The East Feliciana coroner’s race was set to be a contest between two non-doctors, but that changed when a pathologist relocated from Texas and entered the fray on the last day of qualifying earlier this month.
Now, the incumbent and one of her opponents, a shopkeeper and former lawman who once worked alongside a coroner, must appear in court Monday to face a move by the parish district attorney to boot them off the ballot, refund their filing fees and install newcomer Fredrick Michael Cramer, 64, as coroner.
The latest hurdle in the election of a coroner in East Feliciana Parish pits two locals without physician credentials against a pathologist perceived by some as an outsider. Just this month, Cramer registered to vote in the parish and obtained a state driver’s license, according to the registrar of voters and court documents.
The conflict also highlights the sometimes curious path to becoming a parish’s top medical authority, an elected position that commands the power to investigate deaths, sexual assaults and commit mentally ill people against their will. While medical expertise isn’t required to serve as coroner, a physician trumps non-doctor candidates in a race, which means Cramer should prevail if he withstands a pending residency challenge.
Laura DeJohn, 48 — the current coroner who won the job last year after the death of her husband, a doctor who’d served as the parish coroner for 23 years — and Joe Howell, 66, a retired sheriff’s deputy who’s served as an EMT and physician’s assistant and now owns a general store, say they question how long their competitor Cramer has lived in East Feliciana Parish. By law, coroners must either be a resident or maintain a full-time medical practice in the parish they serve.
“That ain’t right: You gonna come in and just steal an election from people, you know, because you’re a doctor and they’re not or whatever. People have been doing the job, doing a good job,” said Clint Beauchamp, a 46-year-old cowboy who filed a motion Thursday alleging Cramer is still a Texas resident and should be disqualified from the coroner’s race.
Beauchamp said he would rather a longtime resident who isn’t a physician as coroner than someone he sees as an opportunistic doctor.
“A local person knows the people up here, and if something happens you know who to call,” he said. “I know every doctor in the parish. I’ve never heard of this guy. He’s not from here. This I know.”
There are few public details available about Cramer, who’s worked as a roving pathologist in the Baton Rouge metro area, performing autopsies for a number of parishes, including East Feliciana Parish. He has also practiced in other states, including Arizona and Texas, according to public records, while his active license with the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners lists a Houston address.
Reached by phone, Cramer said he’s “a private, confidential person” who didn’t want to answer questions even as he runs for public office.
“I don’t have time for this. I have bodies to cut,” he said.
Yancy Guerin, the chief investigator for the West Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, said Cramer “is a very good forensic pathologist.” He performs autopsies on a contract basis for that office, Guerin said.
“He’s done an excellent job and he’s been very dependable,” he said.
Cramer rented an apartment in East Feliciana Parish “at the last minute,” Guerin said, and he is there “over 50 percent of the time.”
Cramer’s name surfaced in the news when a grand jury failed to indict the husband of a woman who’d died in 2013 of blunt force injuries in Addis. Cramer ruled Sandra Rinaudo’s death a homicide after examining her on behalf of the West Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, but he wasn’t called to testify to the grand jury. The assistant district attorney in the case said he agreed with the grand jury’s conclusion not to indict, but Rinaudo’s daughter questioned the validity of the findings, The Advocate reported last year.
In a 2004 Advocate article, Cramer’s superiors said he disappeared from his contract job at the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, a claim Cramer denies.
“I gave them plenty of notice,” Cramer said. “I don’t know what the source of that article was, but it’s all wrong.”
A doctor doesn’t automatically become coroner if he is the only physician to enter a race, said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State. Other contenders would have to withdraw, or a judge would need to rule on any legal challenges to the qualifications of the other candidates, she said.
And the law doesn’t specify how long a potential coroner needs to live in a parish in order to be considered a resident there, said Dr. Todd Thoma, Caddo coroner and president of the Louisiana Coroner’s Association.
A similar fight about residency status between coroner hopefuls is playing out in Cameron Parish, he said. Longtime non-doctor coroners over the years have raised concerns that a “doc-in-the-box” can swoop in and take their jobs, Thoma said.
DeJohn, who said her salary is $30,000 a year, wondered why an experienced doctor with little connection to the parish would want the job. A nurse who worked as assistant coroner during her husband’s tenure, she says she hopes to serve in the role as part of her commitment to the community.
“I have a big heart. The people in the parish, they know they can call me and talk to me,” she said. “They have my cellphone. It’s plastered on the front door. They can call me 24/7/365, even if I’m on vacation.”
Howell, who served as a full-time sheriff’s deputy in Iberville Parish and in Florida for at least 15 years, said his investigatory ability would help him as coroner.
The motion to disqualify DeJohn and Howell, by East Feliciana Parish District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla, was filed by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the end of the period in which challenges can be waged against a candidate. D’Aquilla said he was asked by Cramer to make the filing and did not ask for DeJohn’s or Howell’s consent on it.
The parties are expected in court at 9:30 a.m. Monday for a hearing on both D’Aquilla’s and Beauchamp’s filings in front of Judge Kathryn E. Jones.
Guerin, Cramer’s colleague, pointed out that the people of East Feliciana Parish may indeed want a doctor as their chief medical investigator.
“Why would they not want a forensic pathologist, who’s licensed with the state board of medical examiners? Why would they not want him as their coroner?”
* This story was edited after publication to correct the spelling of Clint Beauchamp’s name.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.