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Monday, March 11, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coroner Stirs Up Controversy In Spokane County -- Anti-Gay Focus Draws Suits, Recall Try

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

SPOKANE - Is he simply an honest conservative with a blunt way of talking, or is he a man on a mission to eradicate homosexuality?

Dr. Dexter Amend, voluble Spokane County coroner, isn't talking.

That's because his lawyers have sealed his lips, which have gotten him into a great deal of trouble over the past several months.

Amend has been the subject of lawsuits, petitions, censure by professional groups, physical threats and pro and con demonstrations and letters to the editor.

Citizens, including many of his fellow doctors, have tried to recall him, but the recall petition is stalled at the state Supreme Court. A bill that would allow Spokane County to dump its elected-coroner system in favor of an appointed medical examiner is soon likely to become law, and Gov. Mike Lowry has asked a state board that could revoke Amend's medical license to investigate him.

In the meantime, Amend - a 76-year-old retired urologist and former coroner who was elected again as a Republican in 1994 - goes about his work.

County risk manager Claude Cox figures the county has spent close to $45,000 so far on five claims and the recall petition against Amend.

Cox rummages through a file and produces a pile of claims. Several are those filed by families who say Amend's questions and behavior regarding the death of their relatives left them traumatized.

In one claim, the family of Curtis Lee Babcock, a 39-year-old man who died of AIDS, say they suffered emotional trauma when Amend held up cremation to insist that an autopsy be performed "with emphasis on examining the rectal region of the body."

In another claim, the father of 11-year-old Jeffrey Himes, who was burned to death early this year, said Amend asked Jeffrey's older brother, 13, the day after his brother died if Jeffrey had been masturbating and "humping boys" before he died.

And in the case that started the whole furor, the mother of Rachel Carver, a 9-year-old girl who was found murdered at a park in June, said she was humiliated when Amend talked publicly about her daughter's autopsy report. The report showed Rachel had been sodomized over a long period of time. Her uncle, who has been charged with the murder, has pleaded not guilty.

In an August television interview, Amend, a nattily dressed man with a shock of white hair, made a long leap from Rachel's injuries to a sweeping condemnation of the homosexual "lifestyle." Apparently believing that only a homosexual could have perpetrated such injuries on the girl, Amend said he felt an obligation to speak out.

"It's a crime that we don't expose the homosexual community," he said. "I'd like to see the homosexual lifestyle be condemned for what it is in terms of its raping innocent lives . . . instead of its being acceptable as a personal freedom."

"I . . . think the man is crazy"

The Rev. Charles Wood, an Episcopal priest, was among the members of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who later viewed the interview tape.

"That man is a disgrace to the office of coroner of Spokane County," Wood said. "He's a disgrace to the medical profession. I'd like to see him committed to the Eastern Washington State Hospital for psychiatric examination, because I really think the man is crazy."

Some of Spokane's county commissioners, watching the claims pile up, say this is making them crazy.

"We're at the point where we're getting into black humor," says Commissioner Steven Hasson.

But even dark humor can't outweigh the seriousness of the situation, he says.

"We have a person who is on some kind of religious crusade to smite all practices of sodomy in our county, and who is interested in that more so than in causes of death."

"If the good doctor wanted to talk about homosexuality in the generic sense, that would be in his purview, but instead, he's personalized it and wants to talk about it with families."

Last week, Hasson says, he and the other two commissioners took Amend aside in a private meeting and told him that if he didn't "cool his jets," the county would certify that he was acting outside the scope of his employment. That could mean he'd have to pay any jury awards - claims that now total upward of $4 million - out of his own pocket.

In the meeting, Amend was unrepentant, Hasson says. "He said he'd never killed anybody, and that these are just words," Hasson says. "He registered with me absolutely no wrongdoing."

Even so, Hasson said, all the commissioners are sympathetic. "I am going to say he's a very honest man - nothing dishonest or disingenuous about him."

Professionalism under attack

It has not gone unnoticed that the doctor has - or at least had in the beginning - considerable public support. Commissioner Phil Harris says that calls to his office have run 4 to 1 in support of Amend.

"If Dexter Amend is anything, he's a person who is working his butt off to do things right, but he talks too much. He wears his heart on his sleeve," Harris says.

But some local observers say the trouble with Amend goes beyond an apparent problem with homosexuality to include his professionalism.

Critics say Amend leaps to conclusions about deaths, based on prejudices. A recent two-month investigation by the Spokesman-Review newspaper concluded he too often doesn't order autopsies when he should, diagnosing some deaths as "alcoholic fatty liver" even though experts say such a diagnosis requires an autopsy.

Some say he also orders inappropriate autopsies.

Dr. George Lindholm, a forensic pathologist at Holy Family Hospital who conducts most of Amend's autopsies, refused to do the one Amend requested on Babcock, the man who died of AIDS.

"I spoke to the physician," Lindholm says. "He knew very well and had very well documented why this man had died."

An autopsy, he said, is a very powerful tool. "I believe it has to be undertaken with proper respect for the dignity of the dead. When the objective is not that, then I'm not interested in doing an autopsy."

It was five days before Babcock's body was released to his family, who had traveled from Butte to have him cremated and take his remains back for a memorial service.

"It was a nightmare" for the family, says Georgia Salcido, Babcock's sister.

Salcido says Amend's actions made her so wary she demanded that her nephew open her brother's shirt before he was cremated "to make sure there weren't any cut marks. I didn't trust anybody," she says. "Would you?"

Families and patients now fear that, no matter how well they've planned, Amend could swoop in and demand an autopsy, delaying services and upsetting families, says Anne Koepsell, executive director of Hospice of Spokane.

Should office be elected?

There are those who think the controversy over Amend is a signal that it's high time Spokane abolished the elected, partisan office of coroner, which pays about $48,000 a year, and replaced it with an appointed, professional medical examiner system like King County's.

Amend, in the past, has said he won't resign. The bill now making its way to Lowry's desk, even if signed, would not remove Amend, who has three years left.

And it's clear that Amend has his defenders, and that they are equally passionate. Those who know him say Amend has a stellar family, is a deacon in his Presbyterian church and volunteers time at a local mission for the homeless.

Jim Mertens, a retired Catholic-school teacher and crusader against homosexuality who helped organize a demonstration last summer for the coroner, says 500 supporters signed a petition for Amend.

"The only thing that man wants to do is save lives - his Hippocratic oath meant more to him than any other things. (He wants) to save lives, especially little children," Mertens says.

One of Amend's supporters, Michael Wright, wrote to the local newspaper last month: "County Coroner Dexter Amend is a great man. We should not interfere with his work. He does it for a purpose that we may not understand, but we must not question the things that are above us."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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