Douglas County has a new morgue, increasing the county’s capacity to house the deceased tenfold.
In Roseburg, an unassuming blue house stands alone at the end of a long driveway. An 8-foot-by-16-foot metal box sits under the carport, something akin to a restaurant’s walk-in freezer.
“It’s the most anticlimactic thing, but for me it’s actually very exciting,” said Douglas County’s Chief Medical Legal Death Investigator Craig Kinney.
The 6-foot, 3-inch Kinney is hard to miss. He’s usually the one grinning, telling deadpan one-liners or giving back to the community, either through his job or helping out at his church.
Kinney has been trying to increase the capacity of the morgue from its previous maximum of two since the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.
“When I first took over I was like, ‘wow, how do we do this?’” Kinney said.
The previous medical examiner told him ‘we use the mortuaries and we just kind of get by,’” according to Kinney.
He knew they had to do better, but the issue was funding.
“But then UCC happened and it made it very real, very fast that we don’t have the ability to handle a mass-fatality event. We just don’t,” Kinney said.
There wasn’t enough space to house the victims at the morgue, so Kinney had to call upon local mortuaries and even looked for refrigerated trucks.
He said it became obvious that the morgue had come up the priority chain, but he continued to face the issue of a dwindling county budget.
Once Undersheriff Jeff Frieze heard that the county only had capacity for two bodies, Kinney said things started moving as it became a priority for Frieze as well.
“It was expensive to get this unit done but it was something the county absolutely needed,” Kinney said.
The walk-in cooler for the morgue is valued at $11,500.
Kinney said he won’t say the county is “ready” in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, but it’s “readier.”
“If you ever say you’re ready, you’re fooling yourself,” Kinney said.
Inside the newly refrigerated, 38-degree morgue are five rolling cots topped with red foam cushions. The cushioned cots aren’t ideal, because they could become contaminated from leaking bodies; but the space is a first step.
“My potential exists where it hasn’t up to this point,” Kinney said.
Kinney’s job entails doing death scene investigations: taking photos, gathering medical records, talking to people at the scene and doing examinations of the bodies.
And he does a lot of investigations.
“Put it this way, if you die in a hospital under a doctor’s care then the doctor is going to sign your death certificate. If you die in a hospice where the doctor said ‘yeah you’re going to die’ the doctor is going to sign your death certificate. Everybody else goes through this office,” Kinney said. “Every accident, every homicide, every suicide, every child death, every drowning, every car crash victim, every little old lady, every little old grandpa that wakes up dead, is what I like to say, every single one of those people that die at home are all reviewed by my office.”
Last year, Kinney reviewed 470 cases, the year before that he reviewed 419.
This year he said he’s on pace to exceed 400 investigations again.
“We put all of this investigative stuff together. Before we ever even call the pathologist, we’ve already done a large part of the investigation,” Kinney said.
Once he’s done with the leg work, he calls the State Medical Examiner’s office in Portland, gives them the information he’s gathered and they determine if the body needs an autopsy.
If they do, Kinney makes the three-hour trip north for the procedure and then brings the deceased back to a Douglas County mortuary.
The issue Kinney has run into with a two-person morgue is giving up control of a mass-casualty investigation when the deceased have to be housed in separate locations.
“When we deal with these mass-fatality events, the people are evidence in an investigation,” Kinney said.
When there are multiple victims of a house fire or car crash, for example, they are taken to various local mortuaries or up to Portland.
Kinney said he looked at option after option to try and get a new morgue funded, looking for grants or other funding opportunities.
But in the end, Kinney said, “The right way to do it is the way that we did.”
The death investigator’s next goal is getting a metal stacking system that could hold three trays apiece.
The county’s public works department assembled the morgue’s metal box, while Roseburg Refrigeration installed the cooling unit.
The room could easily fit 10 rolling cots, but in a pinch, Kinney said he could use floor space to hold up to 20 body bags. The bags are never stacked.
Being a death investigator is backbreaking work, lifting body bags from one stretcher to the next.
Kinney said he has two herniated discs and one ruptured one. Last year he had back surgery.
Many of his cots are old hand-me-downs; his “new” stretcher was purchased six years ago.
Kinney recalled the heaviest body he’s had to lift —387 pounds. He had to call for help on that case, but most of the time he’s alone, doing what he jokingly called “deadlifts,” moving bodies from the exam table back into the two-tray cold storage.
“This job will either make you laugh or make you cry. And I’m not much of a crier.” Kinney said. “I choose to find the good in life.”
