CINCINNATI — Lakshmi Sammarco was at her son's hockey game in February 2012 when a fellow hockey mom asked her to be the next coroner.
“Are you crazy? I don’t know the first thing about being a coroner. Why would I want to do that anyway?” she said to Michele Young.
Young is the friend and lawyer-turned-campaign-manager who lobbied to get Sammarco into the Democratic spot held by Dr. Anat Bhati before he suddenly died that day.
“I did not imagine that anyone could be anything close to her qualifications as a public official or as a neuroradiologist,” Young said of the woman she now calls her soul sister. “I have never charged a penny or even a nickel for representing her."
In just five days, the neuroradiologist and mother of two added a top county office to her resume. She's the only person in the county with the power to arrest the Hamilton County sheriff, she's got the FBI's local director on speed-dial and she's earned respect from most in law enforcement as a woman working in what her colleagues call a man's world.
“She can be aggressive without being offensive, which is a really fine line to walk,” said Mark Piepmeier, head of the criminal division at the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office.
"She is courageous and stands up to anyone with ladylike skills, with great graciousness," Young said. "She always sticks to her guns."
Sammarco rushes to crime scenes in whatever she's wearing -- frequently fancy shoes, bright-colored dresses or traditional Indian clothing.
"It looks kind of unusual at a crime scene down in the 'hood,” Piepmeier said. “She doesn’t want to make (the police) wait on her so she’ll get there as quickly as she can, and sometimes she’ll stand out.”
She qualified for certification with her newly-issued 40 caliber pistol wearing high heels.
"How awesome is that? This woman can shoot,” Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil said.
From An Indian Village To County’s Highest Spot
The 51-year-old Indian Hill resident was born in Amarthaluru, India — a village with intermittent electricity in the Southeast part of the country.
She moved to Clifton with her parents and younger brother Ramesh when she was in preschool. She was already fluent in English. Even at the age of four, she told her mother Indira Kode that she wanted to be a doctor.
“She would take a stick and say, ‘I’m going to give you an injection,'” Kode said.
Her parents said she was an active child — organized, competitive and smart. She took piano lessons and was a Girl Scout Brownie.
She graduated from Cincinnati Country Day School at 17 and became the youngest student to earn a junior position at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering. The university later admitted her to the College of Medicine, where she graduated with a medical degree in 1988 as the youngest student in her class.
In 1993, Sammarco completed her residency in Diagnostic Radiology at Case Western Reserve University - MetroHealth Medical Center. She moved to Los Angeles for a competitive two-year fellowship in neuroradiology at the University of California. She has medical licenses in eight states.
Sammarco earned her pilot license in L.A. and took up mountain climbing, her dad said.
“She’s the most adventurous type in our family,” her dad, Kode Murthy, said. “She’s more outgoing than the rest of us."
Perhaps that sense of adventure was part of the reason Sammarco decided to pursue the coroner position in 2012.
When Young approached her at that hockey game, Sammarco was working as a neuroradiologist, reading scans out of her home. Her parents discouraged her from taking the interim coroner job.
“We said, ‘You went to this medical school. Why do you want to get into this politics? No matter what you do, you’re not going to win,'” Kode, her mother, said.
“I just wanted to try and fill in until somebody else could come along and take it over,” Sammarco said. “I didn’t have a big social agenda or a purpose really, but since I’ve been here, you know, I’ve seen things happen."
Politics After Death
Sammarco's parents never cared much for politics, but her grandfather was a public figure in India -- the Sanskrit teacher in her small town. Her mother said he worked closely with the prime minister and other political figures.
"I think it runs in the family," her mother said. "She got some exposure from her grandfather, but I never thought (politics) would come in her future."
In the polls, Sammarco identified as a Republican for 30 years. But in her heart, she really didn’t care.
"I’ve been pretty apolitical,” Sammarco said. "I was raised a Republican, but I didn’t always vote Republican. I always voted on the issues and the candidates individually and based on what I thought was important."
When Bhati died, the Democratic party had just five days to appoint a new coroner. Sammarco became a Democrat in 2012 because it was her only shot at the interim coroner job.
"We don't do autopsies differently on Democrats than we do on Republicans," Sammarco said.
In the age of angry partisanship, experts said it’s unusual for candidates to switch parties to run for office.
“But (the coroner) is such an inherently service-oriented job that some of the rules don’t necessarily apply,” said David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Ohio law requires county coroners to be licensed physicians, and that makes the job harder than most to fill.
“It’s a trade-off because how many party loyalists are actually qualified for coroner?” Niven said.
