Longtime resident Regan Wood announces bid for Summit County Coroner | SummitDaily.com

Longtime resident Regan Wood announces bid for Summit County Coroner

Longtime Summit County resident Regan Wood last week officially announced her intent to run for Summit County Coroner on the Republican ticket. Wood has spent the majority of her career working directly with residents and visitors in Summit County, providing services and compassion to those in need. She began her journey in 1993 as a volunteer with the Advocates for Victims of Assault Inc., later working her way up to executive director. When Wood left Advocates in 2005, she was approached by then-coroner Joanne Richardson to become a deputy coroner. Wood said she thinks Richardson noticed and admired the ease and confidence she displayed on death scenes as an advocate and encouraged her to pursue a position with her office. After much soul-searching and research, Wood decided to accept Richardson's offer. Following a year of tutelage under Richardson and completing medico-legal death investigation training through the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Wood became deputized as a death investigator in Summit County. Since that time, Wood said she has made it a priority to educate herself about the numerous situations and scenes coroners can expect. In 2010, she became a certified EMT-Basic through Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. Wood also engages in ongoing education courses throughout the state and currently interns two days per week at the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner, as a death investigator, while maintaining her position as chief deputy coroner in Summit County. "The sheer volume and exposure to the myriad of death scenes is giving me the best hands-on experience I could hope for," Wood said. "The experience leads me to feel confident in my decision to run for to the Summit County Coroner." Wood recently received death investigator certification from the Colorado Coroner's Association and launched this year a citizen's coroner academy. The academy attracted 18 participants for what Wood initially thought would be a 15-person class. "I am amazed by the high caliber and quality of people," Wood said. "One of the participants commented about her excitement when she saw the announcement and felt welcomed by there being so many other people who had a similar interest in death investigations." When not performing her deputy coroner duties, Wood can often be found hiking the trails throughout the county with her dog, Buddy, or skiing local mountains with her 12-year-old daughter, Kaci. Wood is currently running unopposed.

Summit County stages mass casualty response training

Last week, several coroners in training and a number of emergency responders descended on a mock mass casualty scene in Summit County. Although the seven-car pile up was simulated and the five reported fatalities were simply dummies, the exercise provided a valuable learning experience for the 18 participants of the Summit County Coroner's Office citizen's academy, explained Summit County Coroner Dr. Tim Keeling. "It was a fabulous drill and I've been pleasantly surprised by the community's interest in this new program," he said. "There is a high caliber of participants and I was impressed that they expressed so much interest in being apart of this countywide safety exercise." The drill was organized by deputy coroner Regan Wood and held last week in conjunction with the countywide wildfire preparedness exercise. Their portion of the drill began by deploying coroner academy participants to the High County Training Center, where they waited for a page from the Summit County Communications Center about the simulated crash, which was staged at Colorado Mountain College's Breckenridge Campus. While waiting for that page, students learned how to set up a grid search for multiple victims and personal items, which were going to be strewn about at the scene. When the first page came in at 12:35 p.m., the class and staff responded to the CMC campus and learned about on scene investigation and removal. The coroner's office received a simultaneous page to respond to Summit Medical Center about the mock crash, where coroner academy students learned about how doctors and nurses prepare to treat multiple victims in a mass casualty scenario. While at the hospital, students viewed the morgue before returning to the High County Training Center for a toxicology and fingerprinting lesson. They then documented and photographed all items removed from the scene and took steps to positively identify the victims. Wood said her students reported learning valuable skills during the exercise, but admitted it also was beneficial for the coroner's office staff to go through the motions. "Initially, it really was about expanding on the things the participants have already learned in the classroom and sharpening them in a real-world scenario," Wood said. "Having gone through those steps with them, the office certainly feels better prepared to handle any mass casualty incidences that may occur." Wood's boss echoed similar comments, but said his deputy coroner deserved all of the credit for taking the initiative to organize the drill. "It really was Regan's show," Keeling said. "She not only was the driving force behind starting the academy, but also coordinating with the county to provide the participants with this real world experience."

