COLUMBUS — State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) was among many driving through Sandusky County who wondered what the signs reading “Justice for Jake” were all about.
Now he knows. The House Health and Aging Committee that he chairs is considering a bill that would mandate that coroners order autopsies whenever they suspect suicide, a response to the shooting death of Jacob Limberios of Castalia in 2012.
The death was initially ruled a suicide by Sandusky County Coroner John Wukie without an autopsy. The family hired Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist, who determined that it was a homicide. A special grand jury convened by Attorney General Mike DeWine disagreed, instead finding it was an accidental shooting because of a faulty safety mechanism on the gun.
But the manner of death on Mr. Limberios’ death certificate remains “suicide.”
House Bill 482, sponsored by Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), would require that one hour of the 16-hour training requirement for newly elected coroners focus on suicide investigation. It also would require that a coroner or deputy coroner take possession of a body and have an autopsy performed when suicide is suspected.
He called these “modest but important steps” to provide answers families deserve.
“Jake’s body has been exhumed three times so far,” Mr. Redfern said.
On average, there are about 1,400 suicide rulings a year in Ohio, about 900 of which lead to autopsies, according to Mr. Redfern. That means some 500 more autopsies could be performed each year statewide at an average cost of $2,000 each by local officials who are in many cases already underfunded.
“There are 400 or 500 families with questions,” he said. “Jake had no history of depression. He had no history of biological diseases of the brain. ... He was using a weapon in an inappropriate manner, and it discharged, and he was killed.”
David Corey, lobbyist for the Ohio State Coroners Association, said a decision hasn’t been made as to whether the organization will oppose the bill. But he questioned the cost involved.
“Let’s create a state autopsy fund to help offset the cost,” he said. “$100,000 for counties is going to hurt.”
The bill does not provide for additional funding.
Mr. Redfern doubles as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. His bill has 30 co-sponsors, all of them minority Democrats.
Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), who represents Sandusky County, said he hasn’t seen the bill yet.
“I will be following it closely because of the local nature,” he said.
A DeWine spokesman said the attorney general has not taken a position on the bill.
Dr. Wukie, a Republican, has said he has not changed his findings in the Limberios’ case because a finding of suicide doesn’t address intent. He plans to continue describing fatal self-inflicted shootings as suicides.
Mr. Corey said he does not believe that state law should be changed to better define suicide, but he also declined to second-guess Dr. Wukie. Dr. Wukie could not be reached for comment.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.