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The latest news from every corner of the state, including policy emerging from Missouri's capitol.

MO AG Bailey Files Criminal Charges Against Cape Girardeau Co. Coroner, Removes From Office

Cape Girardeau County Administration Building
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Cape Girardeau County Administration Building

The coroner of Cape Girardeau County — who admitted to journalists in 2021 that his office simply “doesn’t do COVID deaths” and that he didn’t personally investigate deaths himself, despite being legally required to do so — was charged Thursday with stealing from a dead person and lying on multiple death certificates.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed the charges — three felonies and a misdemeanor — along with a legal petition to remove the coroner, Wavis Jordan, from office. By late Thursday, a judge had barred Jordan from any official actions, turning his duties over to the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff.

“As Attorney General, I will always work to hold accountable those who refuse to do their job as required by Missouri statute,” Bailey said in a statement. “My heart goes out to the victims in this case, whose lives have been upended. To that end, I am moving for the immediate removal of the Cape Girardeau Coroner.”

In a brief interview, Jordan, who is Black, said the charges were unjust.

“This is a racial issue,” he said.

Jordan declined to answer additional questions.

If convicted in the criminal case, Jordan faces up to 12 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If he is removed in the quo warranto proceeding, Gov. Mike Parson would appoint a replacement until a new coroner is selected in this year’s election.

Jordan, a Republican elected in November 2020 as coroner of 80,000-person Cape Girardeau County. Previously, he worked as a school security guard, hearse driver, and funeral florist but had no prior training or experience handling the dead.

In the stealing count of the criminal case, Jordan responded to an April 2023 death. A police officer noted that the deceased person’s wallet, keys, and other items were on a shelf, only to find them missing. Jordan had them and returned the wallet without the cash.

“I did not see anything, I promise you,” Jordan told the officer, according to court filings.

The petition to remove him from office includes before and after pictures of the wallet, one with cash in it and another with no cash after being returned by Jordan.

In the other counts, filing false information to state vital records, Jordan listed a natural cause of death when investigating officers believed the cause was suicide or a drug overdose.

In one case, Jordan named the cause of death as acute cardiac arrest and acute myocardial infarction for a woman with a history of substance abuse who was found dead in her home. Investigators found a recently used syringe, pills, and new track marks on her arm.

In another, Jordan listed a “probable myocardial infarction” as the cause of death for a man found dead with a sodium nitrate solution in a nearby glass, paperwork naming an executor and whose computer showed a “guide for peaceful ways to pass on.”

Bailey’s office was named as special prosecutor in the case. The charges come after months of complaints about Jordan’s work.

State Rep. Barry Hovis, a Cape Girardeau Republican and former police lieutenant, said he considers Jordan a friend.

“I’m shocked, because No. 1, I don’t want to see any person, especially an elected official, doing things that are criminal in nature, and No. 2, not doing what I would call the proper job that they’re supposed to do,” Hovis said.

The charges follow a rising number of complaints about his work, which the Cape Girardeau County Commission considered, but ultimately rejected, replacing his office with a contracted medical examiner.

Jordan is being sued to change a death certificate where he listed the cause of death as “acute cardiac arrest,” “probable myocardial infarction” and hypertension.

The death of Karen Keene “was not natural and was not a result of acute cardiac arrest, probably myocardial infarction and hypertension,” attorney J. Patrick O’Loughlin wrote in a court filing. The case has not been disposed.

In another case, Cheryl Reinagel of Cape Girardeau complained that Jordan wanted to list diabetes as the cause of death for her brother, then refused to issue any death certificate when objections were raised.

Reinagel said she filed complaints with Bailey’s office and the Missouri Coroners & Medical Examiners Association. A death certificate filed by her brother’s pulmonologist, listing pulmonary hemorrhage, heart disease, and renal failure as the cause of death was eventually issued, she said.

“I just want to make sure that no one else has to go through and what other families had to go through,” she said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

The Cape Girardeau County Commission issued a request for proposals for the medical examiner contract but received no good responses, Associate County Commissioner Paul Koeper said

“We didn’t get any proposals,” Koeper said in an interview. “We couldn’t go out on a limb and say, ‘yeah, we’re gonna do this regardless’ when we don’t have anybody interested in doing it.”

