Who We Are: Summit County Coroner Joanne Richardson moving on
September 16, 2012
FRISCO – For someone who works primarily with the dead, Summit County Coroner Joanne Richardson is well known among the living.
She was eating lunch at a local restaurant recently when an employee stopped by the table to say hello.
“You sure are working a lot for somebody who’s retiring,” he said.
Summit County’s queen of the dead is abdicating her throne after 10 years, but she says she’s not really retiring.
Richardson finished her last day as coroner Friday halfway through her third term in office. She’s moving to Basalt to join her husband.
“It’s bittersweet,” Richardson said of her decision to leave Summit County. “Any elected official faces this when they leave. Somebody will come in and either just totally undo what you’ve done, or improve on it. That’s the sad part for me, it’s that unknown.”
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While the Summit Board of County Commissioners is searching for a replacement – they’re currently interviewing candidates – Richardson will be filling her time with traveling, novel writing and looking after her pets, which include two llamas.
“I just kind of want to not have the phone ring at all hours,” Richardson said. “People think I’m going to be so bored and I don’t agree.”
Despite having what many would perceive to be a morbid profession, Richardson is upbeat, colorful and frank about her work, which she takes very seriously.
Armed with a BS in emergency health services systems management from the University of Maryland, a master’s in forensic science and investigations and a master’s certificate in bereavement studies, Richardson has been responsible for all death investigations in Summit County since she first took office in 2003.
The coroner is responsible for determining cause and manner of death, which indicates whether the death was accidental, natural, suicide or homicide.
Basically, as a bumper sticker she has in her office states, Richardson’s day begins when your day ends.
But she has spent the last 10 years going above and beyond the basic job description.
Within the Summit County Coroner’s Office, she’s created an archive database, implemented a guidelines and procedures manual and created baseline training requirements for deputy coroners. She’s also been active with the media, both in reporting deaths and explaining the process of death investigation.
In Colorado and across the country, Richardson has been an advocate for an overhaul of the patchwork coroner system.
She calls the current protocols for coroners outdated, the requirements for someone to become a coroner lax, the regulations that vary across the country disorganized.
“We don’t have a system,” Richardson said. “It’s so important that the public be aware that that there’s no consistency. Because you might call something a suicide and I might call it an accident. You might miss something because you don’t have the experience.”
Richardson is also the treasurer for the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and an auditor for other coroner’s offices. She’s working to draft a new set of standards for coroners.
Though she grew up loving television show “Quincy, ME,” she didn’t realize her preference was prophetic. Richardson started out working to save lives, not investigating death.
At 12 years old, living in upstate New York, Richardson’s parents told her frankly they wouldn’t be able to afford to send her to college.
Knowing she wanted to pursue a career in the health care industry, she started volunteering at a hospital.
She wanted to become a physician’s assistant initially, but would eventually veer off toward emergency services.
She moved to Michigan to study applied science in emergency medical services at Davenport College, before returning to the East Coast to start work.
In 1989, both Richardson and her husband, Jim, were ready for a change. She had two brothers who already lived in Colorado, and the couple ultimately found their way west as well.
“I like to joke that (the move) was to get away from my parents and my husband’s parents back east,” Richardson said.
As an emergency medical technician (EMT) back east, work hadn’t always been a cakewalk. With rampant drug use, many of Richardson’s calls overlapped with law enforcement even then. She remembers being shot at in dangerous parts of town.
But in Colorado, she faced a new set of challenges.
“When I was looking at job applications that said ‘what is your wife’s name?’ I knew I had no chance,” Richardson says.
Struggling with the challenge of breaking into a male-dominated field in emergency services, Richardson instead took a job at a hospital and found she liked it better.
Soon after, her son Andrew was born, and Richardson began pursuing her interest in forensics.
She and her husband had a condo in Summit County, and volunteered with the local ambulance service. The ambulance at the time shared an office with the coroner, and Richardson eventually approached then-Coroner Gary Linstrom about getting involved with the work.
“He just went, ‘you’re deputized,” Richardson recalls forming the sign of the cross with her hands. “That helped me get my foot in the door with the Denver (medical examiner’s) office, so I could do an internship.”
That internship was hard, Richardson said, but it helped her make the transition from trying to save lives to trying to explain death.
“The superiors were tough,” Richardson said. “They’d say, you’re thinking like a medic and not like an investigator. … It was just such a valuable working experience.”
Richardson then transferred over to the Larimer County ME’s office and would later seek the top job in Summit County.
While Richardson now had the experience and training to be an effective coroner, she still faced the challenge of working with the families of her victims.
Richardson meets people on their worst days and she frequently is the person who delivers the bad news.
After attending a lecture on handling grief, she went back to school herself and earned a master’s certificate in bereavement studies online through National University.
The training helped prepare her to answer the family’s questions, understand their grieving processes and direct them toward helpful resources. She now sends out an email to each victim’s family to help them sort through the initial shock and tasks of the tragedy.
“People in crisis are lost,” Richardson said.
She says her ability to connect with people going through a time of loss defines her both as a coroner and as a person.
One victim’s mother responded to Richardson’s email saying she would, “save it always and tears well in my eyes now as I marvel at how you are able to do what you do as a coroner and then share your expertise as a grief counselor. I believe we were/are blessed that you were our coroner. I appreciate all you wrote.”
Friday, Richardson’s Summit County friends gathered for a good-bye party and roast to send her off.