Bettis: Experience crucial for coroner
EAGLE COUNTY — In college, Kara Bettis thought she might pursue a career in medicine. But a class speaker guided her in a different direction.
Bettis, the incumbent Eagle County coroner, recalled a class speaker one afternoon at Colorado State University who recommended that instead of medicine, she should consider a career as a forensic pathologist.
After arriving in the Vail Valley in the mid-1990s, she started work at Vail Valley Medical Center, where she met then-coroner Donna Barnes. Bettis was soon a deputy coroner.
When Barnes left office in 2002 due to term-limit laws, Bettis, a Democrat, ran for the job and was elected. This year, she faces her first contested election since then.
Bettis and a crew of six deputies investigate the cause and manner of death for people in the county. Not all deaths are investigated, though. The coroner’s office investigates accidents, suicides and other mostly unattended deaths. The coroner is also responsible for autopsies when required. Those autopsies are conducted by doctors, but the coroner is ultimately responsible.
Bettis said she’s participated in a number of autopsies over the years. Every time, the goal is the same, she said — to understand what happened.
Sometimes, the cause and manner of death is straightforward. At other times, those questions are harder to answer. And a coroner’s clients aren’t always the recently deceased. Sometimes human remains can be years old. In the case of a skeleton found at a Vail construction site over the summer, the remains can be decades departed.
“We can spend hours or days on scenes,” Bettis said. “You’ve got to learn to be quiet, to observe the clues around you.”
At times, investigation has determined that a death that first looked like homicide was actually an accident.
In most cases, a coroner’s job includes working with family members of the recently deceased. Bettis said that’s the hardest, but most satisfying, part of the job.
“It’s sudden news for many people, even when you’ve known it’s coming,” Bettis said. “Helping (survivors) understand what happened is important.”
Given the number of people who either visit or pass through the county, working with families often involves talking with people who aren’t in the state. That means helping families bring a loved one’s remains and possessions back home. In one case, Bettis said she arranged to have an accident victim’s possessions and vehicle shipped to Pennsylvania.
It’s exacting, sometimes emotional work. And that, Bettis said, is something her opponent, Sue Franciose, doesn’t understand. Franciose has said that Bettis doesn’t do enough to participate in the state’s tissue-donation program. Bettis said she’s a supporter of that program, but said arranging those donations can be difficult.
First, tissues have to be taken from a deceased person within 24 hours of death. That’s often difficult to determine, she said. Then there’s the matter of asking families for permission to allow a recently passed relative to be used for those donations.
If family permission is required for donation, Bettis said that’s often a difficult question to ask.
“People can be very upset — it’s a difficult thing to ask,” Bettis said. “We have to step lightly.”
People who hold any elected position are required to essentially re-apply for their jobs every four years. Asked what keeps her applying for her job, Bettis said helping people is the biggest thing that keeps her and her deputies doing what can be a difficult task.
With an opponent in this election, Bettis stresses her experience in the job as the reason to keep her on. Citing her relationships with local law enforcement and emergency agencies, as well as contacts made over the years at the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Bettis said those are important qualifications.
“It’s not about having a medical background, it’s about investigating deaths,” she said. “I think I do a great job.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.