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Updated: 06/17/2013 7:41 AM
Created: 06/14/2013 3:36 PM | Print |  Email
By: Beth McDonough

Hennepin Co. Medical Examiner Opens Up about Investigations

You've heard it a lot lately.

A missing person has been found, and authorities are waiting for a positive ID from the Medical Examiner before releasing a name. 

In the metro, medical examiners are in charge of death investigations for three counties covering nearly 2 million people.

It's rare for a chief medical examiner to open up about their job, but Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker sat down for an interview with KSTP.  

His office covered 750 autopsies last year. Baker says behind every autopsy there is a story to be told.

Baker speaks to the living on behalf of the dead, "We're the only chance the family is going to have to know with confidence how their loved one died."

"Sometimes the truth isn't what people want to hear," says Baker. That includes suicides or drug overdoses.

Each day he and the team of death investigators for Hennepin, Dakota and Scott counties deal with unidentified bodies. They work to discover who they are and how they died.

In 2012, they identified more than 4,100 people. Of those, 38 percent were natural deaths, 40 percent accidental and the rest were murder victims. Like Kira Trevino of Maplewood and Danielle Jelinek of Chisago, both were found floating in two different bodies of water months after they went missing. 

ME's relied on forensic know-how to figure out what happened to them and when.

The job is difficult and delicate. It's hard to deliver devastating news, and even harder to receive it.

"The whole experience was life changing," says Leesa Dentinger. Her cousin and best friend Christine Sacorafas was on her way to teach dance class at church, but got stuck in traffic on 35W. When the bridge collapsed, Christine's car was crushed. Death was instantaneous.

Because Christine was trapped in the water for 16 days, her body was beyond recognition.  The ME used dental records to identify Christine and confirm her relative's fears, "I got closure knowing that she was positively ID'd and knowing those were her remains."

All deaths that are sudden, unexpected or not from natural causes are reported to the ME. 

They're licensed physicians who use dental or medical records, DNA, and fingerprints for verification.

Baker believes the role of the ME helps the health of others. "If somebody dies of an infectious disease outside of the hospital or you have a new epidemic in the community that's killed people who is going to make that determination."

Or, if during an autopsy, it's determined someone died from a hereditary medical condition.  He shares that vital information with the rest of the family. 

The life of an ME isn't for the faint of heart. The job is detailed, dangerous and requires discretion at death scenes.

Yet, what they reveal, whether it's a name or cause of death, doesn't just close a case, it's closure for a family. "It takes a special person to give someone that kind of news," says Dentinger.

It takes 12 years of schooling and requires an undergrad degree, medical school then training in anatomic pathology, plus a residency to become a ME.

Medical Examiners are a rare specialty, there are only 500 practicing in the US. 

They're among the highest paid public workers. Baker makes roughly $235,000 a year.