Billings crime lab tour

Phil Kinsey, right, administrator of the Montana State Crime Lab, leads a tour of the new Billings crime laboratory at Billings Clinic in May.

James Woodcock/For The Gazette

A doctor hired by the Montana Department of Justice for occasional autopsy work had resigned from his previous job in Washington after years of complaints and two lawsuits about workplace conditions.

When the state’s two longtime medical examiners resigned in quick succession last year, the state struggled to fill their positions. The crime lab and the county coroners for which it worked turned to private pathologists to perform autopsies.

Dr. Norman Thiersch was among the contractors paid by the state to travel to Missoula for the work.

In September 2014, Thiersch resigned his post as Snohomish County Medical Examiner as part of a confidential separation agreement, according to The Daily Herald newspaper in Everett, Wash. He had held the job for 16 years but left as criticism of his management mounted and in the wake of two lawsuits.

Thiersch, reached by email, declined two interview requests, suggesting the reporter speak with Montana Department of Justice Spokesman Eric Sell.

Sell said Thiersch had to disclose the incidents in Washington when applying for his Montana medical license. Additionally, he said Crime Lab Administrator Phil Kinsey asked employees who had previously worked with Thiersch about whether they would have an issue working with him “and they all said no.”

“There haven’t been any concerns with his work product,” Sell said. “No issues or concerns have been reported by crime lab employees.”

In 2010, The Daily Herald reported that high turnover and low morale led county leaders to call for an independent investigation of Thiersch’s office. Two incidents involving employees were subject to criminal investigations, “though no charges were filed,” the newspaper reported.

In 2012, the newspaper reported that a city police department was upset that Thiersch refused to perform an autopsy on a 7-year-old boy “who died of an apparent overdose of aspirin or similar medication.” Police said they couldn’t bring charges against the parents, in part, because they did not have evidence that might have been found during an autopsy.

Thiersch also was named in two related discrimination and retaliation lawsuits.

The first, filed by a former death investigator, alleged discrimination due to disability, sexual harassment and retaliation. In part, the suit alleged that after the death investigator confronted Thiersch about “unprofessional conditions in the morgue,” the pathologist forcefully ripped organs from a body then threw them back into the chest cavity “so as to intentionally splash and splatter blood” on the woman. The Herald reported that the case was settled in 2013 for $495,000 with a confidentiality clause that prevented the parties from speaking about the case. A second case with similar allegations was settled for $125,000 a year later, according to the Herald.

Since August 2015, Thiersch has been paid nearly $22,000 to travel to Missoula for autopsies, according to state financial records. Although most of that was last year, Kinsey confirmed Thiersch also had worked for the lab earlier this month but had yet to bill the state.

The state saw a spike in contracting costs last year as it struggled to fill three positions, two left vacant by the departure of the state’s longtime medical examiners and a third that was new.

In the last six months of 2015, 39 bodies were transported hundreds of miles to out-of-state labs, according to a report Kinsey presented to legislators in March. Three private pathologists, including Thiersch, secured Montana licenses and traveled to Missoula to perform another 113 autopsies under contract.

Records show those services, along with recruitment expenses, cost the state $570,000 more than was available in the FY 2016 budget. For comparison, the full annual salary of a deputy medical examiner is $201,000.

The Department of Justice requested in May that Budget Director Dan Villa shift spending authority from FY 2017 to 2016 to cover the shortfall. The department has previously said the difference would be made up by “holding open vacant positions and reducing FTE” as well as increased revenues from a raised autopsy fee paid by county coroners.

“The result of the reduction will be delays in processing forensic evidence and timely resolution of cases,” Central Services Administrator Christi Jacobsen wrote in June.

In 2016, the state also paid another $41,000 to a Minnesota-based pathologist to cover for absences by the Billings-based pathologist.

The March report from Kinsey notes that national guidelines recommend the state should hire another pathologist for the Billings office based on Montana’s population, something many coroners also support. The Department of Justice did not request funding for an additional position as it put together a budget proposal earlier this fall. Given the state’s declining revenues, the creation of an additional position is unlikely.

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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.