Santa Barbara County’s District Attorney has confirmed that the office is investigating a county-contracted forensic pathologist who was put on administrative leave in his role as Ventura County’s Chief Medical Examiner and is being investigated by the California Medical Board.
Dr. Jon Smith was placed on paid administrative leave last Tuesday after a search warrant was issued for the examiner’s office by Ventura County’s District Attorney as well as agents from the California Medical Board.
The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office pursued that warrant “after information was received about the performance of unauthorized postmortem procedures by members of the Medical Examiner’s Office,” according to a statement.
Smith has also been a contract forensic pathologist for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner’s office since 2014, and on Monday afternoon, District Attorney Joyce Dudley confirmed an investigation is underway by her office and Sheriff Bill Brown’s office.
Dudley said she was notified after Ventura County’s District Attorney issued their search warrants, and her office began an inquiry shortly after.
“We’re looking closely at what occurred here,” she said, noting the investigations conducted by the two counties will be different because Smith was an employee in one county as the chief medical examiner and a contractor in Santa Barbara County.
“The responsibilities and the legalities are different,” she said.
No charges have been filed yet, and Dudley said that no warrants have been issued in the Santa Barbara County investigation. Smith has not been placed on leave in Santa Barbara County and as of Monday, was still under contract for pathology services.
Smith did not return a call from Noozhawk requesting comment.
Santa Barbara County contracts with Smith to perform postmortem examinations and autopsies, prepare tissue sample for lab analysis, prepare reports of pathologic services and provide testimony during criminal prosecution proceeding, among other duties.
He has been a contractor with the county for pathology services since Nov. 2014 after the county’s previous forensic pathologist left the county.
“Since that time, Dr. Smith has provided excellent service in the area of pathology and the search for a permanent replacement has resulted in very few candidates,” Brown wrote in a May 19, 2015 letter prepared for the County Board of Supervisors. The letter said the move would provide a cost savings to the county in lieu of a permanent pathologist.
Supervisors approved a contract not to exceed $870,000 with Smith for the next three years, or $290,000 annually. Smith can charge $2,500 per homicide autopsy victim and $500 per hour for courtroom testimony.
The contract also states that Smith can bill for travel time for services other than postmortem examinations. The contract states travel time can be billed $250 per hour for the Ojai-based doctor to travel to the coroner’s facility located in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said the office is aware of the recent events and the investigation in the neighboring county.
“We are conducting our own independent inquiry into the situation and we will take steps to insure that all autopsies and other forensic pathology functions needed by our Coroner’s Office are conducted in an appropriate and professional manner,” she said.
No action has been taken by the California Medical Board against Smith and he is fully licensed and authorized to practice and carry out the duties of a pathologist, she said.
Hoover stated that autopsies and forensic pathology services are handled differently in Santa Barbara County than in Ventura County, where the traditional office of Coroner has been replaced by an appointed Medical Examiner who, by law, must be a licensed medical practitioner, practicing in the specialty of forensic pathology.
In Santa Barbara County, the duties of the Coroner under California law are the responsibility of an elected official who holds the offices of both Coroner and Sheriff, Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown, Hoover said.
“In addition to his primary duties of law enforcement, Sheriff Brown carries out the Coroner’s official duties of determining cause of death with the assistance of medical doctors specializing in forensic pathology. Autopsy and pathology functions in Santa Barbara County will probably not be significantly affected,” she added.
Smith is one of two regular pathologists that the county contracts with for their services, and Hoover said decisions about who will conduct autopsies “will be made as the need arises.”
She said Smith is fully licensed to conduct pathology services as needed and other pathologists are also available.
In Ventura last week, the District Attorney’s office stated they seized “significant documentary evidence” and the investigation would take several months to complete.
Family members of decedents referred to the Ventura County Medical Examiner since 2012 who have questions or concerns could contact the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office at 805.477.1651.
Part of the investigation includes a cease and desist letter sent to Smith from the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners. Smith allegedly signed for an autopsy performed by a person at a funeral home in Louisiana, even though neither Smith or the person who performed the autopsy are licensed in that state or had the proper legal authority.
A Feb. 10 letter from Dr. Cecilia Mouton of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners warned of “unauthorized practice of medicine by out of state pathologists marketing autopsy services to funeral homes.”
Her letter was sent to the director of that state’s Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, and stated that a family in that state had been referred to Oakland-based Regional Pathology and Autopsy Services, after which Smith had signed for an autopsy he had no legal authority over.