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Telling stories of the dead: Medical examiner is passionate about unusual job

Families seek understanding in death of loved ones

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

Any death that is sudden and unexpected requires an autopsy from his office. They range from violent deaths and suicides to unattended or suspicious deaths, as well as those caused by poisoning or drug overdose or disease that could constitute a public health threat. They perform autopsies on those who die while in state custody and in suspected cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They also examine all work-related deaths.

Last year, the state medical examiner's office completed more than 2,400 autopsies and exams. There is only a small percentage of cases, 3 percent to 5 percent, in which they can't determine both the cause and manner of death. And it has revealed another troubling trend:

The deaths they see with nearly daily frequency are suicides.

"If you don't look at the problem, you're not going to fix it," he said. "There's the argument that if we highlight them, more people will think, 'There's an idea, there's a solution.' But on the flip side, if you don't know how common it is, people aren't going to recognize the threat that it poses and that they need to do something if the person they love or know is getting to the point of considering that."

It's rare for his office to go a day without a suicide case. "I've had days where I've had five deaths downstairs and all of them were suicides," he said.

Those who have worked with Grey credit him for his professionalism, willingness to help and sense of humor.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed has worked with Grey as both a prosecutor and on the Utah Controlled Substances Advisory Committee. He said Grey has handled staffing challenges and statewide responsibility of his office with aplomb.

"He is a great guy, understated and wry and so bright," Reed said of Grey. "Just a really intelligent guy who is so down to earth. That, to me, is kind of a rare combination."

Robert Stott, who has been with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said Grey is among the best, if not the best, chief medical examiners he's seen.

"He's not only knowledgable and professional, you can talk to him," Stott said. "He'll meet with you any time and talk to you about a case, whether you're a prosecutor or defense attorney. He's always wiling to talk to you about the case."

He said Grey will do additional research when unusual circumstances arise, teach classes to attorneys and testify honestly. He said Grey's decision to stay in Utah has helped him gain a good reputation and rapport with those with whom he works.

"He's tested the time and the time has tested him," Stott said. "I don't know of a single person in the legal system who doesn't have a good opinion of him."

The morgue

The first floor of medical examiner's office, adjacent to the Utah Department of Health, appears standard and innocuous. Just downstairs, however, is where they store, examine and receive bodies, keep tissue samples, allow for tissue harvesting and study biopsies under microscopes.

"If a body is here by 3 p.m. and we have the information we need, most commonly just the investigator's report, it will almost always be done that day," Grey said. "On weekends, it's dropped back to noon. If the body comes in after noon, it will be done the next day. We work seven days a week, 365 days a year."

Each doctor is assigned a day to conduct exams. Three exams is considered a light day, while anything over eight means they will call in another doctor to help. Grey said he doesn't keep certain cases for himself; whichever doctor winds up with a case is "pure luck of the draw."

"Obviously, if it's a high-profile case, I'll provide backup and discussion with whoever is handling that case," Grey said. "But if I hired them, I think they're good enough to do the job, so I'm certainly not going to step in and say, 'I'll do this one.' It's not fair. They need to have the experience of being on those high profile cases and dealing with those kinds of pressures that go along with those."

It is a job that Grey continues to be passionate about. He likes its fast pace, the detective work involved, and that it's never predictable.

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