Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau denies mishandling death investigations

Judge to decide if she will remain coroner

GEORGETOWN, Ohio – Tempers flared at a court hearing Wednesday as Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau fought accusations she mishandled cases, evidence and firearms.

The hearing was the result of a petition signed by more than 2,300 county residents to remove Varnau from office. She is accused of botching two separate death investigations.  

Brown County residents Steve and Rebecca Adamson started the petition on March 1 after their son Zachary Adamson died from a gunshot wound to the head in January.

Varnau ruled Zachary's death a suicide, but his parents said they have doubts their son pulled the trigger.

"Nobody stopped and said, 'Hey, let's find out what happened here.' They didn't do that," Steve Adamson said. "They treated him like they were taking out the trash. They didn't care enough about him to do an investigation to see what happened to our boy."

During Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys accused Varnau of not being honest about how she handled Zachary’s death scene.

Deputies said they were told by Varnau to stay away from the scene. But she said that wasn’t the case.

“Isn't it true that the sheriff's deputies weren't collecting evidence on that particular case because you instructed them previously that it was your death scene and nothing was to be done until you arrived?” an attorney asked.

“That is not correct,” Varnau responded.

“There isn't a three-hour conversation between you and (Brown County Chief Deputy John Schadle) about this?” the attorney followed up.

“No there is not,” Varnau said.

“You understand what perjury is?” the attorney said.

In a separate case, Varnau is accused of abusing human remains and improperly managing the death scene of Hanson E. Jones Jr., who died in his home on Aug. 7 from a gunshot wound to the head.

A lawsuit in the case was filed in February . Jones’ sister Donna Elfers and his daughter Angela Brown claimed Varnau failed to coordinate with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office when she took charge of Jones’ death scene.

Elfers and Brown also accuse Varnau of not completing a “meaningful investigation” and abandoning several large pieces of Jones’ skull scattered throughout his home.

“This family will never know if Hanson Jones was murdered or committed suicide,” attorney Al Gerhardstein said. “They do know that his remains were disrespected.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Varnau argued it was not her responsibility to remove all of the body parts at a death scene.

“I know there were body parts that were in the curtain and on the ceiling,” Varnau said. “I am not required to remove all of those. I removed as much as I found and put it in the body bag.”

According to a lawsuit filed in Jones’ death case, the home was left unlocked when Varnau allegedly abandoned a shotgun believed to be used in Jones’ death, several shotgun shells, gloves, toe tags and other items.

Elfers arrived at her brother’s home in shock and found the items, the lawsuit states.

When she asked Varnau what to do with her brother’s skull pieces, Elfers was told to bury them under a tree, according to the lawsuit.

Gerhardstein, who represents Elfers and Brown, said Varnau’s actions stem from a political feud with the Brown County Sheriff's Office.

“We hope through this case to encourage the coroner to stop using Brown County deaths as a pawn in her political feud with the sheriff,” Gerhardstein said. “Brown County residents deserve fair and thorough death scene investigations and deserve to have their deceased loved ones treated with dignity and respect.”

Varnau told WCPO the sheriff’s office was with her for the death scene investigation and the lawsuit's claims are false.

“The part about not coordinating is very much not accurate because they were there when I got to the scene,” Varnau said. “I am trying to work with (the sheriff’s office). I am really trying to work with them.”

Several people who work in an official capacity with Varnau said during testimony last month they have experienced a culture of distrust.

RELATED: Judge allows Brown County Coroner Judith Varnau to avoid suspension before May 14 hearing

Among those with negative things to say about Varnau was Brown County Chief Deputy Schadle. He said he has tried to work "hand-in-glove" with her, but hasn’t been successful.

"(Deputies) feel very uncomfortable working with you based on what we perceive is your inability to properly do the job,” Schadle told Varnau during his testimony. “It's very difficult to have conversations with you… because of your attitude and your husband's interference."

The Adamsons, who are being represented by attorney Tracy Hawkins, created a Facebook page in March to spread information about their petition to oust Varnau.

The two said they will not back down from their efforts to remove her from office.

"I don't think she's doing her job as coroner." Hawkins said. "You get one chance to get it right. If you don't start that process and do it right from the minute you arrive, there's no going back and families will never have answers. That's unacceptable."

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Thursday, closing arguments in the case were complete.

Visiting Judge John Kessler, who is handling the case, said he expects to have a ruling by next week.

WCPO's Tom McKee contributed to this report.

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