GREENFIELD — Hancock County Coroner Crystel Myers has left her office in a mess of unpaid bills since last summer, county officials said Tuesday, as they weigh how to move forward while Myers waits for her criminal trial to begin in June.
Myers, arrested in December on a theft charge, had nearly $15,000 worth of unpaid invoices dating back to August.
Myers, who could not be reached for comment, continues to hold the elected office. While pathologists and funeral homes were left in limbo as they waited to be paid, Myers continued to maintain possession of the office van used to transport bodies for autopsies, despite the fact she hasn’t been on a professional call since her December arrest.
Chief Deputy Coroner Rudy Nylund brought the issues before the county commissioners Tuesday. He said as he tries to catch up with the bookkeeping problems, more budgeting issues could arise in the near future.
“The main issue was, because some of the bills did not get turned in at last year’s budget, this year’s budget is going to have to take care of last year’s bills as well as this year’s,” Nylund said after the meeting. “I wanted to give them a heads-up that this fall, we could be depleted on funds for laboratory calls and autopsy calls.”
The report Tuesday comes after several years of legal woes for the coroner’s office.
Myers, the first Democrat to be elected to a countywide office in decades, took office in 2013. Her predecessor, Republican Tamara Vangundy, had left the office in 2012 after she was arrested at the scene of a death investigation for being intoxicated. The Democratic Party slated Myers, who went on to win against two Republicans who filed as independent candidates after the GOP declined to slate a replacement for Vangundy.
In December, police say, Myers and a second person were captured on surveillance video stealing two $50 toy trucks at Wal-Mart in Greenfield. According to a probable cause affidavit, Myers stood by while Jordan Rose used a handheld scanner to ring up one truck in the cart while passing over two others.
Myers’ trial is set for June 2, and until then Nylund, and two other deputies will respond to calls.
But Nylund said he can’t answer why Myers did not sign invoices for professional services starting in August. She continued to file paperwork so she and the deputies could receive paychecks from the county, Nylund added, but did not pay thousands of dollars worth of bills the office had accumulated.
Autopsy services for J&M Forensic, for example, totaled $10,000, according to the county auditor’s office. Erlewein Mortuary was owed nearly $5,000 for several months of storage.
Auditor Robin Lowder said the situation has been frustrating for her office, and Myers has been difficult to contact.
“We called and called and emailed and emailed,” she said.
Only the elected officer can sign claims, Nylund said, and Myers finally did so last month. But the problem remains that in the near future, the coroner’s office might be short on money.
“I’m thinking we liquidate the vehicle to pay the bills,” Commissioner Brad Armstrong said, referring to the county-owned van Myers has at her home.
Nylund said he doesn’t have the keys to the van, and the vehicle hasn’t been used for county autopsy runs since Myers’ arrest in December. He doesn’t know whether she’s been driving it for personal use, but all three commissioners said that the deputies should have access to it.
President Derek Towle said he will contact Myers and get the keys to hand over to Nylund.
The county transports bodies if they must be examined for an autopsy. Nylund said instead of using the county van, deputies have been paying local funeral homes to transport the bodies for them.
There were 12 to 15 cases in the past few months where a body had to be transported for an autopsy, Nylund said. At up to $90 per trip, that’s potentially more than $1,300 spent this year on transportation that could have been avoided if Nylund had access to the coroner’s van.
Nylund said the office is taking care of signing death certificates without Myers. Deputy coroners David McWhorter and Steve Slinkard are also responding to death investigations.
But investigations are up so far this year. On average, the county responds to 70 to 80 cases a year. But since the beginning of the year, there have been 25 cases, 13 of which needed autopsies.
“I think the majority of that is, our county is growing and becoming larger, so therefore, the caseload is going to be increased,” he said.
Still, Nylund said the office’s budget will have to be monitored in the coming months, and he hopes invoices will be signed in a timely manner.
“I do think the communication is a little bit better,” Nylund said. “The invoices we had concern with have been taken care of with the help of the auditor’s office. Those bills have been paid, and we’re caught up for the most part with invoices.”
Staff writer Noelle M. Steele contributed to this report.