A fractured relationship between Monroe County’s medical examiner and several Florida Keys officials cannot survive, the state Medical Examiners Commission ruled Wednesday.
Dr. Thomas R. Beaver was denied a recommendation for reappointment as medical examiner in the Keys’ Circuit Court District 16, the six-member board decided on a voice vote in Marathon.
“This happens very, very infrequently,” said board chairman Stephen Nelson, chief medical examiner for District 10, which consists of four counties in Central Florida.
“To have the entire community feel they can’t work with you, to me that’s astounding,” board member Barbara C. Wolf, medical examiner for Central Florida’s District 5, told Beaver.
Beaver contended his critics — he cited Sheriff Rick Ramsay as his primary nemesis — based their complaints on three incidents in Beaver’s three years of work in Monroe County.
Two involved differences over fatalities in deep water off the Keys: the August 2014 boating death of Noah Cullen and the January dive death of underwater filmmaker Rob Stewart. The third was the January death of three utility workers, killed in an underground Key Largo sewer pipe filled with lethal gas.
“They have saved this up,” Beaver said in his defense, pointing to his record of 650 local autopsies and 600 death-scene inspections. He disputed elements of several incidents.
“It’s orchestrated with a purpose and it’s very disturbing,” Beaver said. “This is a small community and a very closed community. It’s not the whole story.”
Medical Examiners commissioners, who came to the Keys to hear the case, focused on 10 surveys sent to Monroe County law-enforcement agencies, county government and four funeral homes.
Five responded — the Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney’s Office, County Commission, Key West Police and Allen-Beyer Funeral Home — and all delivered a “non-favorable” verdict on Beaver’s reappointment. No one submitted a “favorable” rating; the other five did not respond.
“This is unheard of,” Nelson said. “There isn’t a single one that has anything nice to say. The nicest thing they say is that they’re not going to have any response.”
Ramsay said he supported Beaver’s hiring in 2014 and “wanted to have a good working relationship.”
The sheriff said incidents of Beaver “yelling and screaming” over differences in procedure resulted in years of no communication with the county’s top law-enforcement officer. “Don’t send me a Christmas card, OK, but you’ve got to talk to me,” Ramsay said.
“It wasn’t a witch hunt,” the sheriff said. “At the end of of the day, there is a problem that exists here. There is no working relationship, it’s a strained relationship...I believe we deserve better.”
Monroe County officials did not have deep conflicts with previous medical examiners, Wolf noted. “These are people used to working with medical examiners, so it’s hard for me to imagine how things could go this wrong,” she said. “It’s almost like listening to a contested divorce.”
An “independent consultant” to Beaver’s office said she did not see Beaver shout at one of the flashpoint incidents.
Two of Beaver’s employees submitted letters describing his conduct as professional. However, members of the state board bristled at the staffers describing themselves as “deputy medical examiners.” Nelson said, “It seems they have a very inflated opinion of themselves. The only way to be a medical examiner is to go to medical school.”
Beaver told the commission several times that he was open to seeking a new relationship with Ramsay and others who lodged complaints.
State Attorney Dennis Ward, returned to office four months ago, acknowledged that he had no direct problems with Beaver. “More important to me is [Beaver’s] alienation of every police chief in this county, two or three fire personnel, the county attorney and county managers,” Ward said. “I don’t know how we can fix this thing...It may be beyond repair.”
Nelson said the extent and nature of the complaints disturbed him. He told Beaver, “Not once did you say anything contrite. What I heard was, ‘they’re all liars making stuff up.’ That troubles me.”
Board member James Purdy, public defender for Volusia County, said he was startled at Beaver’s written response to a list of complaints sent by county commission Mayor George Neugent, who referenced comments from funeral-home owners that some bodies autopsied by Beaver were “butchered.”
Beaver’s written response demanded proof of the “slanderous nature of the claims” and said the allegation could lead to a “different forum.”
“The implied threat is that he’s going to sue Mr. Neugent for slander,” Purdy said. Neugent “is the head of the county. How can you repair that?”
Beaver said the wording was the work of his attorney.
After the medical examiners voted not to nominate Beaver for a reappointment, Nelson urged him to finish work on his caseload.
Beaver said, “Why would I be interested in working after the way I have been treated?”
“That comment says a lot. You just spent two hours blowing smoke up our butts,” Nelson said. “I’m very disappointed.”
After adjournment, Ramsay said the dispute came to “a sad conclusion.”
“I feel bad about him losing his job, but Dr. Beaver brought the situation on himself,” Ramsay said.
Beaver left the meeting room without commenting to reporters.
The state Medical Examiners Commission, working under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, makes recommendations on examiners to Gov. Rick Scott. Five other examiners were endorsed with no objections from the board.
Public medical examiners are appointed by the governor and paid under contracts with local jurisdictions. Monroe County funds operations of the District 16 Medical Examiner’s Office at about $700,000 annually.
Beaver previously clashed with county staff over an audit, and came under criticism for carrying a body in the open bed of a pickup truck. Beaver said the truck incident was overblown. He said the remains were in a body bag and covered by a shroud, and that they were moved “about a mile and a half” to his office at the request of the family.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206