Stanislaus County leaders show new Coroner’s Office to the public

Antiquated. Cramped. Ill-equipped. Those are some adjectives that describe Stanislaus County’s old Coroner’s Office.

Now, officials are using terms such as state-of-the-art or even top-of-the-line since a $4.46 million renovation has built a new county morgue on Oakdale Road in Modesto.

Officials promise the upgraded facility will be more hospitable to bereaved families who come to the center.

On Tuesday, county leaders showed off the new morgue at County Center III to 150 dignitaries and guests. The county renovated a former postal service center across the parking lot from the 36-year-old morgue, which soon will close.

Authorities hope to open the new office the first week in November. Deputy Coroner Tom Killian said the older facility was so small it probably could fit in the administration area of the 25,700-square-foot remodeled building.

The new office sports larger autopsy stations with an observation platform, a lab, workstations for deputies and larger coolers for holding bodies.

With its limited capacity, the old morgue could store up to 35 bodies and could have been overwhelmed in a major disaster. Coolers in the new facility have capacity for about 120 bodies and the center could probably hold 140 to 160, said Sgt. Ed Ridenour, who took over as chief coroner in February.

Tour guides touted an autopsy room that will no longer require investigators to gown-up to closely watch the procedures. Investigators will stand behind windows of the observation area, which is equipped with screens for watching the autopsy. Speakers will allow them to talk with pathologists and tell them what they need to see.

The Coroner’s Office investigates certain deaths such as suicides, unexpected deaths and homicides. Among other things, it is responsible for identifying the deceased and determining cause of death.

Family members sat in small rooms in the older Coroner’s Office, smelled foul odors and cringed at the sounds of autopsies. By contrast, the new office is well ventilated, and has a peaceful courtyard at the entrance, a secure reception area and comfortable rooms for families.

Chief Forensic Dentist Garry Found said he’s impressed with the larger lab, where he will use dental records to identify individuals. His tools include a laptop computer, X-rays, photos and a medical scanner.

“I take up a lot of space,” he said. “Our colleagues in the rest of the state will be envious.”

The new facility has room to grow for the 15-member coroner’s staff. Besides carrying out its legal mandate, the Coroner’s Office is a training site for interns from California State University, Stanislaus, who are interested in careers in forensics. The students are criminal justice and biology majors.

The county renovated about 80 percent of the building and has additional space for office functions. The total project cost including design and construction was $5.8 million.

The county awarded contracts to Pacific Design Associates and Simile Construction Service of Modesto.

The initial plan for the new Coroner’s Office was to renovate the former Medical Arts Building in downtown Modesto, but the county ran into unexpected costs for reinforcing the structure. It ultimately chose the single-story building at County Center III that was built in 1971 and housed a county welfare office before it was leased for a postal encoding center in 1995.

According to a Modesto Bee article, the postal service closed the remote encoding center in 2007, eliminating 340 jobs.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321