Summit County Coroner’s Office announces first citizen’s academy

The Summit County Office of the Coroner announced Monday, March 24 it is accepting applications for the first Summit County Citizens Coroner Academy. The academy is free, but space is limited to the first 15 interested Summit County participants, said Summit County chief deputy coroner Regan Wood, who landed grant funding to host the academy. Wood attended citizen police and fire academies in the past and said she's been interested for a long time in hosting a similar event for local residents to teach them daily operations at the coroner's office. "I think it's a topic people are interested in, especially with all of the crime scene investigation shows on T.V.," Wood said. "Real life crime scene investigations aren't that glamorous, but it's a job I'm passionate about and I think there's enough public interest to give this a shot." The academy is slated to run the month of May, with training sessions scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays at the High Country Training Center, 225 Summit County Road 1003 in Frisco. The first session begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 1. The academy was formed as an educational and informational venture to provide a broad view of the many and varied duties of the coroner's office. The course will cover a range of topics including death investigation techniques, determining cause and manner of death, notification of next of kin and working with and providing resources for the family, friends and survivors of expected and unexpected death in the community. Among the instructors participating in the academy are personnel from local cooperating agencies, including backcountry coroner deputies, representatives from Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault and a local chaplain who will share his techniques for helping grieving families of victims of a crime or disaster, to name a few, Wood said. The academy also will feature a tour of the Summit County Communications Center, before it is capped off with participants joining local law enforcement and public safety agencies for the Summit County Mass Disaster Exercise. The coroner's office will have a mobile crime lab stationed at the exercise, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 31, where academy participants will learn how to properly identify mock victims through DNA and finger printing, Wood said. For more information, email Wood at ReganW@co.summit.co.us. Applications will be emailed to interested participants. The academy will be capped at 15 people.

Coroner ID’s victim in Interstate 70 vehicle-on-person collision

The person who died after being struck by a SUV on Interstate 70 west of Glenwood Springs Thursday night has been identified. Donald Salisbury, a 68-year-old resident of Streator, Illinois, was attempting to alert westbound motorists after the vehicle he was traveling in hit an elk and became disabled, according to Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire. Salisbury was traveling with other family members when the vehicle hit the animal near mile marker 113 around 10:36 p.m. There were no initial problems other than the vehicle was blocking the left lane around a curve, according to trooper Josh Lewis, public information officer with Colorado State Patrol. Salisbury then exited the vehicle in an attempt to alert oncoming motorists when he was hit by another vehicle, witnesses told the coroner. Lewis said the other vehicle was a 2001 Chevy SUV. The case is still under investigation, but there are no initial indications that the driver was at fault, Lewis said, adding that no arrests were made and he was unaware of any charges filed in the incident. Salisbury was pronounced dead by an emergency department physician at Valley View Hospital. An autopsy is scheduled for later today and the results will likely confirm the cause of death as blunt force trauma and the manner of death as an accident, the coroner said. The coroner's office did not have additional information on the other occupants in either vehicle.

Summit County coroner Regan Wood loves her job, and the personal connections that come with it

