Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Coroner has high standards

Butler official is new leader of national group

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — An Oxford police officer was preparing to do a dreaded task for the first time: tell a family that a loved one had died.

(Michael Snyder photo)
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        “Brace yourself,” said Dr. Richard P. Burkhardt, the Butler County coroner. “We're about to change somebody's life forever.”

        In his 20 years as coroner, Dr. Burkhardt has done thousands of death notifications — and still isn't used to it.

        “A lot of times, we just sit there in silence,” he said. “It takes time for something that heavy to sink in.”

        Despite the grim nature of his work, Dr. Burkhardt is one of the county's most colorful characters, a stout, grandfatherly man with twinkling blue eyes and a notorious gallows sense of humor. He's also highly respected for his altruism and dedication.

        “I think most people picture a coroner as gray, drab and colorless. But "Dr. B' I picture as flamboyant and exuberant and enthusiastic,” said Hamilton Police Chief Neil Ferdelman. “Dr. B just has unbridled enthusiasm for anything and ev erything he does — and he's an absolutely brilliant man with unending integrity.”

        This week, he becomes president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners at the group's annual meeting near Chicago.

Likes to be involved
        Dr. Burkhardt, 62, was nominated for the post because of his long, distinguished career and his leadership, said Dr. John Herrman, medical examiner in Lewis County, N.Y., and past president of the group.

        “We've known him to be extremely knowledgeable but rather soft-spoken. He never pounds the desk, but you'd better listen because 99 percent of the time, he's correct,” Dr. Herrman said.

        During his tenure in this county of 335,000 people, Dr. Burkhardt has headed more than 6,500 death investigations. He almost always goes to the death scene and to the autopsy, no matter what the hour.

        Investigator Patricia Randolph said some coroners seem to be more wrapped up in administrative duties, but her boss likes to be directly involved in investigations.

Background: Born in Dayton, Ohio; degrees from the University of Dayton and the University of Cincinnati. Interned at the former Cincinnati General Hospital (now University Hospital). Served two years in the Air Force. Worked in the emergency room of Mercy Hospital Hamilton. Employed as a family doctor from 1968-92.
20 years in office: Appointed by the county commissioners in 1980, he has been re-elected without opposition ever since. He has no campaign fund — and returned the only political contribution he ever received: $1. Formerly a one-man operation, the office has grown to seven employees with a $536,000 annual budget. His wife, Marilyn, began working there as an office administrator in 1983 after an employee died; a state ethics opinion says her employment is permitted because it predated changes in state hiring rules.
Personal: He and his wife of 35 years live in Hamilton and have four children: Daniel in Darke County, Ohio, and Penny Crone, Jodie Connaughton and Richie, a police officer, all in Hamilton. He has a collection of antique cars and two beloved Dalmatians, Spotty and Churchill.

1993: Michael Grasa was shot in the neck and head with two crossbow arrows.
1996: Tina Mott, 22, was identified from a nearly toothless skull.
1998: Cheryl Ann Durkin, 33, was identified from her torso found in the Great Miami River near Hamilton.
        “Honestly, I don't think anybody works harder at being a coroner than he does,” she said.

        “I just think it's important to be there. Some cases are solved at the scene, and some cases are solved here,” Dr. Burkhardt said in an interview at the county morgue, in the basement of Mercy Hospital Hamilton. “A lot of people have been through here, saints and sinners both.”

        At times, he has clashed with police over who controls the scene and who gives what information to news reporters. Even so, police say they admire the way he operates.

        “He holds himself to the highest professional standards. He's very methodical, very thorough,” Hamilton police Sgt. Thomas E. Kilgour said. “He notices every little thing.”

        Officers also relate to his dry wit.

        One oft-repeated tale involves a body floating in the Great Miami River in 1997. A group of Butler County sheriff's deputies were waiting for Dr. Burkhardt, recalls Andy Willis, one of Dr. Burkhardt's investigators. When questioned over the radio how quickly he could get there, Dr. Burkhardt's voice broadcast this reply: “Where there's no hope, there's no hurry.”

