Coroner has learned hard lessons in Rock County politics

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, July 25, 2010
— Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach deals with death for a living, but one case sticks with her.

She was investigating the death of a young girl in 2007 after the girl’s mom found her daughter dead in bed. The mother wanted to know what had happened, but Keach couldn’t determine the cause.

“I’ll never forget looking into the eyes of that 4-year-old. They were just so clear and blue,” Keach said, wiping her tears with a napkin. “This was a 4-year-old child, and her mother had every right to an answer, and I wanted to give her one. You carry it around like baggage, the ones you can’t answer.”

Keach, 39, knew becoming coroner would involve investigating horrific death scenes and delivering bad news, but she didn’t expect the hard-knock politics of holding public office.

Keach and the coroner’s office have been the center of controversy since shortly after she took office in 2005.

She was criticized after burning drugs from death scenes in her back yard and was the target of complaints from former employees. Amid the turmoil, the county board has repeatedly considered switching from an elected coroner’s office to an appointed medical examiner.

Voters will weigh in this November.

Keach knows her job is on the line.

‘Streak of nerd’

Keach recently sat in a booth at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. She ordered orange juice, a farmer’s omelet, blueberry muffin and hash browns.

“Make them crispy,” she told the waitress.

Keach is straightforward and direct, a personality trait she admits might turn people off. Yet she smiles and laughs easily when talking about her family, hobbies and passions.

She acknowledges having a strong personality, but she is hurt by criticism and becomes emotional about deaths that have affected her.

She has developed a thick skin for political opponents, and she realizes it comes with the territory of holding a high-profile position.

The lessons she has learned in politics have caused her to be careful.

For example, she wanted to meet a Gazette reporter at Perkins instead of her office for fear of being accused of campaign violations in an election year. She makes decisions as if they could be publicized the following day.

“I really try hard to be careful about what I say and how I say it,” she said.

Keach has an offbeat sense of humor. She has been to Star Trek and comic book conventions with her husband, James. She also attends a Renaissance fair every year.

“I’ve got a big streak of nerd,” she said. “You have no idea.”

Keach loves to read fantasy and science fiction books to escape. She also likes action movies and Disney films.

She enjoys her backyard swimming pool and flower garden. She loves power tools and has completed many household projects, including building both decks at her home and renovating her bathroom.

Her family has a lake home in Siren. They enjoy fishing and riding all-terrain vehicles. Keach also attends car shows and art fairs.

“We’re not extravagant people, just average middle-class Janesville people,” she said.

‘A huge leap’

Keach was born in Mercy Hospital in Janesville, the daughter of a General Motors worker and a nurse. Her dad had been in the hospital for two years after getting shot in the Vietnam War. He survived because he played dead while under attack.

“He still has the bullet,” Keach said. “He carries it right next to his spine.”

Keach attended Monroe Elementary School, where she met her husband, who worked at GM until the plant closed.

“I knew I wanted to marry him in sixth grade,” she said. “I crushed on him really bad.”

The two dated on and off through junior high and high school. They lived together after graduating high school in 1989 and married about seven years later.

“It took me a long time to convince him,” Keach said. “He was anxious about getting married.”

Keach received an associate’s degree in nursing from Blackhawk Technical College after graduating from Craig High School.

She worked as a nurse at a summer camp, nursing home and several area hospitals until 2005, when she applied to be coroner.

She wanted to be coroner because she was seeking a new challenge and career growth. The fields of forensic nursing and death investigation intrigued her. She read books and took a class in the field.

“It was nothing like what I had ever been involved with before,” Keach said. “It just opened up a whole new avenue of things to learn. It just hooked me in. I was sold on it.”

Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Keach coroner in 2005 after two interviews with his staff members. Keach was elected in 2006.

“It was really exciting but completely nerve-wracking at the same time. It was a huge leap for me,” Keach said.

‘No time to cry’

Keach remembers the first fatal accident she responded to after becoming coroner. It involved the death of a young man on a motorcycle. His body was horribly disfigured.

“Here is this kid with massive head trauma. At first, my brain wouldn’t make sense of it,” Keach said. “When I closed my eyes in bed that night, I could see him.”

Keach also has the job of telling family members when they’ve lost loved ones. She has made hundreds of death notifications.

She has seen people faint, become violent and have seizures upon hearing the news. All she can do is offer a tissue, a shoulder to cry on and time to listen.

“You just know that you’re hurting somebody and changing their lives just by passing on that information,” Keach said. “I can’t tell you how many times a person has been on the phone with their kid and said, ‘Your dad’s dead. Here, talk to the coroner.’”

The job can become psychologically stressful, she said. Many people in her profession suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or alcoholism. Keach’s husband helps her cope.

“There is no time for breaking down on the scene, no time to cry,” she said. “The thought is there … but you have to be objective.”

'School of hard knocks’

Keach has learned lessons about holding public office that she described as the “school of hard knocks.”

She was criticized for burning prescription drugs confiscated from death scenes in her backyard after taking office. She now disposes of medications through drug roundups.

Employee complaints filed against Keach became public in January. They alleged sexual discrimination, a hostile work environment and inappropriate behavior.