Politics is one of Sammarco's least favorite parts of the job, and a part she seldom chooses to play, she said.
“On a day-to-day basis, it makes absolutely no difference in my life. The only time it rears its ugly head is when I have to go to some political something or another and I get pushback,” she said.
Among her most vocal critics is Hamilton County Republican Party Chair Alex Triantafilou.
Triantafilou said Sammarco is "more interested in the microphone than the microscope," and he takes issue with the way Sammarco identifies politically.
“I frankly have gotten highly frustrated with her trying to play both sides. We have photographs of her at a rally for President Obama, yet she continues to perpetrate the myth that she’s a Republican,” he said.
Sammarco said party affiliation means little to her. She votes for issues and candidates — not straight down party lines.
"Being a Democrat doesn’t mean I’m any different. I still vote the same way,” she said.
After serving for about eight months in the interim role, Sammarco ran a winning re-election campaign against Republican Peter Kambelos in November 2012.
“We were the smallest staff that ever was. We did everything," Young said. "She had exceptional presence of poise in public. She was a natural."
A Job She Knew Nothing About
On Sammarco’s first day in office as the interim coroner, she greeted her administrative assistant Andrea Hatten with a bouquet of flowers and a hug.
"She hadn’t spoken to me until that day, and she had never laid eyes on me,” Hatten said.
It was Hatten's first glimmer of her new boss who doesn’t know a stranger and who has earned an office-wide reputation for having her employees' backs.
“When she came in (as coroner), she asked a lot of questions. She didn’t come in assuming that she knew what we did here. She was anxious and willing to learn. I’m sure it was a little intimidating at first,” Hatten said.
Sammarco admittedly didn’t know a thing about what coroners do when Young asked her to consider the job. Just like many members of the public, all she knew was that the office performs autopsies after unnatural deaths.
But the morgue division, which handles death investigations, is just one piece of much that goes on in the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office. There’s also a crime laboratory, complete with five different divisions.
Trace evidence specialists are integral to the county’s arson investigations. DNA specialists help identify victims and suspects involved in crimes. In the firearms section, specialists evaluate any weapon used in a crime. They collect shell casings and bullets, test fire guns and remove fingerprints from those weapons. Scientists in the toxicology section analyze blood in death and Operating a Vehicle Impaired cases.
The office’s busiest section is the drug unit. Sammarco said the office receives between 800 and 900 drug cases a month related to arrests and deaths. Each must be evaluated within 10 days as part of the county's rapid indictment process required by law. Scientists in the lab are the only ones in the state who can test the purity of a drug. The results can help local and federal authorities beef up sentencing.
Sammarco's job is to oversee all of those divisions. She’s in and out of the office, and frequently meets with other agency leaders and attends functions such as monthly police chief meetings in the county.
“She’s very pro-law enforcement,” Piepmeier said. “The good thing about it is it doesn’t affect the objectivity of her or her staff."
She puts on a charity masquerade ball every year. Last year, the donations went to Greater Cincinnati Crime Stoppers.
Sammarco's employees say she doesn’t micromanage; she delegates.
“She allows us to be the experts that we are. However, we all know the buck stops with her, and she is in charge, so we don’t take advantage,” said Michael Trimpe, director of the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office Crime Laboratory.
People who know her have called her "the smartest person in the room," "the best boss I ever had" and a person who's "not one with a loss for words."
"She loves to talk," Piepmeier said.
Sammarco also has earned an office-wide reputation for being being tardy.
“She’s on Indian time, we call it. She tends to be 10 or 15 minutes late for almost everything,” Trimpe joked.
Child Deaths Take A Toll
There’s one thing Sammarco hates more than the politics that come with her job. Seeing the brutal murders of children have taken a toll on the mother of two.
“I’ve seen it personally affect her. We see some pretty awful things here,” Hatten said. “I’ve heard how she talks to grieving parents."
She said the gruesome crimes have changed her and have affected the way she’s raised her 16-year-old daughter Josi and 13-year-old son James.
“I think I’m a little more paranoid with my kids now -- at least that’s what my daughter tells me. Probably a little bit more protective,” Sammarco said.
Six months into the job, she responded after a newborn baby was killed. She left Bethesda North hospital with her then 9-year-old son on her mind.
"He was asleep. It was one in the morning when I got back home. I remember crawling into his bed and holding him. He shifted a little bit, but he didn’t know I was there. You remember your kids at those ages and you can’t imagine how people can do these horrible things to these babies. Really — it’s just, it’s mind boggling," she said.
It’s not just the child deaths that have alarmed the coroner. Her office sees the scope of the heroin epidemic firsthand.