        “The place just roared. Every deputy in the place was laughing,” Mr. Willis said.

        Although some people might misunderstand that type of humor, Col. Richard K. Jones, the sheriff's chief deputy, said it's an essential coping mechanism.

        “It's a very gruesome job he deals with every day,” Col. Jones said. “If he didn't have a sense of humor with his job, it would drive him crazy.”

Serves varied roles
        Though fascinated by death, Dr. Burkhardt relishes serving the living. He acts as lieutenant governor for the 5th Division Ohio Kiwanis, as a eucharistic minister at St. Joseph Church and, as a former family doctor, volunteered at two Hamilton health clinics for poor people until they closed last year.

        “He's a giving person. He's deeply spiritual, but he never flaunts his religion or tries to convert anybody,” said Jim Kowalski, a deacon at the church and fellow Lindenwald Kiwanian. “He demonstrates by his example what it is to be a Christian.”

        It seems he never passes up a chance to help, friends say.

        Chief Ferdelman recalls that Freddy House, a gas station attendant at Main and E streets, once mentioned he wasn't feeling well.

        “So Dr. B got his little doctor bag out of his car, pulled out his tongue depressor and went to work right there. He turned the office of the service station into an examining room,” Chief Ferdelman said.

        Sally Poynter, the coroner's longtime medical secretary, said Dr. Burkhardt's work keeps him going. He has kept at it even after repeated cardiovascular problems, including seven coronary artery bypasses.

        “One of his favorite expressions is: "Work is fun. Enjoy some often.' And whenever we're having a tough day, someone will pipe up and say that, and the mood just gets lighter,” Mrs. Poynter said.

        At the coroner's F Street office, Mrs. Poynter's desk is modern, neat and uncluttered — in contrast to her boss' desk, a big, old wooden castoff from a county judge. “He says, "Sally, don't touch my desk tonight,' and I just shudder. It's piled up with all kinds of stuff, and he leaves himself one little square in the middle,” she said.

A voracious reader
        Sitting in his burgundy leather chair, he devours mounds of material: three newspapers a day — the Wall Street Journal, The Cincinnati Enquirer and the (Hamilton) Journal-News — as well as office reports and an array of books. The works of Rudyard Kipling mingle with poems, operas and texts such as a well-worn edition of The Cyclopedia of Sudden Violent & Unexplained Death.

        “He knows so much, and he shares his knowledge,” Mrs. Poynter said. “If there's something you want to know, he does not let you leave a room until you understand.”

        He knows lots of big words, but tends to be plain-spoken — which sometimes gets him in trouble.

        Once during a murder trial, Dr. Burkhardt was being questioned about what the victim had eaten. Dr. Burkhardt listed various items, but a lawyer pressed for further details and the coroner replied: “You can only look at puke so long.”

        That remark jarred Judge Matthew Crehan, who later complained: “You said "puke' in my courtroom!”

        Dr. Burkhardt said: “Yeah, judge, but the jury understood exactly what I was talking about.”

        Still, Dr. Burkhardt knows how to be sensitive to grieving families, Mrs. Poynter said.

        “When families come in, they're all tense and nervous, but he knocks that guard down immediately,” she said. “He lets them know he's as human as they are. That's where his faith fits in: "Do unto others.'”

Toughest cases: children
        Karla Edwards, whose sister, Cheryl Ann Durkin, was slain and dismembered in 1998, recalls, “He worked with us really well. He didn't have that coldness, that I'm-too-busy-for-you attitude.”

        Dr. Burkhardt, a father of four, says the hardest cases involve children.

        Even though 2-year-old Tiffany Hubbard died nearly 14 years ago, Dr. Burkhardt still has a hard time talking about the case. His thin lips trembled and his thick fingers fidgeted as he explained how the girl died after repeated beatings.

        “I think you have to be a certain kind of personality to do this work. Somebody has to do it,” he said. “You can't let this job get to you. I like to think of it this way: "While you can't prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair.'”


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