.
“If you ask any police officer out there today if they’re on a crime scene and (need a coroner), she doesn’t even come into anybody’s mind,” Rasche said. “It’s ‘Call Rudy.’”
‘She … isolated herself’
Marcie Stafford has been fighting with the Fortville Town Council for so long it’s hard to pinpoint where the trouble started.Stafford came under fire in 2012, her first year in office, when a police officer reported a text message in which Stafford suggested she would try to get him “a raise and a car or two” in exchange for erasing a family member’s traffic ticket, police reports state.Stafford admitted to sending the messages at the time but said she was only kidding around. She was never charged with wrongdoing, as prosecutors determined the allegations fell short of the state bribery statute.
Stafford’s relationship with other elected officials remained sour during the next three years.
Today, she said, she works primarily from home or visits town hall in the middle of the night because she has insomnia that prohibits her from keeping regular hours.
Stafford estimates she gets three hours of sleep a night and is often exhausted; but she maintains her work hasn’t suffered.
“I can do this job in a fog with blindfolds on and a hand tied behind my back,” she said.
Fortville Town Council members, however, have repeatedly criticized her management of the office, citing problems with payroll, books not being reconciled and insurance premiums not being paid on time.
A 2013 state audit found the town’s financial records were inaccurate during Stafford’s first year of her term; the town’s reported receipts were short $1.8 million, while disbursements were $1.6 million short, the audit states.
At the time, Stafford blamed the errors on not having enough help in the office. But the appointment of a part-time clerk in 2014 did little to improve her job performance or communication with the council, members said.
Stafford, who is paid around $40,000 a year to keep the town’s books, skips town council meetings and has not set up the voice mail feature on her work cellphone for residents and officials to leave messages.
“She just kind of isolated herself,” town council member Tim Hexamer said. “What can you do? She answers to no one except the voters.”
The council asked Stafford to resign at least three times and even considered offering her a buyout to step down.
At every turn, Stafford refused, saying the clerk-treasurer job is one she is “made to do.”
Stafford argues the council has bullied her from the beginning, adding to her job stress with constant badgering and criticism.
“They’ve tried to break me,” she said. “Well, I’m sorry, I’ve lived a hard enough life. They’re not gonna break me.”
Out of office
During the past year, council members have continued to express concerns about Stafford’s bookkeeping and her not being able to provide answers to their questions about the town’s budget. She said she wasn’t able to get the office in order because she was understaffed.Stafford said she was working upward of 80 hours a week until the council hired a part-time deputy clerk last year. That helped the workload and brought most tasks up to date, she said; still, council members remained critical of her job performance.
Stafford said their attitude is unfair and unchangeable.
“My therapist said Jesus himself could come down to a council meeting and say, ‘Come on now,’” she said. “You could never please them.”
When Stafford lost her bid for re-election in May, the council was relieved, Hexamer said.
In June, Stafford provided a doctor’s note to the council advising she not return to town hall. She declined to go into detail but said her work environment compounded the stress brought on by her insomnia.
Council President Bill Hiday said at that point the council gave up trying to remove Stafford from office.
“We exhausted every option,” he said.
But not before her reputation was irreparably damaged, Stafford countered.
“My family has had to suffer at the hands of that council; and that hurts the most, other than the fact they ruined my career,” she said. “Who would hire me at this point? Google my name. All they’re gonna see is the negative.”
Local officials have few options for dealing with elected officials who don’t hold regular hours or aren’t completing their responsibilities, county attorney Ray Richardson said.The legislative bodies of the county or municipality can decrease the elected officials’ salary — a step the county council has taken twice with Myers — but they can’t refuse to pay them.“Elected officeholders get paid no matter what,” Richardson said. “They don’t have to show up; they don’t have to do their job duties.”
Officials or residents can file an impeachment lawsuit, but a final decision to have the elected official removed must come from a judge.
No county official has been impeached in recent memory. The process takes time and can result in substantial legal fees, officials said.
In 2009, the county commissioners, all Republicans, threatened former county Auditor Linda Grass, also a Republican, with impeachment after she was accused of stealing from county coffers.
The commissioners, as well as state lawmakers, signed a letter asking Grass — who was later convicted and sent to prison — to resign.
The Hancock County Republican Party also threatened impeachment.
Grass resigned before any impeachment paperwork was filed.
County officials had a responsibility to taxpayers to force Grass from office because her crimes were tied to her work as auditor, Richardson said.
The case with Myers is different, Richardson said; she was convicted of a crime unrelated to her job.
Weighing the options
County Commissioner Brad Armstrong served on the board when impeachment was discussed for Grass as well as for former Sheriff Bud Gray, who was charged with obstruction of justice in 2010 after being accused of pocketing department funds, though Gray’s case was dropped.At the time, the legal cost associated with an impeachment lawsuit was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, Armstrong said.The process in Myers’ case would be cost-prohibitive Armstrong said, noting impeaching Myers could cost the county nearly as much as she will make over her four-year term, an estimated $34,000.
“It ain’t free,” he said. “That weighs into the conversation. You want to look at the best solution to the problem.”
Additionally, the duties of the coroner are being ably handled by her deputies, Armstrong said.
Still, he’s frustrated for taxpayers who are paying the salary of an elected official who is passing her duties on to others.
“It’s a bad situation all the way around,” he said. “But it is what it is. She won an election.”
Party members aren’t stepping in, either.
Phil Hunt, chairman of the Hancock County Democratic Party, admitted party members are disappointed by Myers’ performance. Because Myers is the only Democrat holding public office in Hancock County, they worry her lack of involvement in her job paints the wrong picture for voters about what the party represents.
But she’s not breaking any laws by working from home, Hunt said.
“She doesn’t have to take the calls herself; she’s there to manage the position,” he said.
The party has no plans to ask Myers to resign. It is focusing instead on finding quality candidates for future elections, Hunt said.
Neither officeholder has announced plans to step down.
Stafford’s days in office are numbered; her term ends Dec. 31.
Myers has 14 months left. She said the next year will be spent serving local families the best she can, despite circumstances she admits are not ideal.
“I’m not going to resign,” she said. “I’m not a quitter, never have been, and I don’t plan on starting now.”
- Serves a four-year term
- Determines cause and manner of death (natural, accidental, homicide, suicide, undetermined)
- Obtains police assistance for death investigations
- Files cause of death with local health department
- Hires a qualified physician to conduct autopsies
- Files a report of investigated deaths with the clerk of the circuit court
- Keeps the town’s financial records
- Oversees the town’s budget under direction of the town council
- Takes minutes of town council meetings; records votes
- Appoints additional staff to the office under direction of the town council
- Issues licenses (e.g., business licenses, animal licenses)
- Administers oaths and takes depositions as needed
- Performs marriages as needed
“I have let other people put me down to the point of I don’t want to go.”
Coroner Crystel Myers, on why she no longer does death investigations, which she assigns to her deputies
“She just kind of isolated herself. What can you do? She answers to no one except the voters.”
Fortville Town Council member Tim Hexamer, on Clerk-Treasurer Marcie Stafford
“Elected office holders get paid no matter what. They don’t have to show up; they don’t have to do their job duties,”
County attorney Ray Richardson