Coroner candidates vow to restore public trust

GREENFIELD — It’s been a frustrating few years — on that, this year’s candidates for county coroner can agree.

Four candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Hancock County coroner say they have been disappointed with the elected leadership in recent years, and they are seeking a slot on the 2016 ticket because they believe they can mend the community’s trust in an office whose past two leaders have been plagued by legal troubles.

The coroner is called upon to determine a person’s cause of death when a death is considered suspicious, or if the victim was alone when they died. The office oversaw 129 death investigations in 2015.

The Republican race pits current Chief Deputy Coroner Rudy Nylund against Dan Devoy and Joe Fortner, who lost a three-way race for the seat in 2012, and local funeral home director David Stillinger.

No Democrats filed for the primary race, including incumbent Crystel Myers.

The candidates say their top priority is to restore the public’s trust in the office, whose last two leaders were charged with crimes during their tenures.

Nyland, Devoy and Fortner have longtime ties to local law enforcement, and they say their established relationships will help bring the coroner’s office up to par. Stillinger admits he’s new to politics but thinks a fresh face will have a better chance of bringing reform to an office plagued by instability.

In 2012, Coroner Tammy Vangundy was removed from office after her guilty plea in a drunken-driving case prohibited her from holding the post. Devoy was chosen over both Nylund and Fortner by a Republican caucus to fulfill the remaining three months of her term. 

Myers, her successor, was accused of shoplifting and arrested the following year. Her guilty plea to a misdemeanor allowed her to keep her position, but she hasn’t investigated a death since 2013, leaving those tasks to her deputies while she handles administrative duties.

Nylund has led the office since Myers’ arrest. For years before that, he never tossed his name into the race for an elected seat, choosing instead to wait, learn and treat the chief deputy’s office as an apprenticeship, he said.

That 10 years of experience as a deputy, coupled with the skills he’s gained as the full-time assistant fire chief for Buck Creek Township Fire Department, gives him both the investigative and medical know-how run the office well, he said.  

If elected, he plans to take the lead on at least half of the death investigations in the county and will divide the remaining work among four deputies.

Devoy and Fortner tout lengthy tenures as members of local law enforcement, which they say gives them the best advantage when working alongside police and county officials while rebuilding the community’s confidence in the coroner’s office. 

Devoy, a field officer for the county’s community corrections facility, has worked in law enforcement for more than 17 years. He also boasts eight years working in the coroner’s office in the past and says he has the “investigative eye” a coroner needs to be successful.

If elected, Devoy said every death investigation will start with him. He will gather facts about the case to decide whether the investigation can be handed over to a deputy.

Fortner, a retired Greenfield Fire Department fire chief and current EMS coordinator for Hancock Regional Hospital, says he and a team of deputies will share the workload, but he will review every case report to ensure evidence was collected properly.

Fortner, who also is a former police officer, plans to fill his team with deputies who have backgrounds similar to his own, citing a need for a mix of medical and investigative experience.

Stillinger, owner and funeral director of Stillinger Family Funeral Home-Pasco Chapel in Greenfield, stresses the need for compassionate care for families the coroner’s office serves; he believes his experience working with mourning families outweighs the other candidates’.

He promises to take an active role in all death investigations while also relying on well-trained deputies to assist him. 

Where they stand

Find out where the candidates stand on issues important to the community on AX.

Coming up

The four Republican coroner candidates will debate their campaign platforms at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Hancock County Public Library, 900 W. McKenzie Road.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.