A southern Ohio coroner is accused in a lawsuit of using deaths as a political pawn in a feud with the local sheriff, disrespecting bodies and abandoning important evidence, and as a result, keeping one Ohio family from ever knowing whether a loved one was killed or committed suicide.
The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Monday, names Brown County Coroner Judith Varnau and her husband, Dennis Varnau, who accompanies his wife to scenes and does office work.
Dennis Varnau lost a bid for sheriff in 2008 to longtime Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger and later lost a lawsuit seeking to have Wenninger thrown out of office and take his place.
Since Judith Varnau was elected in 2012, the lawsuit alleges, the Varnaus have refused to work cooperatively with the sheriff's office, and engaged in "shocking and outrageous conduct" that has compromised death investigations in the rural county east of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.
The Varnaus declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, but Dennis Varnau defended his wife.
"There's no bad blood on our part," Varnau said. "My wife just tries to do her job. They're the ones who are derelict in their duty and nobody's holding their feet to the fire."
The lawsuit against the Varnaus was filed by the family of Hanson Jones Jr., 67, of Ripley. He was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in his home on Aug. 7.
The lawsuit alleges that Judith Varnau declared the death a suicide without doing any meaningful investigation and sent away two sheriff's investigators at the scene.
After she was done, the lawsuit alleges, the Varnaus left behind a shotgun and chunks of Jones' skull, and never ordered an autopsy or tests to see whether there was gun residue on Jones' hands.
When Hanson's sister, Donna Elfers of Georgetown, went to her brother's house after Varnau's investigation, she found the shotgun on the floor, a large knife stuck in the kitchen table, larges pieces of her brother's skull scattered about, and latex gloves and body bag wrappers on the floor, the lawsuit says.
When Elfers called the Varnaus the next day, "Mr. Varnau became agitated and began complaining to Ms. Elfers about a local political feud between himself, his wife and the sheriff's office," the lawsuit says. "When Ms. Elfers pleaded with him to stop talking about politics because she had just lost her brother, he shouted in reply: 'Everybody loses someone every day!'"
When Elfers later talked to Judith Varnau about how to handle her brother's skull fragments, she was told, "You can always dig a hole and plant a tree," the lawsuit said.
Hanson's family has serious doubts he would have killed himself but now that he's been cremated, they'll never know, said Al Gerhardstein, the Cincinnati civil rights attorney who is representing Elfers.
Gerhardstein said he's found other cases in which the Varnaus disrespected bodies and abandoned important evidence, including guns, without arranging for testing.
Brown County Chief Deputy John Schadle described his department's relationship with the coroner as nonexistent and said that has compromised investigations.
He said that two weeks before Varnau took office, he and the county prosecutor met with her, but "we were soundly slapped against the face with the olive branch we extended."
Under Ohio law, coroners have control over death scenes unless they turn them over to law enforcement, and in many cases, Varnau refuses to, Schadle said.
"It's a terrible disservice to the families of victims out here and a terrible disservice to the people who have to get involved in these investigations," Schadle said. "And it's not the way we'd like it handled."