An East Baton Rouge death investigator was issued a letter of reprimand after his supervisors discovered he had misidentified a recent homicide as an accidental drug overdose.
The mistake didn't surface until funeral home employees noticed the victim's gunshot wound while preparing the body for services and burial earlier this month.
"We must pause and imagine what could have become of this if the family had requested a direct cremation," Shane Evans, chief of investigations for the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office, wrote in the letter dated Jan. 3.
The investigator at fault was W. Shane Tindall. His name was included in the letter, which was released to the Advocate in response to a public records request.
Evans noted that Tindall is an experienced member of the coroner's office staff with a law enforcement background. He's been with the agency for 4.5 years and has investigated almost 2,300 deaths — all with no prior issues, Evans said.
Tindall wasn't issued any formal discipline aside from the letter, which Evans said has been added to his personnel file.
The error occurred on New Years Day when emergency crews responded to reports that Joah Ross, 26, had been found unresponsive in his mother's Fairfields area home. Both police and the coroner's office said investigators initially assumed the death was an overdose because they found drugs in the room, but later became aware of the gunshot wound and launched a homicide investigation.
Police haven't said where and when detectives believe the shooting occurred. They also didn't disclose what kind of drugs were found at the scene. Court records indicate Ross had a history of drug possession, but his family said they don't believe he was struggling with addiction.
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Now the case remains unsolved and Ross' relatives have said they're worried that the investigation was compromised from the beginning since detectives didn't start collecting evidence until after the funeral home discovered a gunshot wound to the chest.
"Somebody's got to be held accountable," Ross' sister Jamie Edwards said in the days following his death. "That one mistake could be what turns this into a cold case while my brother's killer goes free."
Edwards said there was "blood everywhere" in the living room, where Ross had died. Evans said he couldn't comment on the specifics of this investigation but noted that it's not uncommon to find blood at an overdose scene because there's often some discharge from the person's nose and mouth.
Autopsies typically aren't completed unless foul play is suspected, so the body was released to the funeral home when investigators made their initial assessment, then returned to the coroner's office for an autopsy later.
"That error caused that scene to be treated as an overdose investigation rather than a homicide," Evans wrote in the letter. "We are fortunate the funeral partner recognized the error and contacted us immediately."
He also asked Tindall to "please remember the universal rule to work every scene as a homicide until proven otherwise."
Evans said he doesn't want to minimize the seriousness of the mistake or make excuses, adding that the incident will become a learning experience for the parish's death investigators.