South Sound News

Employees speak out on Pierce County Medical Examiner

KIRO 7 has obtained a letter signed by eight employees at the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office claiming Dr. Thomas Clark is responsible for ongoing violations and unethical practices that have caused people working there to lose confidence in the county's Chief Medical Examiner.

“We’re terrified to speak out because we’re afraid of retaliation,” said medical legal death investigator Jill Lombardi. “We’re afraid of bullying. It’s a rough work environment.”

"I don't think Dr. Clark should be in charge or oversee any human being," said medical legal death investigator Jacob Atzet.
>> Related: Letter signed by employees at Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office

The letter accuses Clark of a long list of items, including failing to follow National Association of Medical Examiner standards, and failure to do autopsies in cases needing more extensive investigation, and it claims Clark cultivates an office culture where legitimate complaints are not addressed.

“He has a blanket cause of death that he tends to use and we have to explain to families why an autopsy wasn’t done,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi says those failings have led to the dismissal of a murder charge in at least one case that could have been prosecuted as a crime Lombardi was the lead crime scene investigator in the July 4, 2017, death of Stephen Gale. As KIRO 7 has reported, Gale was beaten and stomped on during a fight at an Independence Day party in Steilacoom. Police arrested then 23-year-old Tyler Thiel, who they said he admitted kicking and stomping on Gale. Thiel was charged with second-degree murder based on that confession and evidence collected at the scene by Lombardi.

“The general impression that I got at the scene was that he was killed by another individual,” said Lombardi. “In the medical legal death investigation world that would be classified as a homicide.”

But Clark, who at first agreed with that conclusion, later ruled the death undetermined. Because of that finding murder charges were dropped and Thiel was freed.

“I was surprised and shocked at that,” said Lombardi.

The case is being reviewed once again by Pierce County prosecutors at the request of Steilacoom police.
Both Lombardi and Atzet say Clark has created a climate of fear in the Medical Examiner's office that leaves experienced investigators worried about his moods and his reaction to dissenting opinions by staff members.

“I was terrified,” Atzet said. Asked who he was afraid of Atzet responded, “Dr. Clark.”

“It’s a very stressful work environment just because of how he treats others,” said Lombardi. “There are rumors that are made up and spread about people by Dr. Clark.”

And Lombardi says Clark's attitude targets the dead as well as his own employees, saying Clark often mocks corpses brought in to determine cause of death.

“There have definitely been disparaging remarks regarding people’s weight or their age. The fact that they’re elderly, they don’t need an autopsy even if one is warranted. What if that were one of our family members? I mean it’s just heartbreaking,” said Lombardi.

Both Lombardi and Atzet are protected by their union, but both say they are concerned about retaliation for speaking out, adding they’re willing to take the risk because working conditions at the medical examiner's office have to change.

“Right now we can’t serve the public that we are employed to serve because they don’t trust us to do our jobs,” said Lombardi.

“I know that he has made other people feel the same way and many other people have been afraid to come forward,” added Atzet. “And I do not blame them.”

KIRO 7 contacted the spokeswoman for Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Libby Catalinich, for comment on the investigators claims. She responded by email,  “The only comment we have at this point is to reiterate that we are committed to a full and fair investigation.”

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