"What's shocking to most people is that we've had heroin overdose deaths from the West End to Indian Hill," she said. "They think it's an inner-city (problem). It's not just an inner-city problem."
Sammarco Outside Of Work
When former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shot Samuel Dubose in July at a traffic stop, Sammarco had company over for dinner.
"I said, 'Oh, I have to go.’ And, you know, my kids looked at me and said, ‘What? Wait! We just sat down for dinner,' and my husband is like, ‘Well, can't you finish dinner and then go?’ I said, ‘No. I have to go.’"
The coroner gets notified of every homicide in the county. A member of her staff will always be there, but occasionally she’ll race to the scene — especially for high-profile cases like that one.
"It's disruptive. There are other times when I go out in the middle a night. Sometimes nobody wakes up when I leave, and then I come back and they don't even know I was gone. Sometimes I'm out at social functions and I'll get a call and we'll have to go, and that's when you'll see me dressed in clothes that I'm not normally dressed in when I go to a homicide,” she said.
Outside of work, Sammarco switches from coroner to busy mom and wife to her husband, Jim. She shuffles her kids around to travel hockey games and cross country practices.
“She gives 110 percent to her job in this county, but it’s refreshing to see that she puts her family first. If any of us employees have a family crisis, she would be the first person to back us up,” Trimpe said.
Sammarco adores her two birds, Canoli and Mango. Their pictures hang largely in her office, and she even built a "playground" for them out of PVC pipes. She plays tennis, cooks Indian food and loves to garden.
"You should see her all-season room. It's completely full of plants and they’re blooming," her mother said.
She attends the symphony with her family. She's engaged in charities, Indian traditions and the Hindu temple.
"I think when people meet me they get that there's very little that I don't share. I have deep-seated beliefs — some of which are from my religion but that come from the closeness with my parents and my family," she said.
'There Are People's Lives At Stake In My Office'
Sammarco gives her time to more than just her own children.
Since taking office, the coroner has made it her mission to visit the county's schools, and she encourages her scientists and physicians to do the same.
"One of the reasons I wanted to stay (coroner) is that this gives me a pulpit from which to speak to the young people out there…. and try and encourage them to stay off drugs and stay in school and make something of themselves,” she said.
She shows a picture to high school students of a crime scene in a dingy room. There’s drug paraphernalia and a body on the floor.
“I say, ‘Take a good look. This is actually a pretty typical drug overdose scene.' I say, ‘Do you really want this to be the last memory your parents or your relatives have of you? You want this picture to be the last picture they see of you?’” Sammarco said.
The coroner also has made it her mission to fight for a new crime lab — a crusade for a new space that began the first day she took office, when she read a lengthy commissioner-ordered report that listed the deficiencies with the existing 43-year-old facility at Eden Avenue in Coryville.
"There are people’s lives at stake in my office and my primary responsibility — my top priority — is to keep everybody in my office safe. The conditions they work in are ridiculous,” Sammarco said.
“They are the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, but they are nerdy scientists, and they don’t make waves. They just kind of put their heads down and get the work done, and they’ve never really had anybody to shout out for them."
She’s spent years hunting down options for a new space — meeting with real estate agents, architects and county commissioners. She found an available building at Mercy Mt. Airy Hospital, but the commissioners passed on the facility.
The sticking point for the commissioners has been how to pay for a new or renovated facility.
Some have called the county’s crime lab a luxury. Many Ohio counties don't have their own lab and instead rely on one of the three state labs at the Bureau of Criminal Investigations.
Sammarco said switching to a regional facility is inefficient and would drastically slow law enforcement operations here because of travel-time and delays in processing evidence.
Triantafilou, the Hamilton County GOP chair, has been critical of Sammarco’s push for a new lab.
"I never like it when public officials want shiny new things for the taxpayers but do not have a strategy to pay for those things,” he said. "She’s made an extraordinary effort to draw attention to the crime lab but has never proposed a decent way that it could be funded."
Sammarco said she has proposed solutions, but even so, it’s not her responsibility to find ways to economically support the county and its ventures.
“That’s their job as commissioners,” she said. “This (report) was dropped in my lap as, ‘This is a huge problem in your office.' I can’t ignore that."
It's a mission she wants to see to its end, and that's why Sammarco said you can expect to see her name on the ballot again in 2016.
"I'd really like to see this county move forward. If we had a bigger, newer, more up-to-date facility, we could take on more business from adjacent counties," Sammarco said. "If you're looking at this strictly from a business point of view, we have potential here that's untapped and if we don't do it somebody else will come along and snag it."