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Political Radar: Inside the Coroner’s race

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - "Politics have nothing to do, with a coroner's decision at all," Dr. Craig Nelson says.

Despite Nelson's comment, the Allen County Coroner is an elected position, which will be on May primary ballot.

ABC21 spent the afternoon with Mr. Nelson, the current coroner for Allen County.

He lives in Fort Wayne, but works in LaGrange operating his private dentistry business.

Nelson's interest in the position started after he helped police identify a body found in Northeast Indiana, a former patient of his.

"Using my dental records, I was able to identify her, which got me started," Nelson said, "I thought it was very interesting, challenging. And with that Dr. Brandenberger [former Allen County Coroner] heard what I had done and that's when he requested that I'd join his group as a deputy with the idea that sometime when he was not able to run again that I would possibly be the coroner."

The elected position is interesting.

The coroner identifies the victim, also establishing the cause and manner of death.

"Why do you do it?"

Nelson says it's one of the most common questions he's asked, "I find it challenging, very interesting, and it's like I'm doing a service for the people and the community who've lost a loved one."

Being at least 18-years-old, living in the county you want to be a coroner in, and having a high school diploma are the only requirements of the job.

After a candidate wins the election, they must then go through 40-hour training through the Indiana Coroner's Board, becoming a Medicolegal Death Investigator.

"You learn a lot, even if you don't have a medical background," Nelson said.

Of the 92 counties in Indiana, he says the position is filled mostly by police officers and funeral home directors.

Nelson claims at the present time, he's the only dentist.

He works at his practice four days a week, Monday through Thursday, and spends Friday at his office in the Rousseau Center.

"The coroner's position in Allen County is a part-time job," he explains, "In Indiana, there are five counties that have full-time people: Vanderburgh, Marion, Allen, Hancock, and Hamilton County.

"My time in the office here is pretty much minimal compared to the other places."

Nelson's position also requires him to be on call overnight, and on holidays.

He tells us there were about 4,800 deaths in Allen County in 2018.

Of those, his office was only notified of one-third of those deaths, and they take in just a fraction of those cases, split among the coroner's staff of 14 people.

Autopsies are performed below St. Joseph Hospital downtown.

"We average between 250 to 300 autopsies a year and this is where we would come to have an autopsy done by our forensic pathologist."

Nelson identifies the drug epidemic, specifically overdoses as one of the biggest problems in Allen County.

The Allen County Coroner can hold two consecutive terms, but must take at least four years off, before running for the position again.

The details are outlined in the Indiana Constitution of 1851:

(Article 6, Section 2) “There shall be elected, in each county by the voters thereof, at the time of holding general elections, a Clerk of the Circuit Court, Auditor, Recorder, Treasurer, Sheriff, Coroner, and Surveyor, who shall, severally, hold their offices for four years; and no person shall be eligible to the office of Clerk, Auditor, Recorder, Treasurer, Sheriff, or Coroner more than eight years in any period of twelve years.”

IC 3-8-1-20 provides that: “A candidate for the office of county auditor, recorder, treasurer, sheriff, coroner or surveyor must have resided in the county for at least one (1) year before the election, as provided in Article 6, Section 4 of the Constitution of the State of Indiana.”

Nelson hasn't ruled out another run for the seat in a few years, "Anything's possible".

The Coroner also has the power to arrest the Allen County Sheriff, and is third in line to take over if something happens to the Sheriff, and the Chief Deputy.

Excerpt from the Indiana Chamber's Government book

"This all goes back to the 18th century in England," Nelson says, "The crown, as he was called at that time too, decided he needed to keep a closer on the sheriff to make sure all the taxes he was collecting ended up in the king's pocket. So he created a position called the Crowner… I think that all carried forward to what eventually became the Coroner and that's where we come up with the problems and law enforcement, and the coroner having the power to arrest the sheriff."

Dr. Jon Brandenberger, Nelson's physician, filed as a Republican, hoping to become coroner once again, after already serving from 2005-2013.

Newcomer Joel Nagel will run against him in the May Primary on the Republican ballot, citing over a decade experience working with trauma victims.

Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is an award-winning journalist and photographer who started his career at ABC21. He shot and edited the Digging Deeper series “Dying on the Job” which won a National Edward R. Murrow award in 2019. The newscasts he produces have also been recognized regionally with Emmy and state awards. Daniel is a Michigan native and graduated from Grand Valley State University. He is always on the look-out for another story to tell. Contact him at dbeals@wpta21.com for suggestions.

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