“I love death. I find it fascinating — all aspects.” Regan Wood says this with a smile, leaning back in her chair. Wood has been a deputy coroner for six years, and will be sworn in as the Summit County coroner on Jan. 14, 2015. Her short blond hair, bright purple sweater and friendly, open expression belie the popular image pushed by Hollywood of a grim, sallow-faced person who prefers the silence of the dead to the company of the living. The same goes for her office, on the second floor of the building next door to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. The yellow walls are hung with photographs of wildlife, and two large windows offer a stunning view of mountain peaks. A few extra touches include a plastic skeleton propped up on top of a file cabinet, and a sugar skull drawing brought back from a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Wood is always happy to talk about her job, though she knows some people prefer to steer around subjects like death and dead bodies. When she talks, her passion for her work shines through, whether she's discussing the varied aspects of her responsibilities, what she learned on her latest stint with the Denver coroner or her plans for yet another certificate or accreditation. LANDING IN SUMMIT Wood didn't always intend to work in the coroner business. She holds a history degree from San Diego State University, and a paralegal certification from the University of San Diego. Calling her from the beach were the snowy slopes of Tahoe, where she'd often pick up a job during the winter break. An avid skier, she had friends who lived around the country, including Colorado. A trip to visit them convinced her that Summit County was the place to be, and she moved here in 1992. As most do when they first arrive in the High Country, Wood started out selling lift tickets at Copper Mountain Resort. She also began volunteering with the Advocates for Victims of Assault (AVA), a local nonprofit. Though she took on a handful of different jobs, Wood maintained her connection to AVA, eventually working her way up to executive director, a position she held for nine years. In 2005 she decided to step down, and it was at her leaving party that she was approached by Joanne Richardson, the county coroner at the time, with an offer to become a deputy coroner. TAKING ON THE ROLE Wood was not unfamiliar with the type of work a coroner does. As an AVA volunteer, she had often gone on-scene, responding to traumatic incidents of assault and death, so she had experience dealing with people in shock, be they victims, family members or friends. "Usually when there's a traumatic death, there's a lot of emotion and shock, and people are confused and need resources," Wood said. She and other volunteers would be on hand to help with whatever was needed, from calming people down to following up with them later to see how they could help — things that Wood still does today. When she took on the role of deputy coroner, Wood took a weeklong medicolegal death investigation training course at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Since then, she hasn't stopped. She's continually doing internships, riding along on calls with the coroner in Denver, taking certification courses and so on. Last December, she received her American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators certification, and last summer was elected to the Colorado Coroner's Association Board. "When it comes down to it, she has a passion for being coroner, for this office," said Tim Keeling. Keeling has been the county coroner since 2012. "She just wants to be the best coroner in the state, and I think she can be." THE NEXT BIG STEP Earlier this year, Wood announced her bid for coroner. Although she had no opponents to challenge her, she admits she was nervous. "I was really excited I was running unopposed," Wood said. "I don't know if I could have stood the stress. I'm not a real political person; I'm here for the job. I'm qualified, I'm here, I'm on it. It's still a weird process, though." She got through it, and will officially take on the role in January. "I felt very blessed and fortunate," she said. THE HUMAN ASPECT Death was never something that fazed Wood. She grew up reading Nancy Drew, then moved on to crime novels. She also enjoys watching episodes of investigative shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI." "It's not all fallacy and fantasy; there are some parts of it that are true," she said of the popular TV shows. "I think a lot of people that do this work like to watch it, just for entertainment value." While she enjoys the investigation aspect of her job, her favorite part, she said, is the human interaction. "(It's) meeting the people and the families, … taking a minute to try and empathize with what they're going through and how can I be of help, and what would I need in situation like this," she said. Wood has seen the full range of human emotion when it comes to death, and does her best to assess each situation and react accordingly. She also makes a point to follow up with families afterward, offering assistance with paperwork or connection with other services available. Recently, for example, someone needed a certain document, and Wood offered to drop it by the person's house. Wood prides herself on her connection with the community. "I like the fact that I've been here for 22 years. I've worked in human services for the whole time," she said. "I try to stay very involved in my community." She notices a big difference between working in Summit County (which in 2013 had 76 total recorded deaths) and Denver, where nearly every day the coroner's office deals with multiple bodies. Wood estimates that she has a personal connection to about every third death she encounters in Summit. "I'm much more attached and I feel I put myself out there more," she said. "In the city, you just can't. The numbers are so big and everyone's so anonymous." Respect for the dead is an important part of Wood's attitude, even when she's working with the Denver office and doesn't know the victim. "This was somebody's loved one," she said. "It's not an anonymous, not-mattering person. They definitely have stories. I like to get the back stories before I go in," she said, by reading the case reports. SUPPORT The human connection also includes her team, her friends and her family outside her job, who lend emotional support when needed. And living in a beautiful area helps too. "Nature's my religion," she said. "If I have an upsetting case, I'll go for a long walk and have a good cry." She likes the Rainbow Lake hiking trail in Frisco, and said she thinks of the families of the dead while she walks, and makes mental notes to check in with them when she returns. "We're a team," Keeling said of the coroner's office. "We're in this for the families, and that's why we do this job." Overall, Wood said she loves her job and is looking forward to officially taking on the role in January. "I've been working for this for a long time, so I'm very proud, I'm excited, I'm ready." She added, "I take pride in being an approachable, empathetic coroner. I care about these people, and I've suffered enough loss in my life that I know what it is."

