Colo. Coroner Shares Lessons Learned at Mortuary Fire

While not called, the coroner and her staff showed up and conducted an investigation.


Feb. 16--The arson fire that destroyed Howe Mortuary last year remains unsolved, but the Boulder County Coroner said last week that the unusual crime was a lesson for her office that she is sharing with other coroners.

Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall and her staff were not called to the scene of the fire May 28. No one was killed in the intentionally set blaze that destroyed a long-standing Longmont business, but the nature of the mortuary's work meant that seven deceased people were inside at the time of the destructive fire.

Hall, who said she was contacted by the funeral home the morning of the fire with a request for body bags, said she and her staff decided to head to the scene to make sure that all of the bodies found inside the building were those that were there prior to the fire and to help the mortuary definitively identify the remains for the families before final arrangements were made.

She said that while it may seem gruesome, a fire at a mortuary could be used as an attempt to cover up another crime, like a homicide. She was also concerned because initial information indicated between five and seven bodies inside.

"It was kind of a new situation for everyone," Hall said of her decision to respond to the scene without an official summons from the police or fire departments. "They were confused as to why we were there."

Jeff Howe, owner of the mortuary, said one of his staff called Hall at 5:45 the morning of the fire. He was surprised to see her when she showed up that morning.

"It does make sense, and I never thought to make sure she was included," he said. "It felt good that we had the support."

The fire destroyed one room and a cooler where three bodies were stored, while there others in a prep room sustained some damage from the fire and firefighting efforts. A seventh body in a casket was taken quickly to another funeral home for a funeral later the same day, Hall said. She added that the funeral home recorded the locations of each body, but her office is able to confirm identities using fingerprints and DNA.

Howe said that the mortuary takes measures to make sure identities are well secured to those in their care. He said those identifiers survived the fire but could have easily been compromised, so the assistance after the blaze was helpful.

Lt. David Marshall of the Longmont Fire Department said fighting the blaze was standard for the firefighters, although it was a notably large incident. He said it was clear from locations the bodies were found that they were likely in the mortuary prior to the fire, which started in a trash receptacle next to the building and jumped to the mortuary. He said the investigation is complete and investigators identified "persons of interest," although not no one has been arrested for the arson.

"As far as the investigation goes, it was the first mortuary fire I had investigated," he said, adding that he isn't sure why neither the police nor fire department thought about calling the coroner.

Howe said he is a little frustrated that the person who started the fire has not surfaced, but he is not concerned about being targeted. He said he suspects that an arsonist who had been setting fires in trash receptacles likely set the fire next to Howe without intending it to spread to the building.

"We, like the fire department, didn't believe it was pointed at us," she said.

Hall said she struggled when she heard of the fire about whether her office would have jurisdiction since there were no new reported deaths. But, she said, due to the outside possibility of a crime she decided to head to the scene to help.

"It was a great exercise for us because it gave us a good idea of what handling a mass fatality would be like," she said, noting that some of her investigators were dispatched to other deaths around the county at the same time, which tested the office's resources.

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