Coroner's office hires its own pathologist

For the first time in a decade, the Stanislaus County coroner's office has a doctor it can call its own.

"It's a huge victory," said Sheriff Adam Christianson. The Board of Supervisors approved the creation of the position in August.

Dr. Sungook Baik is a board certified forensic pathologist. He will perform autopsies for the coroner's office and testify in homicide cases.

Baik (pronounced "Beck"), 64, arrived in Modesto on Saturday with his wife, Soonjo, from Buffalo, N.Y., where the couple lived for 25 years. There, he worked for the medical examiner's office as a forensic pathologist.

"I came to get out of the cold in Buffalo," he said. But the main reason for the move was to be closer to the couple's children, two of whom live in the Bay Area.

Baik came to the United States from Korea in 1974. He started in Fort Wayne, Ind., for his pathology training. He has lived in Rochester, N.Y., Detroit and Buffalo.

In his free time, he said, he hopes to get involved with a church.

Until this week, the county has contracted for forensic pathology services with Dr. Robert D. Lawrence, who lives in Stockton. Lawrence's business, Delta Pathology, also is called the Forensic Consultants Medical Group.

He and several forensic pathologists who work for him provide autopsy services to San Joaquin, Mariposa and Merced counties. He was a contractor for Stanislaus County for 10 years.

Earlier this year, Lawrence increased his fees for autopsy services to all the counties, requesting $2,090 per autopsy and $800 for an external exam.

In Stanislaus County, Christianson said, this would have meant an increase from about $400,000 to $1.2 million per year. The county's Board of Supervisors approved the increase, but Christianson began to look for a forensic pathologist. The money wasn't the only problem, he said.

"For the amount of money we were spending, we were not getting the level of service back," Christianson said. He cited a declining autopsy rate, concerns about the credibility of a pathologist Lawrence posted in Modesto and an unwillingness to participate with a local group of physicians that meets to discuss patient death cases.

Counties all charged the same

Lawrence said he never was asked to participate with the group and the credibility problem has been resolved. He said losing the county's contract was difficult, because the decreased workload forced him to adjust staffing. Other counties, he said, agreed to his fee increase.

"The fees I'm charging are the same fees I get everywhere. It's a going rate," he said, which officials from other counties confirmed.

Baik will receive a salary of $285,000, which Christianson said was commensurate with other forensic pathologists. Several weeks ago, San Joaquin County hired its own medical examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, at the same rate.

Deputy Les Garcia, the San Joaquin County spokesman, said Lawrence will continue to perform autopsies there, as he's done for 35 years. Omalu's hire, he said, was a sign of expansion in the coroner's office and the county's growing population.

Baik said his father, a lawyer in Korea, advised him to pursue forensic pathology as a career.

"I followed his advice," said Baik, adding that he loves the challenges of his job: discovering how people died and testifying in court. "Just to tell the truth, that's good enough."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.