In Summit County, a rising death rate doesn’t come cheap

It isn't a milestone to celebrate, and the subject itself might make many of us uncomfortable, but the fact remains — it's been a banner year for death in Summit County. Between several drug overdoses in the community, a rise in suicides as well as increases in the loss of life in 2015 due to various causes, Summit County has experienced a record number of deaths this year. That total has now ticked up to 84 — and counting — just as the end-of-the-year holidays arrive. "There's been a lot of weird deaths this year," said Summit County coroner Regan Wood. "It's getting busier and busier, between pot, jobs and the economy. We're seeing it everywhere." If anyone should know, it's Wood. She has lived in the county since 1992 and spent 12 years working in the coroner's office, first as a deputy corner, then as chief deputy and now finally as the head of the office as of the start of this year. As more and more people try to make Summit their seasonal or permanent home or their go-to vacation destination, increased death counts are a natural result. That requires extra resources. "More deaths means more times the coroner has to be out there," explained Marty Ferris, the county's finance director. "Unfortunately, it's been record year for deaths in the county." Between the escalating calls, heightened use of supplies and storage facilities and expanded requests for autopsies, the cost has taken its toll on the coroner's budget. Therefore, the office charged with tending to every death in the county has petitioned the county for further funding in the approaching year. That sum will swell to $184,000 from the county, $37,000 above 2015. "Death is not cheap," said Wood, "as we're finding out this year." Reaching eternal rest As residents are fully aware, Christmas and New Year's draw an inflated number of visitors to Summit County. Many estimates suggest the regular year-round population temporarily balloons to as many as 150,000 at the tail end of December. March's spring break and Fourth of July weekend also garner a significant influx of vacationers. "The economy is better, so there's more travelers and quite a few out-of-town deaths," said Wood, seated at the desk of her second-floor office, before adding, "We're due for our first skier fatality." In need of supplementary reserves to contend with the increased death toll, she wrote a grant proposal to The Summit Foundation and was fully funded with $11,825. Of that total, $5,000 is being put into a burial relief fund for local families. A maximum of $500 will be given to each resident who cannot afford the total cost of a funeral. Of the approximately $25,000 from the county's general fund designated for the coroner's office, $15,000 of that goes toward Wood's part-time deputy coroner, Mark Juisto. Since joining the office in spring 2013 after coming through a Citizens Coroner Academy, Juisto has worked for Wood 18 hours a week. The climbing number of deaths has required more on-call hours, up to 25 hours per week, elevating him to a position with benefits after 20 hours. Aside from general calls for body removals, Juisto, who plows snow on the side, assists with administrative duties and trainings. The latter includes helping the sheriff's office, which recently hired an evidence technician. ON CALL A surprise call suddenly comes into Wood. A nonagenarian at the local hospice has just passed away. Wood makes a few more calls and coordinates the pickup. She hangs up the phone and breaks out a yellow notebook — her log of death statistics — to jot down the unanticipated information. "I'm old school," she says of the paper record. "She's number 85. Now I need a new page, jeez." She takes out a pencil and a ruler to start tracing new lines in that of a hand-drawn spreadsheet. The additional cash flow from the county also allows the coroner's office to take over local grief counseling needs. The Advocates for Victims of Assault in Summit County, a nonprofit organization for which Wood is formerly the executive director, previously covered this service. But with more deaths, the nonprofit — also offering a 24-hour crisis line, an emergency safe house and legal advocacy — could no longer keep up with the time, energy and costs of this assistance. In turn, Wood has taken over this county service, offering the program to both locals and out-of-towners alike. The coroner has already trained five for the role, with another three in the pipeline. Each will make just $12.50 for a 12-hour on-call shift, then transitioning to $12.50 per hour on-scene, which normally averages between three-to-six hours, after a call. "It's not something you do for the money," said Wood of those providing the updated counseling program, 24/7, 365 days a year starting Jan. 1. "But the more hands — another set of eyes — the better. It's the worst day your life, so how can we help?" looming costs Autopsies are another pricey service provided by the coroner. Of the 84 deaths in the county so far, 27 have called for an autopsy. That's compared to 60 deaths in 2014 with 14 autopsies and a then-record 76 deaths in 2013 where 16 were autopsied. Most autopsies in the county are sent down to Jefferson County, where a certified forensic pathologist performs the procedure in Golden with Wood and/or Juisto attending. Standard cost, which the county shoulders, is $1,315, plus $150 if a basic drug panel to discover drugs of abuse is desired. If a comprehensive panel is then needed to determine the cause of death, it's an additional $250, with further special testing requiring even more money. To offset other costs, the coroner's office has also been soliciting donations, including three body bags retailing at $60 each provided by the sheriff's office. The Summit County Ambulance Service also recently refurbished its vehicles and donated an automatic powered gurney to the coroner. "That's huge for us," said Wood of the upgrade over the rickety mortuary cot they were taking in and of the Ford F-150 with a topper used as the office's transport vehicle. Earlier this year, the county had three deaths in 24 hours, which pushed the removal truck and storage space to capacity. Although just once in Wood's 12-year tenure did they need another vehicle while the other was being used — the office borrowed a county van and detached the seats to fit a body, having it cleaned before it was returned — there is presently no backup plan. So Wood said she'd hope to add a second truck in a year on the 2017 budget, "so we don't have to play vehicle shuffle." New storage will also be necessary not too far down the road, especially if this upward trend in local deaths continues. The office's current space at the medical center only has two drawers for housing the deceased and dates back to 1987. It cost $1,200 this year to get it fixed because it had started to build up ice that kept getting the body bags wet. In the interim, that should work. But unless another option is located — and a year-old funeral home in Silverthorne may provide it — two additional drawers on a brand-new cooler with a price tag between $30,000 and $35,000 will be necessary in the next year or two. That doesn't at all take into mind the still increasing number of deaths in the county. "I'm sure we'll see more (this year) at this rate," said Wood, still penciling the details of No. 85 in 2015 into her book of death. "It's been a busy year, so next year should drop off. It tends to ebb and flow, but I don't know. It's concerning. "The voters of Summit County can rest assured the coroner is earning her keep," she continued. "I'd better order another case of body bags."