Former Chief Deputy Coroner Christine Hawley filed one of the complaints in October 2009. Keach described Hawley as a friend.

“That really hurt me on a personal level,” she said. “I thought it was a real friendship and a real, honest, professional relationship. It really damaged my ability to trust and open up.”

Keach denied the accusations in the complaints, but she spent months soul searching after they were made, she said.

“Could this be true?” she said she asked herself. “Could I be this really terrible person without being aware of it?”

Chief Deputy Coroner Lou Smit was hired in February. He said Keach is not the person described in the complaints.

“All that nonsense that I’ve read, I just don’t see any evidence of it,” Smit said. “That is not the person I have become aware of.”

Smit said Keach is blunt, tells him what she wants and expects it to get done. He said Keach also is friendly, easy to work with and accommodating of her employees.

“We work very well together. We have a very collaborative relationship,” Smit said.

Keach said she has moved on from the controversy. She believes some people prefer to blame their boss or others for their problems.

“It was embarrassing for the publicity part of it,” Keach said. “It was painful.”

‘A political circus’

County board members considered switching to an appointed medical examiner’s office after complaints against Keach became public. Keach said she has political opposition on the board.

Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni is an outspoken critic of an elected coroner’s office.

Podzilni said the county should set the qualifications for an appointed medical examiner and hire someone. He said the position would then be treated like other county department heads.

“Right now, your 18-year-old paperboy could be elected coroner,” Podzilni said. “It doesn’t make sense to have the office be a political circus, and believe me, it’s been a political circus.”

Rock County voters will decide in a November referendum whether they want to continue electing a coroner or have the county appoint a medical examiner. If voters say they’d prefer a medical examiner, the change would not happen until 2014 because Keach or her opponent will be elected to a four-year term.

The county board wouldn’t have to follow the referendum’s outcome because it will be advisory and not binding.

“My basic issue with the medical examiner idea is the autonomy of the investigative process,” Keach said. “There is the potential that I could lose my job or be politically pressured to do something as simple as determining the cause of the death. The board has the power and authority to pressure an appointed position.”

She said she would support a medical examiner system if it improved the office, but she can’t support a change without knowing more about the cost, staffing or benefits of a new system.

“If they want to see some changes in the office, if they want to go forward with this medical examiner thing, regardless of the referendum, I just want to see that it’s done right,” Keach said. “The bottom line is that I want what’s best for the office and cost effective for the taxpayers.”

Keach said she couldn’t explain why she is a target.

Maybe it’s because she’s a Democrat.

Maybe it’s because she’s a woman with a backbone.

Maybe it’s because people are resistant to changes she has made.

Maybe it’s because of her no-nonsense communication style.

“I believe in being held accountable for my actions,” Keach said. “I don’t like getting beat up for them, but being held accountable is fine.”

‘I’d like to stick around’

Keach is facing Terry L. Holder of Milton in the Democratic primary Sept. 14. She has challenged Holder’s nomination papers. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Keach said she expects her challenger to point out the issues surrounding her office, but she wants to move forward.

Her dream is to get the coroner’s office its own building with a morgue, storage cooler, autopsy room, forensic center, labs and other modern amenities.

She said she isn’t shooting for a “Star Trek” or “CSI: Miami” facility, but she wants to be on par with Dane or Milwaukee counties.

Until then, she’ll continue doing her job.

“I do love it. I love a lot of different things about it, which is kind of weird to say considering the nature of my job. I like the challenge,” Keach said. “I’d like to stick around for as long as I’m useful and making a difference and the public wants me.”

Challenger: 'Rock County deserves better'

The Milton woman challenging Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach in September's primary election said she would work for the public and bring professionalism to the office.

"Rock County deserves better, and I feel I am that person," Terry L. Holder said. "I want to be coroner because I want to be able to serve the families and the community."

Holder is challenging Keach of Janesville in the Democratic primary Sept. 14. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Holder said she has worked as an autopsy assistant and phlebotomist at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison for seven years.

She said she is qualified to be coroner because she assists with forensic autopsies, evidence collection and blood collection for toxicology and DNA tests.

She said she also works with crime labs, law enforcement and coroners in several counties.

"Anything that we do is just as pertinent to a case as the coroner or law enforcement," Holder said. "We are the second pair of eyes with that pathologist when we're doing an external and internal exam.

"It's all part of a team-playing effort. It takes more than one person to solve a case. We all have to work together."

Holder said she wants to help families learn the cause of death of their loved ones.

"They want to know what happened," she said. "They have a right to know."

If elected, Holder said she would bring compassion, integrity and professionalism to the office after years of controversy. She said the office has been involved in too much mudslinging and politics.

"I bring a lot of positive attitude with me, and I'm a great team player," she said. "Right now, there are a lot of bad allegations."

Keach was appointed coroner in 2005. She was elected to the position in 2006.

Rock County voters also will decide in a November referendum whether they want to continue electing a coroner or have the county appoint a medical examiner. The referendum is advisory.

Any change would not be effective until 2014 because Keach or Holder will be elected to a four-year term.

Last updated: 2:17 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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