Four weeks into her new position as executive director for the Downtown Roseburg Association, Susie Johnston-Forte said she is learning, organizing and regrouping.
She’s been in the position for a month, replacing Alyssa McConnel who was fired in April for her comments critical of the city government. She had questioned whether the DRA was getting a good deal in its contract with the city to provide parking enforcement downtown.
Regarding her predecessor, Johnston-Forte said she didn’t want to put anything on one person, instead she is focused on rebuilding their volunteer structure after “many people chose to do other things with their volunteer time and left the organization.”
“I’m trying really hard to not get wrapped up in that because we have so much to do moving forward,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do, and it’s a new day.”
McConnel is now running for county commissioner, advocating transparency and creating revenue.
McConnel said in an interview earlier this month she brought a lot of volunteers and new revenue in for the DRA while she was its director. Ninety business owners and employees signed a petition supporting her after she was ousted in April.
Since her family moved her from Baker City, when she was 10, Johnston-Forte has been in love with Roseburg and its downtown.
“I wasn’t one of the kids that was like ‘I hate this, I got to get out,’” Johnston-Forte said. “I loved Roseburg.”
She moved to Eugene for school, and was perfectly content to stay there, until she met her husband on a racquetball court at the YMCA. She’s been back for 34 years, living and working in downtown on and off.
“I personally think Roseburg is perfectly situated in the whole country,” Johnston-Forte said, listing the proximity to the coast, the mountains, Eugene, Medford, and Portland, and I-5. “I just have this long history and this love affair with Roseburg.”
Johnston-Forte comes from a long background of nonprofit work including 14 years with Greater Douglas United Way, The Ford Family Foundation and United Community Action Network, which showed her the generous side of Roseburg. DRA President Todd Boyd said her background prepared her for this with long-term projects and nonprofit management.
“We’re really giving her an opportunity to glean what’s here before we send her out too much stuff to do,” Boyd said. “Initially, we are just giving her an opportunity to take her experiences with the career that she’s had and really capture what we have here and move us forward.”
Johnston-Forte said some projects that were initially enacted under McConnel were sidelined while they regroup and recruit.
“We’re really eager to serve downtown; the people that come here, the businesses that are here, and anybody who is hoping to be here,” Johnston-Forte said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s a lot to do and we need a little bit of time and a lot of people. People interested in seeing downtown thrive, I’d love to hear from them.”
A report on the economic impact of The Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe of Indians on Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties published in August, details the Tribe’s impact on local job employment, tax revenue and charitable donations for the year 2017.
The Portland based ECONorthwest completes economic analysis for organizations and businesses across the Northwest. Past reports were conducted in 2004, 2010 and 2015.
According to the report, the Tribe and their businesses employ 1,163 people, with the majority living in Douglas County while 14 live in Jackson County and 12 in Josephine County as of 2017. The report estimates that through Tribe’s business spending, they support another 700 jobs in Douglas County and 1,854 across the country.
“The numbers show that we are really interested in employment and that’s one of the main goals that we have,” said Michael Rondeau, the CEO for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. “The ripple effect is interesting on that as well, we have a high desire to work with local businesses.”
The Umpqua Indian Development Cooperation acts as the Tribe’s business division. Other businesses the Tribe owns and operates in the area include Seven Feathers Casino Resort, K-Bar Ranches, Nesika Health Group, Canyon Cubbyholes, Anvil Northwest, Takelma Roasting Company, Rivers West RV Park and Riverside Motel.
According to the 2004 ECONorthwest report, the Cow Creek Tribe, Seven Feathers Casino Resort and the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation donated a total of $1,010,666 to charities and nonprofits in Douglas County and $605,894 in neighboring counties for a total of $1,616,560.
The 2017 report listed total donations for that year at $1,972,252, with $687,529 going to causes in Douglas County, $312,498 in Jackson County and $99,245 in Josephine County.
The report also listed the number of people in the Tribe.
According to the 2017 report, the Tribe had 1,770 tribal members as of May, 2018. The majority of the Ttibal members live in Douglas County, but 26 of them live in Jackson County and 49 live in Josephine County.
The report states that $62.4 million in wages, salaries and benefits for residents in Douglas County can be attributed to the Tribe’s presence in Douglas County.
“We are very pleased with the results,” Rondeau said about the report. “And they’re pretty consistent with what we’re expecting and I think we’re always happy to see what an impact we make on our community.“