Dillon police, Summit County coroner await autopsy results of Keystone man found dead on Tuesday

At 10:15 a.m. Tuesday officials with the Summit County Coroner's Office responded to the death of a 30-year-old man. The decedent, identified as Stephen Mahlstedt of Keystone, was discovered in a town of Dillon residence, said Regan Wood, Summit County's chief deputy coroner. Next of kin has been notified. Coroner's office staff are conducting an autopsy today to determine cause of death. Further details will be released pending the results of that autopsy, Wood said. The Dillon Police Department also is conducting its own investigation. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Summit County Coroner responds to death of 22-year-old Taylor Troutman

The Summit County Coroner's Office reported Sunday, May 4, it responded to the death of Taylor Troutman who resided at Ptarmigan Mountain near Silverthorne. Troutman, 22, grew up in Summit County and graduated from Summit High School, said deputy coroner Regan Wood on Monday, May 5. He recently moved back to the area and was living with his father, Bob Troutman. Troutman and his father spoke to each other around midnight Sunday, Wood said. The 22-year-old died in his sleep sometime between midnight and 9 a.m., when his body was discovered by his father. Wood is transporting Troutman's body Tuesday, May 6, to Jefferson County for an autopsy with forensic pathologist Dr. Ben Galloway. Wood estimates a preliminary cause of death report will be available by about noon.

