When it comes to a fatal situation in which elicits first responders – law enforcement, firefighters, EMT people – some may unknowingly leave out a truly necessary profession involved with the entire group: The coroner.
When tragedy strikes, it’s up to this person to analyze the deceased in order to find out the cause of death and the manner it was carried out.
To gain more of a perspective into this otherwise unspoken world, the Rawlins Daily Times recently caught up with 51-year-old Carbon County Coroner Paul Zamora for a quick Q&A session. From his responses, the reader may agree with Zamora’s notion that “We’re always there, but we stay hidden.”
RDT: Please state your name.
Zamora: Paul Zamora.
RDT: And what do you do?
Zamora: I am the coroner of Carbon County.
RDT: How long you been coroner for?
Zamora: Officially coroner for 11 and a half years, and I was deputy corner for four years prior.
RDT: Does that technically make you a mortician?
Zamora: No. That’s a whole different practice.
RDT: As a coroner, what compelled you to get into this industry?
Zamora: Well, it was kind of an accident, actually. I worked as a medic for a while in the EMS world with the Rawlins Police Department. The coroner at that time needed some help and he said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in a part-time job?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So, I was his deputy for four years, and he goes, ‘Well, I’m not going to run anymore – why don’t you go ahead and do it.’ I ran, and I’ve been working the job ever since.
RDT: Are you a Rawlins native?
RDT: What year did you graduate high school?
RDT: So, Paul, take me along the lines of what you do as coroner for this county.
Zamora: Well, our job, statutorily, is to determine the cause and manner of death. There’s six categories that we have to investigate – accidents, suicides, homicides, juveniles, unattended deaths – that sort of thing. My main focus is the decedent, of course. There’s that cliché that everyone always hears that we speak for the dead, and that’s an honest, true to fact statement: We speak for the dead. And then our next priority is the families – making sure they get policed in the right direction, and they get taken care of, as well. So, we do a lot of that social work kind of thing.
RDT: So, if anyone dies in the Carbon County community, you’re the one who has to go transport the body?
Zamora: Pretty much. I would say that probably anywhere from 75 to 80 percent of all county deaths end up being seen by the coroner at one point. It doesn’t mean we’ll go out and do a full-out investigation on it, but it does mean we’ll be involved in some portion on it.
RDT: Typically, on average, what are leading causes of death you see?
Zamora: Actually, that’s a good question, because at one time suicide was big on our caseload. At one time, Wyoming led suicides and Carbon County led Wyoming, so we were high up on that. Fortunately, that has tapered down quite a bit. Then we saw, of course, the opioids. That was huge. I think last year, in the first six months, we had 14 opioid deaths – somewhere around there, give or take.
RDT: Pills, intravenous?
Zamora: Mostly just pills – pill form. Now we’re seeing heroin, it’s coming in. We’re seeing that, because we’re taking those opioids off; availability has gone away. Now they’re going back to the illicit type of drug. Then, of course, also being here in Carbon County, we’re at a very high altitude, and people don’t realize it because they don’t see the elevation they’re driving up. So, we get a lot of people from California, the East Coast, driving up here. One day, they’re at 1,000 feet and then now they’re up here at 7,000 feet. And you get what’s called pulmonary embolisms that way. We get quite a few of those from travelers. Most of our out-of-state deaths are from pulmonary embolisms.
RDT: Does it involve age groups, too?
Zamora: No. In fact, I asked a buddy of mine – we were serving in the military together and he lives in Boston. He came up here. I have a house in Elk Mountain, and we’re out riding around and I looked back there and he was totally zoned out, and I say, ‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ He was like, ‘uhhhh.’ He wouldn’t talk to me. I checked his oxygen level. I always keep my jump kit in my car, for the medic part of me. His oxygen level was 65 percent, which is supposed to be at least 90 at this altitude. He’s 48, 50 – around there – and it really hit him pretty hard.
RDT: Per average, how many cases do you cover as far as picking people up?
Zamora: That’s a good question, because it does vary. We see roughly 150 to 170 cases a year, and about 65 to 70 of those are the big investigations. They turn out to be full investigations.
RDT: For these bigger cases, what’s the step-by-step process?
Zamora: We get called to a scene by the local law enforcement. We work with all the city police, sheriff’s office, highway patrol, DCI… we can work with BIA sometimes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The FBI, we can work with them. We can work with the DEA, the FFA – all those big agencies. So, we’re part of that team… We get called to the scene. The body belongs to the coroner’s office. The scene belongs to the law enforcement that has that jurisdiction. We have to work together and piece the puzzle together of what’s going on. We’ll meet outside of a residence or something like that, and we’ll have a short, little meeting, and we’ll say, ‘This is what we got. How are we going to tackle this?’ We’ll come up with a game plan and we’ll work that plan. Usually, we start from the inside and work our way in incrementally, until we get to the body. And usually, by that time, everything’s been photographed. We’ll take 300 to 400 photographs on a scene.
RDT: Wow, just the coroner’s office alone?
Zamora: Oh yeah, I have 'jillions' of photos… And so, when we get to that patient, we’ll photograph him in place, we’ll photograph what evidence are around him, and I’ll take that body and put it into my custody. That now is a piece of evidence, so it gets sealed into a body bag. Depending on what we’re going to do, I’ll bring him back here into my exam room and I’ll do a full-body examination on him. Usually, we’ll take each piece of clothing off, take a picture, take a picture, take a picture… until you get down to the body. And then, we’ll take pictures of every scar, every tattoo, every piece of jewelry – everything. Then, we’ll draw blood, we’ll draw urine. We’ll test all that for drugs. I can test for 12 commonly abused drugs here and get that result back in like four minutes. I can test for alcohol and get that back in two minutes. What those will do is give me a presumptive positive... If we need to go to autopsy, we’ll take that body to Loveland, and they’ll do a complete forensic autopsy. Then, we’ll come up with a cause of death. Then, I’ll meet with other agencies and we’ll determine the manner. Hopefully, we can close that out in a timely manner, but some of these cases take months to get done.
RDT: With this whole process, what are some of the most rewarding aspects of it?
Zamora: You always hate to use the word always, but to me it’s getting to the bottom line, helping that family live through that situation. I mean, this is the most difficult thing that happens in anybody’s life, usually. Some people have never seen a death, never had a death in their family. Again, this is the worst day of their life. Sometimes, I get thank you cards, which boggle my mind… They say thank you for directing us in the right direction, being kind in a difficult time, being honest. I don’t candy coat anything – I tell you exactly what it is. My thought behind it is, you don’t need to have some kind of masking over anything… People say thank you for being honest, and that’s my motto.
RDT: Are you used to all this? Is it second nature?
Zamora: I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve developed what I think are pretty good coping mechanisms. You know, I’ve been in this field for a long time; 30 years in the medical field. I was a medic in the Army, so I’ve been around this for a long time. I don’t think you ever get used to it; each one’s different. If you have someone who died of natural causes at home versus something very traumatic… traumatic stuff – that plays on you. You never get used to that.