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After a year fraught with controversy, Pierce County hires new medical examiner

Pierce County has found its next chief medical examiner, to replace Dr. Thomas Clark.
Parker Miles Blohm
Pierce County has found its next chief medical examiner, to replace Dr. Thomas Clark.

Pierce County has found its next chief medical examiner, shortly after reaching settlement agreements with the office’s top two officials.  

The county announced Tuesday that Dr. Mark Fajardo will lead the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office as soon as he relocates from Southern California. He’ll succeed Dr. Thomas Clark, who recently announced his intent to retire amid a whirlwind of complaints

“I’m delighted to welcome Dr. Fajardo to Pierce County,” County Executive Bruce Dammeier said in a news release.  “He brings an impressive combination of technical skill, a collaborative nature and strong administrative experience to his new role."

Fajardo comes to Washington’s second-largest county from Riverside County, California, where he has served as chief forensic pathologist in the consolidated coroner-sheriff’s office. He brings more than 20 years of experience in forensic pathology, including several years as the chief medical examiner in Los Angeles County, or the so-called “coroner to the stars.” He's performed more than 6,500 autopsies, including more than 400 homicide cases. 

“I know the effort and diligence that was given to the recruitment, and I hope that I live up to the people's expectations and that I serve Pierce County to the best of my ability,” Fajardo said in the county news release. “I look forward to the challenge of providing timely, accurate death investigation that serves the public with compassion and respect.”

Fajardo’s primary role will be to perform autopsies, oversee investigations and issue death determinations in an office that handles about 1,400 death investigations annually. He’ll collect a salary of $325,000, according to the offer letter obtained by KNKX Public Radio — about $65,000 more than his predecessor, who already was the top paid county official. 

The new hire is the result of an “expedited and targeted” recruiting effort, said Carol Mitchell, senior counsel for justice services, who was among the county representatives crisscrossing the country looking for Clark’s replacement. 

There are only about 500 forensic pathologists nationwide to fill positions in thousands of offices across the country.  

“We knew the competition was going to be fierce,” Mitchell told KNKX.

The recruiting effort, which cost roughly $40,000, took her and other county officials to Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and the National Association of Medical Examiners annual conference in Kansas City, among other cities. Their travels also included “fact-finding missions,” in which they visited some of the nation’s largest medical examiner offices. On those trips, they were joined by death investigators and autopsy technicians from Pierce County. 

Mitchell says the latter was part of her ongoing effort to rebuild confidence in her hometown office, especially from within its ranks. It began months ago, when she started working inside the office three days a week, to learn what death investigators were dealing with day to day and work on what she calls “undercover team building.”  

“If we were really going to start fresh,” Mitchell said, “the executive’s office needed to lead that turn.” 

She says hiring Dr. Fajardo is an opportunity to do more of the same.

“We’ve done a lot of healing work,” Mitchell said. 

Mounting complaints against the former medical examiner left deep wounds in the office. Clark was accused of wide-ranging misconduct: cutting corners in death investigations, creating a toxic work environment, and coming to hasty conclusions when determining causes of death in some cases. In earlier interviews with KNKX, several current and former staff members said the conduct has damaged the credibility of the office.    

Clark has yet to speak with KNKX regarding the allegations, but his attorney has called them “fabricated” and “vindictive.” 

County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich estimates the new chief will start sometime around the end of February. At that time, Clark will remain on call for consultation on existing casework only; he's due a $250,000 payout at the end of 2020, according to his settlement agreement with the county. 

Fajardo, whose appointment is subject to County Council approval, must become licensed to practice medicine in Washington state before he can begin work in Pierce County. When he does, he’ll be tasked with remaking the office with $1.9 million in new spending, which accounts for six full-time positions recently added in the county’s biennial budget. County Executive Bruce Dammeier has said the changes are aimed at restoring confidence following a “difficult chapter” in the department. 

Fajardo also will need to hire a new second-in-command to replace Dr. Megan Quinn, the outgoing associate medical examiner who filed a whistleblower complaint against Clark in January — and challenged the county’s decision to place her on administrative leave a month later. 

Dr. Megan Quinn, the outgoing associate medical examiner in Pierce County, filed a whistleblower complaint against Dr. Thomas Clark, the chief medical examiner, in January. They recently received settlements from the county totaling $700,000.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
Dr. Megan Quinn, the outgoing associate medical examiner in Pierce County, filed a whistleblower complaint against Dr. Thomas Clark, the chief medical examiner, in January. They recently received settlements from the county totaling $700,000.

And, Mitchell says, county leaders have discussed the possibility of hiring a third forensic pathologist, to alleviate the autopsy workload and create more space for public-facing parts of the job.

Among the claims lodged against Clark was his lack of contact with family members of decedents. Recruiting materials for his replacement highlighted that part of the job as an essential function. 

“If we want to serve the public well, especially when they’re grieving,” Mitchell said, “I think one of the forensic pathologists needs to be there for the families.” 

And, she stressed, all of them need the space to focus on the central function of a medical examiner’s office: gathering vital information from the dead to learn how to help the living.

“Right now, we’re just keeping up,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want to just keep up. I want to win this race.”  

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.