Body found by hikers near Interstate 70 in Summit County ruled a suicide

The body of a woman found by hikers near Interstate 70 mile marker 195 on the afternoon of July 1 has been identified by the Summit County Coroner and ruled a suicide. The woman, whose name Coroner Regan Wood requested the Summit Daily withhold out of respect for the family, was a 61-year-old resident of Sheridan, Colorado. The cause of death was ruled a gunshot wound to the chest. The woman was the third person to die of suicide in Summit County this year, along with a local resident and a second homeowner whose primary residence was on the Front Range, according to the coroner’s office. In 2016, three of the 13 total suicides were not Summit County residents.

Whiteout, Part 2: The anatomy of a Colorado ski death

Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here for part 1.  Click here for part 3.  Click here for full series. Kristine Gustafson wakes up each morning with the same thought: What really happened on Jan. 12, 2017? Late in the afternoon on a chilly but clear powder day, the Centennial resident, her close friend Sean Haberthier and three other skiers were standing at the top of Breckenridge Ski Resort's Peak 8 Contest Bowl. They stopped to take a break and appreciate the near-perfect conditions they had marked with fresh tracks the whole day. They all agreed to meet at the bottom of the E Chair before a final run to the base. Always the first one down, Haberthier was a conspicuous no-show, an instant red flag to the group. Calls to his cellphone went unanswered, and his friends began to worry. SPECIAL PRESENTATION: Click image below for an immersive story presentation. Or continue the story below. The 47-year-old lived to ski, for years making the 5 a.m. drive up to Summit or Vail from Denver most days during the winter to pursue his passion. It was not out of the ordinary for Haberthier to eclipse well over 100 days each season. "You had to pry him away from it," said Gustafson. "He approached it almost like a job and never missed a powder day. He'd bring his lunch with him and would get antsy if anyone he was with even had to go to the bathroom because he wanted to get every single moment in on the day." When Haberthier collided with a tree on the Lower Boneyard run that Thursday, he became the third skier to die at a resort in Colorado this season — No. 127 overall since the 2006-07 season. To his friends, though, he wasn't yet a statistic when they alerted ski patrol of his disappearance that evening. Final evening sweeps of the mountain found nothing, and officials from the resort and the sheriff's office suggested he might have headed into town to join the annual Ullr Fest revelry. Haberthier's friends braced for bad news. Sixteen hours passed in the frigid cold before a search party finally found Haberthier's remains the next morning in a tucked-away stand of lodgepole pines. A 4-inch gash ran across the back of his head, which the coroner would later assign as the cause of death, despite his friends still having questions. "It's been hard on all of us," said Gustafson. "I just can't explain the feeling of him being there one second, and then us standing at the bottom waiting, with my gut telling me to go back up and look. They tell me he died on impact, but what if he didn't? What if he was just unconscious and something could have been done? The thought of him being out there all night by himself, it's shattered me." FRONT LINES At least 137 people have died skiing at Colorado resorts since the 2006-07 season. More than 40 percent of those deaths occurred at one of Summit County's four ski areas, among the most heavily trafficked winter sports destinations in the nation. Over the past 10 years, Summit County has seen 58 ski-related fatalities — far more than any other county in the state. So far this season, Colorado has recorded 13 ski deaths. Five of them, including Sean Haberthier, happened at Breckenridge Ski Resort, one of North America's most popular ski areas. By volume, Summit County's Regan Wood is one of the busiest coroners in the state, if not the country, when it comes to ski death investigations. She's on the front lines of every fatality in the county, observing firsthand the trends behind the tragedies — the overdoses, the suicides, the altitude-related heart attacks. However, Wood holds an elected position that largely flies under the public's radar. In Colorado, coroners are not required to have a medical background. The only qualifications for making a run at the office are a high school diploma, a clean criminal record and one year of residency in the county. It would seem that politics has little to do with investigating deaths. And, for