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Temporary solution found for medical examiner

A medical examiner from Catawba County is now performing autopsies for Watauga and Avery counties following Dr. Brent Hall's resignation until a long-term solution can be found, a state spokesman said Wednesday.

Hall, who served Watauga, Avery, Ashe, Mitchell and Yancey counties, resigned two weeks ago after questions arose about the autopsies of three people who died from carbon monoxide in Boone's Best Western hotel.

Hall originally indicated that the deaths of Shirley and Daryl Jenkins on April 16 in Room 225 may have been caused by an overdose, according to documents Hall submitted to the state. He requested that toxicology tests be performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but did not ask that the tests be expedited, according to the OCME.

Documents from OCME indicated that the toxicology report was completed June 1, a week before 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of Rock Hill, S.C., died in the same room from the same cause.

Hall offered his resignation to the state on June 14.

Kevin Howell, legal communications coordinator for DHHS, said in an email that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was not aware of any previous complaints against Hall.

County or regional medical examiners are appointed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. By statute, the county medical examiners serve three-year terms.

Hall was appointed medical examiner for Durham County from May 1989 through June 1992, Howell said. He was appointed in Watauga County in July 1993, followed by Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties in June 1999 and Ashe County in 2005.

According to state guidelines, the medical examiner is tasked with investigating several types of deaths: homicide, suicide, accidents, trauma, violence, unknown or unnatural circumstances, those in police custody, poisonings or suspected poisonings, public health hazards such as contagious disease or epidemics and deaths without medical attendance, among others.

Most have full-time jobs outside of their medical examiner duties and are paid $100 per exam, said Ricky Diaz, communications director for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Diaz said the state appreciates the public service that local medical examiners provide "below cost to provide answers to families in times of grief."

He said the office was working with local officials to find a long-term solution for Watauga and the surrounding counties, whether through a new medical examiner appointment or another arrangement.

"We're still in ongoing conversation about what that (solution) is," Diaz said.

As far back as 2001, a General Assembly study group questioned whether North Carolina's medical examiners had adequate training and funding to properly investigate deaths.

The panel offered almost two dozen recommendations, including mandatory training, improved death scene investigations and the hiring of professional death investigators.

Diaz said that the Department of Health and Human Services has made the medical examiner system a focus since Dr. Aldona Wos was named secretary in January.

Staff members are talking with local experts, looking at historical reports and establishing ways to benchmark North Carolina's performance against other states, he said.

"It's been, since we arrived in January, an ongoing focus for us," Diaz said.