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.”