the most part, that rings true for Wood. "I'm the least political elected official you'll ever meet," she said. "I do not like politics, I like death investigation. My passion lies with my families. Politics is a sideline of the job." Not unlike other mountain town residents, Wood has worn many hats since she moved to Summit County 25 years ago to ski. She slung lift tickets at Copper Mountain Resort; volunteered for the Advocates for Victims of Assault, a group she eventually ran; and, in 2008, started on a new career path as a deputy coroner. Coroners and their deputies are charged with determining the cause and manner of death. They do this by reading the signs on the body, studying the environment where the deceased met his or her end, obtaining toxicology tests, taking scans, securing medical records and interviewing family members. Often, the coroner calls for an autopsy, a procedure conducted by a medically trained pathologist. It is the gold standard for death investigations, according to experts. It's a job for someone with a strong stomach, and Wood dove into it headfirst. The position became her life's calling. Although state law requires only minimal training, Wood binged on internships, courses and certifications. Eventually, when her mentor left office, she put her name in the hat to take his place. Running unopposed as a Republican, she took the oath of office in January 2015. Still a devout skier, she prides herself on getting out on the mountain at least three times a week. But, given a swelling county population and increasing popularity of Summit's resorts, there's been a rising tide of ski fatalities, and Wood has had to make even more trips to the resorts each winter. Wood is confident that she investigates each case thoroughly. However, of the 58 ski-related fatalities recorded in Summit County over the past 10 years, only five autopsies have been performed. That's a stark contrast to coroners in most other counties with ski areas. And in deaths where an autopsy was not called, Colorado's open records law significantly narrows the amount of available public information. 'A LONE RANGER' By the time Sean Haberthier was found at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 13, his body was so hardened from the overnight freeze that he'd have to thaw out so a physical exam could be completed. For a skier or snowboarder at a resort to have a serious accident and not be immediately attended to is abnormal. In a typical case, ski patrollers, certified in emergency medical care, are alerted, arrive quickly and attempt to save the person's life. When Wood responds to the scene of a fatality, she tries to understand the circumstances of the death by interviewing witnesses. For Haberthier's accident, there were none. After concluding the manner of death as accidental, the body is moved to the morgue and a series of tests, including X-rays and CT scans, is conducted. In this case, each assisted with understanding just how serious a blow to the head Haberthier suffered when he slammed into a tree. To help determine someone's cause of death, the county coroner has at her disposal forensic pathologists to perform autopsies. From board-certified medical examiners to researchers for the National Institutes of Health, the postmortem exam is considered a hallmark of diagnosis. It is used to definitively come to scientific conclusions by closely analyzing a decedent's body and internal organs. However, state statute grants considerable freedom to coroners for whether to call for the procedure. According to National Association of Medical Examiners standards, autopsies are required in particular types of deaths, including car crashes, aircraft accidents, drownings, electrocutions and fatalities associated with police activity. Ski accidents don't make the cut, but many coroner's offices still order autopsies in those cases. "They should all undergo an autopsy with rare exception," Dr. Jim Caruso, Denver County coroner, said of ski deaths. "Most accidental deaths of any sort should be autopsied." Caruso is an uncommon breed in Colorado. He is the only coroner required to be a forensic pathologist. Denver, along with Pitkin and Weld, are Colorado's only three counties to do away with the elected system for coroner in favor of appointing an individual with an established medical background. "I wouldn't have taken the job otherwise," said Caruso, adding that because he's neither elected nor deals in politics, "I have no reason to make decisions based on non-medical factors." Meanwhile, in the state's other counties with ski resorts, the data shows an autopsy is conducted on those who died in a ski-related accident between 70 percent and 100 percent of the