GEORGETOWN, Ohio – After a three-hour hearing Tuesday, a judge said he will decide before the end of the week whether the Brown County Coroner should be suspended while she is investigated for allegations of sloppy work.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first of two sparked by a petition signed by more than 2,300 county residents to remove Dr. Judith Varnau as coroner.
The petition was filed last week with the Brown County Court of Common Pleas after accusations Varnau botched two separate death scene investigations.
The official complaint asks the court to suspend Varnau from office pending a formal hearing on the allegations against her. Visiting Judge John Kessler ruled Tuesday to go ahead with the suspension hearing even though Varnau did not have an attorney present.
Several people who work in an official capacity with Varnau said during testimony Tuesday they have experienced a culture of distrust.
Among those with negative things to say about Varnau was Brown County Chief Deputy John 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 from the stand. “It's very difficult to have conversations with you… because of your attitude and your husband's interference."
The hearing to decide if Varnau should be officially removed from office is set for May 14 at 9:30 a.m.
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 being represented by attorney Tracy Hawkins, created a Facebook page in March to spread information about the petition. The two say Varnau fumbled their son's death investigation.
"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."
Varnau ruled Zachary Adamson'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."
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.”
According to the lawsuit, 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, the lawsuit states.
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.”
Elfers and Brown are seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees in their suit against Varnau.
The county filed a motion on March 24 to have the lawsuit dismissed.
'Political' Battle With Sheriff’s Office
The feud between Varnau and the sheriff's office made waves in December 2013, when Varnau accused deputies of strangling an inmate at the Brown County Adult Detention Center and covering it up.
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.
After Varnau ruled the death a homicide, Chief Deputy J.K. Schadle called her findings
But Varnau’s husband, Dennis Varnau, said Schadle’s mention of politics is just a way to avoid a different issue.
“They’ve played it just right to keep the focus off the real facts,” he said. “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 said those who support the petition against his wife often bring up the fact that he ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2008.
At Tuesday's hearing, Varnau testified on her own behalf and denied any allegations that her husband's bid for sheriff has affected her duties as coroner.
She also argued people expect her to do law enforcement work, but that's not her job.
Dennis, who now acts as 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 said his bid for sheriff has never interfered with Varnau’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 Varnau.
What Happens Next
Hawkins said Varnau's actions as coroner are now under review by Brown County's Court of Common Pleas.
The petition deals with Ohio Revised Code 3.07 and sets in motion an independent evaluation of how she has handled her duties as coroner.
The provision states "any person holding office... who willfully and flagrantly exercises authority or power not authorized by law, refuses or willfully neglects to enforce the law or to perform any official duty imposed upon him by law or is guilty of gross neglect of duty, gross immorality, drunkenness, misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance is guilty of misconduct in office."
While the petition does not push Varnau from her position immediately, Hawkins said it is the first step in that process.
“We’re asking a court to review her conduct,” Hawkins said. “It's a long process, but it’s a process where the community speaks up and says, ‘This needs to be reviewed.’”
Judge Kessler said Tuesday he will decide by the end of this week whether Varnau should be suspended before her May 14 hearing.
Although Dennis Varnau said his wife will not quit her position, he agreed it may be her time to go.
"I hope they are successful in getting enough valid signatures to get it into court, and then hope that (the judge) will find some kind of a valid cause to remove her from office," Dennis said. "I am to the point where, if the people of this county don’t want a coroner that shows up on all death scenes to represent the interests of the deceased, like the old one did not do, then so be it."
WCPO's Tom McKee and Jason Law contributed to this report