Politics & Government

Unburied bodies, alleged harassment. Scandals central to rematch for Fayette coroner.

Fayette County coroner says his experience should count with voters

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn is being challenged for re-election by former deputy coroner Larry Owens.
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Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn is being challenged for re-election by former deputy coroner Larry Owens.

Ask Larry Owens why he should be Fayette County coroner — the person whose office investigates deaths other than those clearly from natural causes — and his No. 1 reason is the scandal-tainted, longtime incumbent, Gary Ginn.

“I’m the alternative,” said Owens, 63, a former deputy coroner who now works as a paramedic. “I’m the change that Fayette County needs. The public can stay with the same thing they’ve got and expect the same results, or they can make a choice for a new start, for a breath of fresh air.”

In the four years since Owens last challenged the 61-year-old Ginn for the job, Ginn has:

lost his second full-time job directing the body bequeathal program at the University of Kentucky after an audit found numerous problems, including delays of up to five years in burying the remains of people who donated their bodies for scientific research. UK President Eli Capilouto sent a letter of “deepest apology” to the donors’ next of kin and pledged to reform the program.

been criticized for leaving the remains of a woman and two babies in cold storage at the coroner’s office for up to 26 years because, Ginn said, nobody had come forward to identify them. The remains finally were buried in 2015.

been the subject of a sexual harassment complaint and subsequent pending lawsuit by former deputy coroner Melissa Neale, who says Ginn touched her inappropriately as she climbed down a ladder, bragged about making trips to strip clubs, touched himself inappropriately himself during meetings with her and made vulgar and sexually degrading comments in the workplace.

The city’s human resources department substantiated a half-dozen crude comments Ginn made to his employees about sex and genitalia after Neale filed a complaint. But the city said it lacked the authority to take action against Ginn because he is an elected county-wide official.

“I really don’t want to make this election a trash Gary session, because I worked with Gary for 10 years when I was a deputy coroner and I always personally liked him. But his record is what it is,” Owens said in a recent interview.

Larry Owens is the Republican challenging Fayette County Coroner Garry Ginn, a Democrat.

In response, Ginn — who was first elected in 2002 — says he’s proudly campaigning on his long record of public service, even with “recent controversies.”

In an interview at the coroner’s office on East Second Street, Ginn blamed the problems at UK’s body bequeathal program on his superiors, saying he privately warned the administration that remains weren’t being buried on time. The UK audit found there was inadequate oversight of Ginn and his program; the chairman who oversaw Ginn stepped down.

As early as his first campaign, UK sounded a cautionary note about Ginn’s ability to handle the responsibility of two full-time jobs.

In a 2002 letter giving Ginn permission to run for coroner while also working at the school’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, a UK attorney told him. “While there may be an appearance of a conflict of interest in your holding both positions, I do not believe any state law or university policy would be violated ... (But) I urge the administration to carefully review your ability to perform your duties to the university in the event you are elected to coroner.”

Ginn says he “chose to retire” from his $55,000-a-year UK job in 2015, although he acknowledged that his job was eliminated by UK at that time because of the audit fall-out. He is paid about $72,000 a year as coroner.

As for the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by his former deputy, Ginn said he cannot discuss it.

“Obviously, this is an election year,” Ginn said about the harassment suit. “I have never commented on pending litigation. I feel it is inappropriate for me to comment on pending litigation. But I believe the citizens of Lexington-Fayette County are educated people, and I believe if they have kept up with what is going on, they will choose me as their county coroner.”

Reading from a neatly typed list of his accomplishments, Ginn cited years of experience investigating thousands of Lexington deaths, including the slayings of on-the-job emergency responders, the rise of the opioid epidemic and the crash of Comair Flight 5191 in 2006 that killed 49 people.

Ginn said he and his nine deputies are all certified with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, which gives their work more credibility with police and lawyers because it guarantees high professional standards.

“At a death scene, the coroner is the person to take charge and lead in the investigation,” said Ginn, who was a deputy coroner for six years before he was elected coroner. “I think experience counts for a lot.”

If he is re-elected, Ginn said, he’s working with the Urban County Council on an ordinance that would make his office responsible for the proper disposal of abandoned “cremains,” the remains of cremated bodies. Urns containing cremains have turned up in Jacobson Park, at the municipal recycling center on Thompson Road and in an auctioned-off storage locker, among other places, he said.

“With a burial, there is a final disposition because the person is buried in the cemetery,” Ginn said. “But with a cremation, I think people aren’t always sure what to do. The cremains go into an urn and they essentially become property, and they just get passed down along family members.”

Ousting Ginn would not be easy for Owens despite the incumbent’s rocky last few years. Owens lost by a 22-point margin in 2014.

Apart from his superior name recognition from regularly appearing in crime-related news stories, Ginn is a Democrat and Owens is a Republican, and Fayette County has a predominantly Democratic electorate. And Lexington’s coroners traditionally serve a long time. Ginn is only the fifth man to hold the office since 1926. (The first man in that job, incidentally, was pioneer Daniel Boone in 1781.)

“Fayette obviously is a heavily Democratic county,” Owens said. But voters must decide if they want more bad news coming out of the coroner’s office for another four years, he added.

“If you have someone who has proven to be disrespectful, someone who already has shown disdain for others, as (Ginn) has, then would you want someone like that taking care of your loved ones when they have died?” Owens asked. “I know I wouldn’t.”