time. But taking a page out of the book of her two predecessors, Wood calls autopsies on a very small number of ski deaths. Instead she relies heavily on her instincts and instruction as a certified death investigator, rather than conforming to the norms followed by the majority of her peers across the state. "I feel we do a good job investigating accidental deaths and doing a comprehensive investigation, taking it all in and asking all the questions," said Wood. "We're not here to do autopsies for medical curiosity." For many of the state's coroners, though, the autopsy isn't about intrigue. It's about ensuring a higher level of certainty. "Even though a death may look obvious due to trauma, I always want to know if that may have been induced by outside influences," said Emil Santos, coroner of San Miguel County where Telluride Ski Resort resides. "We almost always find something that could be considered a contributing factor in someone's death. (We) don't want any surprises." Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg, a 15-year vet of the area Steamboat Ski Resort calls home, agreed. He cited the example of a 40-year-old San Antonio woman who plummeted 25 feet to her death from a chairlift in December at Ski Granby Ranch — where the cause and manner both appeared obvious — and yet neighboring Grand County still opted for the postmortem procedure. "Often I know what happened, but … I'm just going to do an autopsy," said Ryg. "It's better to have a pathologist to say he did not have a heart attack, he died of this. It's just a lot cleaner and a lot simpler that way. "I don't know what the response would be for not doing more autopsies," he added of Summit. "They're kind of a lone ranger." Wood said she often doesn't see the need. "I can't speak to what their thoughts are," Wood said of her fellow state coroners. "It's their office policy. I'm comfortable with ours. And why are we spending taxpayers' money when we have obvious cause of death? That's why we're trained as death investigators." An autopsy costs the county roughly $1500. ‘CLEAR CAUSE OF DEATH’ During the weeks following her best friend's death, Gustafson could hardly eat or sleep. She had too many unanswered questions about Haberthier's death. Three months later, she still seeks closure. "It's haunted me, because I was 100 feet from him and I could have hiked back up," she said. "These are the questions as friends that we just don't understand. He was such a good skier, and I've seen the guy get out of some hairy situations, so can't imagine him hitting a tree. It just doesn't make sense to me." Harry and Lynda Taylor, who lost their 27-year-old son, Jay, in a ski accident at Keystone Resort almost exactly a year before Haberthier died, said the experience with those who handled his body, including the county coroner's office, couldn't have been worse. They said they received few answers to inquiries about his death, were actively discouraged by Wood's then-deputy coroner from having an autopsy, and Jay's preference of organ donation was overlooked. They assumed they were dealing with personnel with medical backgrounds. "Because how often do you deal with a coroner?" asked Lynda. "And that's the sham of it all, with a skeleton in their office, and all the posters and other photos. You ask medical questions, and come to realize they never even referred them up the chain as they might have." Having taken the advice not to obtain an autopsy, but with so many questions about how their expert skier son may have died, the Taylors regret not getting a second opinion before having his body cremated, forever eliminating the option. The pain of not knowing doesn't go away. Because she was not next of kin to Haberthier, Gustafson was unable to petition for an autopsy to better understand what may have ultimately killed her friend that day. When she pressed Wood after the fact because of conflicting reports she received from ski patrollers over the nature of Haberthier's injures, she was repeatedly told that blunt-force trauma had already been determined the cause. "I want to know if he was still alive after he hit," she said. "They said for sure he died instantly, but I can tell you the following two weeks after wouldn't have been as hard if it wasn't for that unknown. Why not do an autopsy? I don't get it." Wood explained it this way: "When I have a decedent with a crushed skull, I have a pretty clear cause of death." In the third and final installment of this series, we'll detail what a family goes through when they lose a loved one on the slopes. We'll also explore the extremely limited legal options that exist for families seeking redress against an industry that is largely exempt from liability.