The amount of money McLennan County spent on autopsies increased more than 38 percent in fiscal year 2015, which ended Wednesday. And while some of the increase is a result of the May 17 Twin Peaks biker shootout, county officials cite population increases as the driving force behind the steady rise in autopsy costs.
In fiscal year 2015 the county spent $379,281 for autopsies, compared to $273,983 in the previous year. In fiscal year 2013, the county spent $252,645 on autopsies.
Two budget adjustments were made to increase the budget for autopsies this past year.
Commissioner Ben Perry said it’s difficult to budget for autopsies because the numbers vary yearly.
“If we can predict deaths in the county, then I’m in the wrong business,” Perry said. “We’ve had a really unfortunate year in McLennan County.”
Commissioner Will Jones said the Twin Peaks incident might have increased the costs for autopsies a little bit, but the increase is really a reflection of the county’s growth. McLennan County’s population has risen from 234,906 in 2010 to 243,441 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Autopsies are ordered by justices of the peace for homicides and suicides.
Perry said he would never question a justice of the peace’s decision to order an autopsy.
“Our JPs are super, super cautious now, so any time there’s a questionable death there’s an autopsy,” Perry said.
Perry said extra caution has been taken since the conviction of former Baptist minister Matt Baker for killing his wife and trying to make her murder look like a suicide. The 2006 death of Kari Baker, a Midway ISD elementary teacher, initially was ruled suicide by McLennan County Justice of the Peace Billy Martin, and no autopsy was ordered.
After Baker’s parents raised concern, Hewitt police reopened the investigation and arranged to have Kari Baker’s body exhumed so an autopsy could be performed, which helped lead to Matt Baker’s conviction.
A county coroner
With continued growth, Commissioner Kelly Snell, thinks it’s time for the county to have its own coroner and do its own autopsies, while using help from Baylor University’s forensic department. The county sends bodies to Austin or Dallas when an autopsy is ordered, he said.
“The wait for getting an autopsy done is tremendous,” Snell said. “A lot of times the stuff could be time sensitive.”
The county approved another Twin Peaks-related expense last week — $16,971.87 toward its liability insurance deductible because of a lawsuit that named the county as a defendant. Already dismissed, the case stemmed from the 177 arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout that left nine dead and 20 injured.
The county is applying for a $250,000-$270,000 grant to help cover costs associated with sheriff’s deputies’ overtime and the housing and feeding of inmates detained at Twin Peaks.