The charges come just weeks before filing opens for state and county offices to be filled this year. Jordan was preparing to run for another term, Koeper said.

“There’s nothing to keep him from filing now,” Koeper said. “That’s between him and himself.”

The attorney general’s petition to remove Jordan from office describes him as “a failed coroner.” It goes into detail about repeated incidents where Jordan failed to investigate true causes of death, including three suspected suicides, where investigators found sodium nitrate liquid, medications, and suicide notes near the dead.

In all three cases, Jordan determined that deaths were “probable myocardial infarction – etiology unknown,” or heart attacks.

In one of the cases, Jordan allegedly told a police officer and a family member that he would officially log it as a “‘heart attack’ just for paperwork purposes” because “suicide is a sensitive subject.”

The criminal charges, removal petition, and complaints about Jordan echo the findings of a 2021 investigation by MuckRock, the Independent, and the Documenting COVID-19 Project. The investigation found that Cape Girardeau County was among the 10 counties nationwide with the greatest spike in deaths not attributed to COVID-19.

Jordan had a long-running policy of requiring families provide proof of a recent, positive PCR test of COVID-19 to his office before labeling a death COVID, which goes against guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You know, I have to go by what the family says,” Jordan said in a 2021 interview. “The family can tell me all they want that this person had COVID, but I just can’t put it on there unless I have some type of proof.”

Many likely COVID-19 deaths didn’t get counted as such. The result was a badly skewed picture of mortality in Cape Girardeau County, MuckRock, the Missouri Independent, the Documenting COVID-19 project and the USA TODAY network found for its series on death certificate inaccuracies called “Uncounted.”

The impact of Jordan’s death certificate errors is far-reaching.

Not a single person was pronounced dead of COVID-19 in Cape Girardeau County in 2021. Meanwhile, deaths at home attributed to conditions with symptoms that look a lot like COVID-19 — heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — increased dramatically.

Other Missouri counties with coroners described a very different process than the one in Cape Girardeau. Across the state in Buchanan County, a review of a patient’s medical file, or a chart review, is performed for every death. If the death is unattended – such as a death at home with no one else around – and it’s unclear why they died, the body is sent to a forensic pathologist in Kansas City for a full autopsy.

Death certificates have long been prone to error. There is a lack of training, certification, job requirements, and accreditation in many states. There is a lack of funding for rural, elected coroners for salaries and personnel, equipment, and autopsies. And there is an increasing number of cases many coroners and medical examiners see each year.

There is also a measure of clinical judgment — the idea of assigning one specific cause of death as the ultimate single reason for someone’s demise — that allows for a level of nuance and subjectivity on the part of the coroner. Up to 20 contributing causes of death can be listed on the document but there can be just one final cause.

That can lead to an all-too-common incorrect cause of “cardiac arrest” listed on death certificates, which Cape Girardeau has assigned to 35 deaths in 2020 and 2021.

As part of its “Uncounted” projects, experts described the antiquated, decentralized system of investigating and recording deaths across the U.S. Short-staffed, undertrained and overworked coroners and medical examiners took families at their word when they called to report the death of a relative at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19.

They, and even some physicians, attributed deaths to inaccurate and nonspecific causes that are meaningless to pathologists. In some cases, stringent rules for attributing a death to COVID-19 created obstacles for relatives of the deceased and contradicted CDC guidance.

These trends were clear in small cities and rural areas with less access to healthcare and fewer physicians. They’re especially pronounced in rural areas of the South and Western United States, areas that heavily voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

This story has been updated to correct which organization Reinagel submitted her complaint.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent—a news partner with KRCU Public Radio.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.
Derek Kravitz is the investigations and data editor of MuckRock, a nonprofit, collaborative news site that focuses on public records and accountability journalism. He is also working on grant-funded initiatives through Columbia and Stanford's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, including the Documenting COVID-19 project. Previously, he was the research director at ProPublica and a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post. Kravitz has been a part of three teams that have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize
Dillon Bergin is MuckRock's data reporter. He uses data and public records to power investigative reporting. Dillon was a member of the Documenting COVID-19 team, a project funded by MuckRock and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Before that, he was a Report for America Corps member with Searchlight New Mexico and a Fulbright Germany Journalism Fellow.