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Pierce County announces replacement hire for medical examiner candidate who backed out

Parker Miles Blohm

Pierce County will have a new medical examiner soon, but not as soon as officials initially thought. That’s because they’ve offered the job to a second forensic pathologist in as many months.

County officials announced late Tuesday that Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich has accepted an offer to become the county’s next chief death investigator, replacing outgoing Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark.

Clark announced his intent to retire following months of controversy in the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The first forensic pathologist to accept the position, Dr. Mark Fajardo of Riverside County, California, withdrew from consideration just as the County Council was preparing to confirm his appointment — the last step needed to finalize the hire. It’s unclear why Fajardo withdrew his acceptance; he didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment. 

Cline-Parhamovich currently serves as interim chief medical investigator for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. She previously served as the state chief medical examiner in Tennessee while also serving as director of the Division of Forensic Pathology at East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine. 

Fajardo originally accepted the job in December, and was expected to take over the office this month.

Now, Day One of the next era in the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office is delayed further, while Cline-Parhamovich works on relocating from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and securing a license to practice medicine in Washington state.

County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich says the goal is to have the new chief in place by early summer. She will need to be present when the council confirms her appointment, the timeline for which has yet to be determined.  

“I am pleased to welcome this highly skilled forensic pathologist to Pierce County,” County Executive Bruce Dammeier said in a news release. “Dr. Cline-Parhamovich’s breadth of experience , strong administrative skill and demonstrated leadership will support the employees of the Medical Examiner’s Office and serve the people of Pierce County who rely on this critical role.”

Pending the County Council’s final approval of the hire, Cline-Parhamovich is due an annual salary of $325,000, according to an offer letter obtained by KNKX Public Radio, about $65,000 more than her predecessor.

Catalinich said officials were prepared for this scenario from the beginning, thanks to an “expedited and targeted” recruiting effort that sent county officials criss-crossing the country.

There are only about 500 licensed forensic pathologists practicing nationwide, making it difficult to fill open medical examiner positions. 

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has been reeling for more than a year, starting with a whistleblower complaint against Clark, the outgoing chief. His second-in-command, Associate Medical Examiner Megan Quinn, accused him of mismanaging death investigations and creating a toxic work environment. Subsequent complaints against Clark were filed with the state Medical Commission.

KNKX published an in-depth report in March last year, detailing the mounting complaints in the office — some of which date back to 2016.  

Clark announced his retirement in September. The county agreed to pay him a $250,000 settlement, plus benefits, as part of a suite of separation agreements reached with him and Quinn. Clark will remain in charge of the office until Cline-Parhamovich begins work in the coming months, and he’ll remain on call for any outstanding casework until the end of 2020.

Cline-Parhamovich takes over right after county leaders approved a biennial budget that allocates $1.9 million in new spending aimed at "restructuring and remaking" the office. The nearly 26 percent increase accounts for six new full-time positions.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office, one of the biggest in the state, handles roughly 1,400 death investigations each year. The chief medical examiner is in charge of ushering those investigations, as well as performing autopsies and issuing death determinations.  

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.