Despite push for her firing, judge allows Brown County coroner to keep her job

GEORGETOWN, Ohio -- Brown County’s coroner will keep her job for the time being despite a push for her removal from more than 2,000 county residents.

Judge John Kessler ruled Monday the case against Dr. Judith Varnau should be dismissed because plaintiffs failed to prove there was sufficient reason to remove her from office.

Varnau, who took office during the 2012 general election, is accused of improperly handling death investigations and abusing human remains.

The push to oust Varnau from her position came after more than 2,300 county residents signed a petition calling for her removal.

The petition was filed with the Brown County Court of Common Pleas in April after accusations Varnau botched two separate death scene investigations.

Family: Varnau Treated Our Son Like ‘Trash’

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

The Adamsons, who are represented by attorney Tracy Hawkins, created a Facebook page in March to spread information about the petition. The two said Varnau fumbled their son's death investigation.

"I don't think she's doing her job as coroner." Hawkins said in April. "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."

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 in Aprl. "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."

RELATED: Family sues Brown County Coroner
MORE: Varnau denies mishandling death investigations

Kessler's ruling states that while Varnau's actions in Zachary’s case may amount to neglect, they are not grounds for her firing.

“The court finds that (Varnau’s) failures do not sufficiently make out clear and convincing evidence of gross neglect... of a gravity and frequency amounting to an endangerment or threat to the public welfare,” Kessler said.

Kessler added that while disagreements between Varnau and the Brown County Sheriff's Office are "cumbersome, inefficient, ineffectual and unnecessary,” they are within Varnau’s discretion.

"It is clearly not well suited to best practices,” Kessler said. “Best practices, however, are not what this case is about. This case is also not about whether Brown County's citizens are being well served or poorly served by the coroner, or the sheriff. That is a question for the ballot box, not for the court."

Lawsuit: Varnau Left Behind Man’s Skull

During the hearings, plaintiffs also presented the cases of Hanson E. Jones, Jr.

Varnau is accused of abusing Jones Jr.’s remains and improperly managing his death scene.

Jones Jr. died in his home on Aug. 7 from a gunshot wound to the head.

In a lawsuit filed in February, Jones Jr.’s sister Donna Elfers and his daughter Angela Brown claimed Varnau failed to coordinate with the sheriff’s office when she took charge of Jones Jr.’s death scene.

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

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

According to the lawsuit, Jones Jr.’s home was left unlocked when Varnau allegedly abandoned a shotgun believed to be used in his 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, the lawsuit states.

Gerhardstein, who represents Elfers and Brown, said Varnau’s actions stemmed from a political feud with the 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.”

'Political Feud' Brews After Inmate's Death

The feud between Varnau and the sheriff's office began making waves in December 2013, when Varnau called the death of an inmate at the Brown County Adult Detention Center a homicide.

Zachary Goldson, 24, was found hanging from a bed sheet on the sprinkler in his cell on Oct. 5, nine days after his arrest on Sept. 26.

Varnau concluded in her report, "it would be physically impossible for (Goldson) to reach the sprinkler," and his death was not a suicide.

After Varnau's ruling, Chief Deputy J.K. Schadle called her findings “political.”

But Varnau’s husband, Dennis Varnau, said Schadle’s mention of politics was just a way to avoid a different issue.

“They’ve played it just right to keep the focus off the real facts,” Dennis Varnau told WCPO in April. “The fact that institutional sprinkler heads cannot support any more than 40 pounds before breaking off; that the ligature marks on the neck were not caused by the sheet – but if they can get a replacement coroner in place to change the death certificate to suicide, then a whole bunch of people will be getting off.”

Dennis Varnau said those who supported the petition against his wife often bring up the fact that he ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2008.

At a hearing in April, Judith Varnau testified on her own behalf and denied any allegations that her husband's bid for sheriff affected her duties as coroner.

She also argued people expect her to do law enforcement work, but that's not her job.

Dennis Varnau, who now acts as Judith Varnau’s assistant in some of her duties as coroner, said many often criticize him with claims that he forced his wife to become coroner to help him run for sheriff.  

But Dennis Varnau said his bid for sheriff has never interfered with his wife’s rulings. He said if any party is political, it is the sheriff’s office.

“This county has been run by a politically-situated mob for several decades, and many deaths have not been recorded as to what they are because there essentially have been no ‘checks and balances’ where all ‘hands’ are connected to the same body,” he said.

Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger signed the petition against Judith Varnau.

WCPO's Jesse Folk contributed to this report.



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